The growth of ecommerce and its place in everyday life can be largely summed up by one key factor - convenience. Customers have access to a huge number of brands, selling a variety of products, at home and abroad, from small one-person operations to huge mutli-national corporations. These days, you don’t even have to leave the house and you can have pretty much anything from groceries to toiletries, clothes to technology, delivered straight to your doorstep sometimes in as little as a few hours.
However, when an order is delayed, you’re missing an item, or something’s wrong with the order, that ultimately takes away all that convenience that differentiates ecommerce from in-person shopping. The fulfillment process is a crucial part of the customer journey and experience, and it can often be the difference between a loyal customer and a one-off order. If you want to give your customers the best experience possible and encourage that retention, you need to deliver on, well, delivery.
Let’s take a look at how post-purchase and fulfillment play into the customer experience, the different stages of the fulfillment process, and 5 ways you can improve it.
Post-purchase, fulfillment, and customer experience
Once the customer completes checkout, we refer to everything that happens after that moment as the “post-purchase experience”. After all, a customer’s journey doesn’t simply end after they buy the product. The product needs to then be dispatched, shipped, delivered, and unboxed by the customer, after which they decide to either keep the product or contact customer service if they have an issue. That then encompasses quite a lot of steps and touch points, so while getting a customer from discovery to checkout is great there is still clearly much more work to be done in order to deliver a truly great experience overall.
Post-purchase is a final hurdle that many merchants fall at. This becomes especially challenging if there are additional issues to overcome such as supply chain issues or higher than average order volumes during periods like the holiday season. However at the end of the day, customers only care about their own experience, and how they are treated throughout. 76% of customers say that experience is a factor in their brand loyalties, and those loyal customers typically spend around 67% more than a new customer.
Loyalty and retention should be a major part of every ecommerce strategy, especially given as much as 65% of a company’s business comes from loyal and repeat customers. One of the best ways to foster customer loyalty and improve retention rates is by delivering a really great post-purchase experience and the bulk of that will revolve around fulfillment. When a customer places an order, they’re looking for it to be dispatched promptly, delivered within the timeframe they’ve selected, and to contain the correct items. Get these key elements right, and it’ll be hugely beneficial to your customer experience. Customers want to shop with retailers that not only offer a great product selection that suits their needs, but also provide them with an excellent fulfillment experience.
The different stages of the fulfillment process
Before we look at how to improve the fulfillment process, we need to understand the steps involved.
Order Confirmation - The order is completed and flagged in your system.
Order Processing - The order information is processed and passed to your fulfillment team.
Picking and Quality Control - The fulfillment team picks the items for the order, and checks over each to ensure nothing is damaged.
Packaging - The order is packaged and prepared with the correct paperwork and labels.
Dispatch - The order is collected by your chosen shipping partner, and the customer is alerted that the order has been dispatched.
Shipping - The order makes its way through the courier network to the customer.
Returns Processing - The customer wishes to return some or all of the items in the order. They initiate the process, after which you generate return labels, process the items when they arrive back into your warehouse, and organize a solution for the customer - refund, exchange, or store credit.
It’s worth noting that the process looks different to your customers, as they don’t see every step of the process that needs to happen behind the scenes. They don’t see your warehouse team managing inventory or courier pick-up times being arranged, and that’s because they don’t need to see every step of the process. To your customers, the steps involved look like this:
Order Confirmation - The order is confirmed, and the customer receives an email confirmation.
Dispatch - The customer receives a notification that their order has left the warehouse.
Shipping - The customer tracks their delivery as it travels from the warehouse to their home.
Unboxing - The customer has received the order, and unpacks it. Presentation and how securely the products are packaged is important.
Returns/Exchanges - The customer may change their mind on something they ordered, and so initiate the returns process.
There are steps which the customer doesn’t see such as picking and packing, and equally there are steps which you as a retailer aren’t directly involved in such as the unboxing experience. In order to improve the fulfillment experience overall, you need to identify ways to improve processes internally and give customers greater visibility.
5 ways to improve your fulfillment experience
#1 - Make use of automation throughout the process
In the example process in the previous section, you may note that there are quite a number of steps your team has to go through between order confirmation and dispatch, which the customer doesn’t have any visibility on. This means it’s important to work efficiently and quickly to ensure the customer isn’t left wondering what’s happening with their package.
Ecommerce automation has grown to become quite sophisticated, and highly effective when employed correctly. There are a variety of ways in which you can automate different tasks within the fulfillment process that will not only speed up dispatch times, but improve accuracy and reduce the number of human errors that can occur especially when processing high volumes of orders. Go through your fulfillment process step by step, and analyze how each is completed in order to identify areas which are currently handled manually and causing even small delays. These areas might include:
- Order processing - How is data passed between departments and software once the order has been placed? Are shipping labels manually created or automatically generated?
- Inventory management - How are inventory levels monitored and maintained? Is this a manual inventory count, or is it done automatically? This should include packaging materials.
- Notifications - How is the customer alerted to order updates? How is your team notified of incoming orders, returns to be processed, etc?
- Customer support - How long does it take to process a customer support ticket? What issues typically arise, and how are they handled? Could any of these be resolved with automated or self-service options?
Once you've analyzed the different areas of your fulfillment process which may benefit from automation, you can start to explore solutions such as apps and integrations in the Shopify App Store. Automating tasks within the fulfillment process will save your team time, improve accuracy, and make for a speedy dispatch time that will keep your customer satisfied.
#2 - Set expectations before checkout
There is a large part of the post-purchase experience that relies on expectations. The customer expects the order to be dispatched within a certain time frame, and they expect it to be delivered by a specific date based on the shipping method chosen. When there are delays and that expectation is not met, that’s when they start to become frustrated.
One of the best ways you can combat this as a merchant is to set those expectations prior to checkout. This is especially important during high sales periods such as BFCM, where it may take an extra day or two to process orders, or during the run up to Christmas where couriers are frequently overwhelmed. If your customers are aware before they checkout that there are delays to their order being dispatched or delivered, then that’s what they’ll expect and any improvement on those expectations will only be a bonus to their experience.
You can set these expectations by:
- Communicating delays using a site banner.
- Including delays as a note on product pages, or letting customers know dispatch time frames for popular products or those with a longer lead time.
- Adding emails to any automated email flows communicating delays to dispatch times.
- Sending email campaigns that specifically address order dispatch delays, and giving customers an easily accessible way to get in touch with customer support.
After the customer has checked out, it’s imperative that you continue to keep up communication to continue to maintain expectations and give them clear visibility on their order’s progress.
#3 - Give clear order communication throughout
Email will be the primary channel through which you communicate with a customer about their order. The standard automated email flow for the fulfillment process usually looks like this:
- Order confirmation
- Order dispatch notification
- Order delivered notification
These three emails, while important, don't quite go far enough in ensuring your customer has all the info and reassurance they need. 97% of customers say that they want to be able to monitor their order throughout the process, yet less than half say retailers actually meet their expectations. Instead of only covering the basics, consider what details may be important to the customer, and add in more emails to create a more complex automated email flow that gives the customer what they need.
An example might look like this:
This extra information will be appreciated by customers, giving them greater visibility and potentially preventing them from getting in touch with customer support. Certain questions that focus on the same “where is my order?” topic can clog up customer support channels with tickets that could be easily resolved by giving the customer this extra information and reassurance via email.
#4 - Deliver on visibility with robust tracking and self-service customer support
Did you know that 41% of customers will blame a retailer if their order is late? Not only that, but 47% won’t order again from a brand with poor visibility during the fulfillment process. As we’ve mentioned a few times throughout this article, visibility is crucial in the customer fulfillment experience. Without it, they’re left wondering where their order is, becoming more and more frustrated as time goes by without any additional communication from the retailer. One way to combat this is by giving them self-service tools that allow them to resolve their own issues, and have greater accessibility for tracking their order.
Real-time tracking is one really easy-to-implement method of improving the fulfillment experience for customers. Apps like Order Lookup make it simple to give customers all the information they need, with the ability to add notes alongside the latest up-to-date whereabouts of their order. Couriers all have their own tracking tools, however no two are exactly alike and this can become confusing especially if it’s a repeat customer who has been assigned a different courier for each order. By using your own real-time tracking tool, you can ensure that it’s a consistent experience every time regardless of the courier. You can also add your own branding and add it to your email communication to make it a more integrated part of your overall customer experience.
This is just one way to implement self-service customer support into your store. 60% of customers actually prefer automated and self-service options so they can try to resolve issues on their own, but more than half say the main reason they can’t do so is that there’s too little information available to them. Add more of these self-service options to your store - this can be as simple as building out your FAQ with the topics you see frequently in support tickets. You can go further by making your FAQ searchable, adding in a customer support chatbot, and adding auto-responders to email enquiries that point to your other resources such as real-time tracking tools and your FAQ.
#5 - Provide an easy, hassle-free returns process
Returns are an inevitable part of ecommerce, and while they can be disappointing as a merchant they’re still a vital part of the customer experience that you need to make as easy and hassle-free as possible. After all, 92% of customers say that they’ll make another purchase in the future if the returns process is easy, and 67% check your returns policy before they make a purchase.
Thankfully it’s quite easy to make the returns process easy for your customers:
Give them clear instructions - Let customers know exactly what your returns policy is and how they can go about initiating a return. This includes details on item condition, how they should package the item, the period of validity for returns etc.
Make it easy for them to initiate - Throughout the post-purchase phase, communicate to the customer how they can initiate a return. Especially after the order has arrived, send them an email with links and instructions just in case they’re needed.
Offer free returns - Free returns is perhaps the most important factor to customers in this process.
- Offer flexible resolution options - Give the customer a variety of options so they can choose the most appropriate solution. For instance if their issue is simply that a clothing item didn’t fit, they may choose to exchange it for a different size rather than receive a refund.
You can go a step further and implement specific apps into your Shopify store that handle the returns experience. This will then go toward that ecommerce automation in the fulfillment process we previously discussed and make it even better for both your team and customers.
Fulfillment is a big part of ecommerce for both merchants and customers. By making that process more efficient and improving visibility for the customer, you can create an experience that both drives retention and makes things easier for your team.