Most of the time, customer support is something you hope you don’t have to use very often; but when it comes to fulfillment customer support, it’s safe to assume you’ll rely on your account management team fairly often.
Even when things are running smoothly, you can expect to reach out to support regularly to discuss projects, coordinate wholesale orders, and implement strategic changes to maximize efficiency and lower costs. (That is, if your current 3PL or fulfillment center even has an efficient way to support this.) Ecommerce distribution is just too complicated to leave the level of service up to chance.
The fulfillment customer support you can expect should always be a prime consideration, whether you’re choosing a new 3PL or evaluating your current one.
Everyone has that story about their worst customer support experience. It’s so universal that it’s become dinner party conversation: “You think 30 minutes on hold is bad? Let me tell you about the time I listened to Muzak for two hours just to have the call drop!”
It’s maddening under any circumstances. But when your business is on the line? That’s panic-inducing.
Fulfillment customer support is more than a number you call to dispute an unexpected charge on your bill. It’s the team responsible for monitoring your operations from receiving to returns, and these are the folks you’ll need to work with to manage packaging SOPs, retailer POs, and seasonal fluctuations in demand. Your 3PL support represents an ongoing working relationship that you depend on to grow your business.
Poor fulfillment support comes with all the usual pains—wasted time tracking down help and answers, lost money, endless frustration—but amplified. When you’re stuck waiting on a customer service team that’s slow or lacking knowledge, otherwise small hiccups can reverberate down the line, risking mishandled inventory, missed delivery windows, and unhappy consumers.
Companies that outsource fulfillment are trusting their 3PL to deliver excellent service—both to the brand’s customers (products arriving on time, undamaged, and so on) and to the in-house operations professionals that run logistics for the business. Fulfillment customer support should act as an extension of your internal team that proactively oversees operations, helps identify additional cost savings and efficiencies, and manages the heavy lifting associated with omnichannel fulfillment operations, like integrating with retailers’ EDI.
The first indication of the quality of a 3PL’s customer support is in the model it uses: a ticketing system, call center, or dedicated account manager.
Ticketing systems are very common among 3PLs. Customers are expected to submit any questions, concerns, or help requests via email or through a portal. The issue is then assigned a number, entered into a ticket system, and picked up by an available support representative.
Ticketing systems usually promise a response within a certain time period, and most of the time the 3PL will boast a relatively quick “average” response time—within a few hours. But realistically, it could take 24-48 hours to receive an answer, and the communication is entirely digital. This might work for a quick fix, but anyone who has managed logistics knows the intricacies of fulfillment questions can rarely be addressed in a succinct email.
What’s worse is that ticketing systems rely on customer support representatives that don’t know you or your brand. Every time you need to reach them, you’ll have to identify your account, explain the nuances of your fulfillment strategy, and bring a new person up to speed on your unique needs. If you have a single sales channel and straightforward product, you might be able to get by with this model—but if there’s any added complexity involved, a ticketing system quickly becomes cumbersome, inefficient, and unhelpful.
One step above the ticketing system is a call center. At first, it might seem ideal to be able to pick up the phone and call your 3PL whenever you need, but it’s not quite that simple.
Like the ticketing system, call centers rely on a team of employees that field calls from any and every customer of the 3PL, so you’ll likely speak to a different rep every time. You’ll have to explain your unique strategic needs each time you have a problem or a question, and the person you’re speaking with will need to troubleshoot on the fly. You may get answers more quickly than you would through a ticketing system, but you’ll have to deal with all the usual headaches of a generic helpline, like automated menus, wait times, and holds.
It’s also worth noting that call centers typically only operate during the 3PL warehouse’s normal business hours, so you’ll be forced to make these calls during time that could be better spent meeting with your team or focusing on strategic business initiatives.
The ideal 3PL support model is a dedicated account manager. In this case, each of the 3PL’s customers is matched with a rep who acts as the company’s primary point of contact for any questions or requests.
The beauty of a dedicated account manager is that they’re well-versed in your fulfillment strategy, product, and goals. They’re there to make sure your operations are running as smoothly and efficiently as possible and can suggest remedies that are unique to your needs. Because it’s a one-to-one relationship, you can easily maintain conversations over time, reference specific initiatives, and schedule meetings to address complicated projects.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to balance the availability of an account manager against the 3PL’s other capabilities. For example: small, owned-and-operated 3PLs might be able to offer an account manager because they have fewer customers, but they’ll also have fewer locations, fewer kitting, bundling, and customization options, and certainly less negotiating power with major shipping carriers. Similarly, beware of large 3PLs that provide a dedicated account representative during your onboarding period, just to turn you over to a call center after a few months.
Account managers and customer service representatives typically don’t work out of the warehouse that’s handling your orders. That’s why it’s important to ensure that you have a means of getting information from boots on the ground.
Ideally, the warehouses will have on-site operations professionals who work closely with the customer support team to manage logistical efficiency and changes. These could either be warehouse managers who work closely with the day-to-day operations or a customer service counterpart whose sole responsibility is to monitor SLAs and communicate customer needs to the warehouse workers.
The key here is having someone who can quickly source and relay information from the warehouse to your business. Some ecommerce companies want a direct line of contact to the warehouse, but that usually requires contacting a different person depending on the element of fulfillment in question (a dock manager for receiving, a floor manager for pick and pack, a shipping coordinator for carrier service, and so on).
Having a single point of contact in customer support who has a holistic view of the warehouse operations through a variety of sources—including the WMS and on-site operations specialists—streamlines your company’s control over all processes.
We mentioned earlier that fulfillment customer support represents an ongoing working relationship that you depend on to grow your business. Let’s examine the ways customer support helps ecommerce brands to maximize fulfillment efficiency.
You’re paying to outsource fulfillment—not just pick and pack. Your 3PL’s support should take on fulfillment tasks at your direction so you can spend less time monitoring outgoing orders and more time growing your company.
At its most basic, this means proactively overseeing order flow and inventory receiving so you can trust that things are running smoothly without constantly checking in. But a quality 3PL should also oversee new fulfillment initiatives at your direction, like identifying the optimal packaging for a new product line.
The best fulfillment customer support will act as an extension of your own team, not just lip service for the 3PL’s billing department. When you have a reliable support team, you can keep your internal operations department small, saving on the overhead associated with salaries, talent search, and onboarding as you scale.
Dedicated 3PL support allows ecommerce brands to lean on decades of collective experience to trim the fat around fulfillment strategy. At certain inflection points—like when onboarding or introducing a new product—your support team or account manager may be able to help you identify new SOPs that can cut your costs.
For example—the 3PL might have renegotiated shipping rates that would allow your brand to save on shipping costs by switching to a different carrier.
“Airhouse has helped eliminate fulfillment delays and even helped us recognize cheaper shipping method options for our product.” – William Hicks, President of Magic Mind
Ecommerce brands need to be able to meet customers where they are—so most DTC brands now sell online and through retail partnerships. Expanding into omnifulfillment and wholesale shipping is challenging, but the right 3PL support team can make for a smoother transition.
For example, let’s say you’re expanding into a new retail partnership—a heavy lift by all accounts. Rather than waiting for specific instructions for shipping each purchase order, your fulfillment partner should help you navigate this new initiative, which could mean identifying retailers’ unique requirements, setting up an EDI integration, and preparing wholesale orders appropriately.
Regular, consistent communication with an account manager reduces the risk of costly errors and oversights like unexpected inbound shipments or insufficient inventory—resulting in dreaded backorders.
Plus, when you can get in touch with your support team immediately—as opposed to waiting a day or more for an emailed response—you can sometimes correct course before it’s too late. Sometimes this can be done through the 3PL’s fulfillment software by placing an order hold or pausing sales of a certain SKU. Other times, you’ll need to communicate with your support team or account manager—perhaps to alert the warehouse to a product recall or a delayed freight delivery.
Some variation in demand is to be expected, but you’ll want to alert your 3PL to expected peaks and valleys that could come from seasonal shifts, limited-time product drops, or a sudden spike in brand awareness (maybe that TikTok campaign finally went viral).
When you’re able to quickly inform your fulfillment customer support team about these jumps in demand, you can rest assured they’ll be prepared to handle an influx of orders by allocating more employees to your account so your customers don’t experience delays.
G2 didn’t name us Best Support and Easiest to Do Business With for nothing. Learn more about our dedicated account specialists and award-winning customer support by scheduling a call with our fulfillment experts.
Ecommerce brands should establish a reliable product distribution strategy early on—and be sure to find solutions that are prepared to scale with them.
Learn how Airhouse’s integration with Loop Returns is automating processes and simplifying returns for its customers.