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3PL onboarding: making and breaking fulfillment partnerships

Oct 28, 2022





Example of 3PL onboarding

First impressions matter—we all know this. However, few are as important as the one you have with your new 3PL partner. Think about it. Your DTC business’ growth and success rely in part—and that’s a big part—on your ability to store, ship, and deliver products to your customers in a way that’s cost-effective, efficient, and meets the expectation you set with them. In this post, we’ll unpack what a successful 3PL onboarding process looks like and what you should expect from your new partner.

Why is 3PL onboarding important?

Have you ever had an incredible onboarding experience with new software or a business partner that made you think, “Yes! I totally made the right decision—this is going to be amazing”? Hopefully, the answer is yes. Because the point of onboarding is to provide you with confidence, set you up for success, and assure you that you’re taking a step in the right direction. However, some onboarding experiences fall short. 

Many times a 3PL’s onboarding process is merely providing an overview of their services, an intro to their technology, and connecting your ecommerce store with their warehouse—which often takes months. That’s simply not enough.

For a 3PL onboarding process to be effective and successful, your 3PL should really onboard you for your entire first year. Helping you to realize cost savings. Helping you to consider the needs of your customers. And helping you to build a strategy for your business that will grow and scale with your inevitable success. This type of onboarding is rare, but it’s something we focus on at Airhouse.

So, if you’re wondering what you should look for in your 3PL onboarding process, read on. 

What is 3PL onboarding?

We talked about why onboarding matters, but what is it, really? Onboarding with a new logistics partner can be a challenging—if not stressful—time. Whether you’re moving from self-fulfillment to outsourced fulfillment for the first time or you're switching 3PLs as a result of poor performance, there’s a lot on the line. If it’s your first time outsourcing, you might be learning a whole new order processing language. And even if you’re an ecommerce veteran, switching 3PL partners often means learning new systems and procedures.

Whatever the case, orders don’t cease to roll in because you’re moving to a new fulfillment center. At Airhouse, we take onboarding very seriously—setting you up with an award-winning, dedicated account manager. (You read that right, Airhouse has been awarded Best Support accolades from G2.)

From syncing your ecommerce store to the WMS to ensuring you’re in the right warehouse for your business model to setting up kitting and bundling, our onboarding process is thorough and customized to your needs. Other fulfillment providers may have slightly different approaches to onboarding, but the basics are likely the same. 

In this next section, we’ll review the four primary areas that we address during onboarding.

4 key dimensions of 3PL onboarding with Airhouse

When it comes to onboarding with your new 3PL there are several areas you should focus on:

  • Product setup
  • Packaging
  • Sending and storing inventory
  • Shipping preferences

Each of these is important in its own right, so let’s break everything down.

Setting up your product for sale

Possibly the most straightforward part of your 3PL onboarding process is also the most important. When setting up your product in Shopify (or whatever ecommerce platform you’re selling through), it’s essential that you get it right. Otherwise, your orders won’t ship properly. 

Here’s what you’ll need to know in order to successfully set up your product with your new 3PL:

  • Unique SKUs for every product
  • Unique barcodes for every product
  • Weight (actual and dimensional)
  • Country of origin (for international shipping)
  • Harmonization code (for international shipping)
  • Product cost
  • Sale price

Remember: once all of your information is synced with your 3PL, don’t change the SKU or barcode.

Setting up your packaging

When it comes to packaging, you have two options: your warehouse can provide the packaging or you can use your own custom packaging. Each requires action on your part. 

If you’re opting to use the warehouse's packaging, you should know the dimensions of all of your products so that your 3PL can best advise which packaging to use. This will ensure your products arrive at their final destination without damage and optimize your shipping expenses in the long run.

If you have custom packaging, you should work with your account manager to create packaging instructions that detail your expectations at the warehouse. The key here is to use as many pictures as possible and keep your instructions simple so there’s little room for confusion or interpretation by a warehouse packer.

Setting up packaging during 3PL onboarding process

While those are the basics of what you should expect when setting up packaging with your new 3PL, here are a few tips to consider as well:

  • Always request test shipments before starting order fulfillment with actual customers
  • Send examples of small, average, and large order sizes so each can be tested
  • Request dimensions and weight of each test order for your own tracking
  • Request images of each test order to confirm presentation meets your specifications

Some of this may seem obvious, but it’s better to be safe than sorry later.

Sending your inventory to the 3PL

When sending your inventory to a 3PL, products should arrive in ready-to-ship packaging. In other words, if your product is made of glass, it should arrive in product packaging that will protect the product during shipping.

If possible, each unit should arrive barcoded with its unique barcode in your ecommerce store. This will save you money by not having to pay the 3PL to barcode units upon receipt. 

Finally, when packing inventory to send to the warehouse, each case or box would ideally contain only one SKU and be labeled with the SKU code on the outside of the box. This allows the 3PL to more quickly identify what product is in each case or box when it arrives and will minimize the amount of time—and the cost—required to receive and stock the inventory.

Further reading: What to know about preparing inventory for your warehouse

Setting up your shipping

Here’s where things can get a little hairy. When setting up your shipping, you’ll really be able to tell if your new 3PL has your back. The cost of shipping can vary greatly depending on if you opt for a single-warehouse or multi-warehouse shipping method. With Airhouse’s multi-warehouse strategy, warehouses are strategically placed across the country (and around the globe), and orders are automatically routed to and fulfilled by the warehouse closest to the customer’s address. This saves both shipping time and money. 

But this strategy isn’t for everyone—especially businesses with a localized footprint. At Airhouse, we’ll work with you to review our rate card and determine the shipping strategy that’s the most efficient and cost-effective for you and your customers.

Nonetheless, in order to do this most effectively, we’ll need to know the size of the packaging that will be used to ship your orders in order to calculate if any of your shipments will be charged using dimensional weight vs. the actual weight by the carrier. 

If you’re not working with Airhouse, make sure you ask the 3PL for the dimensional weight factor and equation for calculating the dimensional weight with the shipping carriers you choose to use. This is important because shipping by dimensional weight or actual weight can have massive implications for your bottom line. 

4 tips for a successful 3PL onboarding process

We talked about the tactical things that go into the 3PL onboarding process, but there are some softer things you should consider too. After all, investing in a 3PL partner is a major commitment.

Express your fulfillment priorities

More often than not, you chose to partner with a fulfillment provider because you’re unhappy with your current situation. If you already use a 3PL or are outsourcing for the first time, make sure you list out what’s not working for you. This way, your new 3PL can be laser-focused on meeting the needs your previous one couldn’t.

Ask questions about the technology

During onboarding, it’s common to nod your head in agreement during the platform walkthrough, but paying attention up front will save you time on the back end. Though the Airhouse platform is intuitive (98% of people agree on its ease of use on G2), ask as many questions as you can during onboarding. Getting the most out of your partnership includes getting the most out of your tech.

Provide as much information as possible upfront

The more information you provide about your business, the better the 3PL can assess how well it will meet your needs. Share your expected order volume, typical order weight and size, ecommerce platforms, and other relevant information.

Ask about add-on services

Fulfillment providers can do more than just pick and pack orders. Perhaps extra services, like kitting or virtual bundling, would benefit your business. Make sure the 3PL you choose can handle your unique needs.

Airhouse takes 3PL onboarding seriously

Everyone talks the talk, but few can put money where their mouth is. That’s why at Airhouse we let our customers do the talking for us. In fact, we’ve been named a High Performer in the Shipping category on G2 with a 99% rating for Quality of Support and a 100% rating for Ease of Doing Business with. 

Don’t leave your fulfillment’s success up to chance. To see the platform for yourself and experience white-glove customer service, schedule a call with us today.

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