Reverse Logistics: Doing the Supply Chain Dance

When asked “Who was the greatest American male dancer of all time?” most people would respond “Fred Astaire” without hesitation. In numerous stage shows and movies from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, he was, in fact, the greatest American dancer.

However, the response to “Who was the greatest American female dancer of all time?” is typically much more wide open, as any one of the many fine women who have graced our stages and screens over the years – including many who had danced as a duo with Astaire – could be cited as the greatest.

The nod usually goes to Ginger Rogers, although Cyd Charisse or any of Astaire’s other former partners could just as easily be mentioned. However, regardless of who is ultimately cited, one thing is for certain, as expounded so succinctly in former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, Faith Whittlesey’s now famous quotation: “Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels!” The analogy with respect to reverse logistics could not be any more painfully obvious.

Just as in accounting, where you have to deal with both debits and credits; in logistics, if you ship things out, some of them are going to need to be shipped back. However, in accounting, at the end of the day, your assets and liabilities will always balance out to equal one another; but in logistics, there are no such absolute “laws” that assist shippers in determining – in advance – how many of their out-shipments may ultimately be returned – and, if so, in what shape, and for what reasons, etc. This problem only intensifies when you have to address what to do with the returns once they are received.

It is bad enough when a customer’s shipment arrives late, damaged, or with the wrong content. Compounding the situation is the fact that once a shipment goes wrong (or the parameters change, such as the customer no longer needs the part, etc.), it only gets worse, because now the customer has to call or e-mail the shipper to arrange for another shipment, re-pack the original item, and ship it back for credit. If all goes smoothly, an incorrect shipment is little more than a “nuisance” to most customers.

However, if things go bad (i.e., shipped the wrong part, successive damaged shipments, etc.), these situations go really bad, really fast – and that bad feeling lasts in the mind of the customer for a long time.

For example, if the customer has ordered a critical part from you to resolve a critical system failure, and you deliver it late, damaged, or otherwise unusable, you can bet that your customer satisfaction rating with that customer is going to take a significant hit. That “hit” is further compounded by the fact that your customer then has to (in their own mind) “fix” some of your mistakes itself by calling you up, re-packing the part, and shipping it back to you – plus, they have to wait another day or more to finally get the right part shipped out. This has all of the makings of a bad situation staying bad for at least another 24 hours or more before the customer can ultimately “forget about it”.

However, if during that waiting period, the customer’s business system (and, hence, its production capability) has also shut down or, as a result, they have to send their late shift home early, then you’re likely to find yourself dealing with the dreaded combination of (An Already Dissatisfied Customer) + (Unanticipated Lost Productivity) + (Unexpected Dollar Expense) = An Extremely Dissatisfied Customer. All this, plus the belief that they now “have to do your job” by shipping the part back, simply makes the matter worse.

The problem that reverse logistics providers have always suffered from is essentially based on the typical human misperception that “shipments coming to me are ‘good’, but shipments I have to return are ‘bad'”. However, there are some things that can be done to make the return shipment process as painless as possible. For example:

1.  Provide as much documentation and instruction as possible – in advance – to assist your customers in handling their end of the reverse logistics transaction. Provide it in written/electronic form; make it accessible via e-mail and the Internet; present it in easy-to-understand numbered steps; etc.

2.  Provide the customer with as many tools as possible to get their part of the process done quickly and accurately. Provide them with easily re-packable shipping containers, instructions, pre-printed forms, adhesive mailing labels, etc.

3.  Provide direct customer support contact information should your customers have any questions or concerns about return shipments not fully covered in your documentation. Make sure they have access to relevant company telephone numbers and/or e-mail addresses, and make sure that these contacts are physically there for them when they make the call or send the e-mail.

4.  Make sure that all situations involving late, damaged or lost shipments are adequately covered in your service agreements with respect to contingencies, penalties and/or incentives. Resolve any open issues as quickly as possible; admit mistakes when they occur, and make good on them.

5.  Provide customers with as many Web-based self-support tools as possible. Some customers believe that anything they have to do is an unwarranted demand on their part or, at the very least, an inconvenience; however, other customers believe that anything they can do over the Internet that will shorten the time it will take for the overall process to be completed, will be glad to do so.

6.  Provide centralized tracking capabilities via either telephone and/or the Internet. More and more of your customers have become accustomed to tracking their shipments – to and from their vendors – over the Internet. (You can learn a great deal from companies like Amazon.com!)

7.  Provide an open forum for customer input and feedback. Everything involving logistics is important to the customer, and they will have a lot to say about the way in which they think you are performing.

In short, make it as easy and non-invasive as possible for your customers to work with you in handling their portion of the reverse logistics process. If you attempt to do everything yourself, then everything that goes wrong will be your fault – and your fault alone. However, if you work with your customers, provide them with the tools and direction they need, and make things as painless for them as possible, then you will have the best chance to improve your customer satisfaction ratings in the long term – or at the very least, prevent customer dissatisfaction from tainting an otherwise good customer relationship.

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