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Fulfilling Fulfillment

I've been playing around with the stuff you folks call incense, and I recently got a cool ďbox burnerĒ (it's a treat to watch the tendrils of smoke dance through the holes). When I ordered it from an online company called Sensia.com, it arrived quickly and was well-packed. When I opened the shipping box I found, taped to a slip of paper, a piece of peppermint hard candy.

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Now, I'm actually not a fan of peppermint, but the whole thing made me smile. Here was a human touch in what is otherwise a faceless, even voiceless exchange. It got me feeling warm and fuzzy about Sensia.com. And that got me thinking about the importance of what you do when you fulfill and send orders. 'Cause you guys know, the sale ain't over till the Fat Lady sings, right? So let's talk about how you make her croon!

I'm not suggesting everybody run out and buy hard candy. But I do want you to consider that the overall sales process does not end when youíve got the order. Fulfillment is an essential part of the sale. After all, that's the first time, in most online transactions, your customer can hold and examine the product she ordered. Itís the first ďrealĒ contact between you. In a store, you get to handle the product, check out the packaging, read the label, give it a test spin, talk to the salespeople - all this before you decide whether or not you want to buy. In the online world, this critical, interactive step comes only at the end. Whether you do the shipping yourself or contract with a third-party fulfillment house, you want to make sure when that box arrives on your customer's doorstep, it is more than just a box; itís a message that conveys everything you want to convey about your business's class act. And not just the box, but everything about the fulfillment process speaks volumes to your customer, so make sure youíre saying what she wants to hear.

Begin your communication at the beginning. When the parcel leaves you, notify your customer her order is on its way. Send her an e-mail confirming shipment, and, if at all possible, include a mechanism for her to track the package. Folks like to know where their stuff is. In a store, they're usually going to carry the item they've selected to the register and out to their car. No such sense of certainty when dealing through the ether of cyberspace, so give them the next best thing: timely and complete information by email.

Appearances count, so cultivate a professional appearance! Package your stuff in a box that looks like it was meant for the purpose. It's nice if the box bears your company's name or uses some nifty tape, but at least make sure it doesn't look like it formerly contained your old shoes at the community rummage sale! Your customer is going to get a clear impression of you when she sees that box.

The most important thing you put inside that box, besides the product, is your Return Policy. Your customer doesn't have the luxury of slipping the item back on the shelf and picking out another if she's not satisfied. So you make it clear you are more than happy to be accommodating. At the very least, include a list of your return, exchange and refund policies. If you require the customer to get an RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization number) to send the thing back, then tell her exactly how to do that. You include a toll-free customer service phone number, along with the hours during which she can reach a pleasant and competent human. And you print it all nicely in an attractive font on quality paper, right?

Should you include a Return Label? That depends, but make it as easy as possible for your customer to do what she needs to do. Hopefully, the product is perfection itself, but if it isn't, your customer shouldn't bear the cost of exchange. She wouldn't pay for the exchange in a store, and it would cost her nothing to return an item to the shelves. Yes, it would have cost her some time in the real world, but the reality is customers who have to pay for returns usually don't remain customers for long and typically side step the issue next time around by simply not purchasing from you again. Is that a cost to you? Certainly, and you have to build it into your margins. Is that a big problem? Only if you regularly ship poor quality products or make a lot of shipping errors. And neither of those is something your customer should pay for.

What other enclosures go in the box? Certainly you want to include a detailed invoice of what has been sent and the clear status of any back-orders. And don't overlook the opportunity to offer other sales incentives: your catalog, special sale items, personalized information, a statement of the history and philosophy of your company. This is definitely an opportunity for you to strut your stuff, cross-sell, up-sell and let your customer know the incredible value of continuing to do business with you. And if you really want to put them in the frame of mind to consider buying from you again, donít forget a sincere thank you note, personalized if possible. Put it on top of everything else so itís the first thing they see.

And maybe you do add a creative little human touch, like my piece of candy that is still sitting by my computer. I'll never eat it, but I'm going to remember the company that, on top of doing everything else right, popped it in the box with my order. Think about it this way: you want more than a customer who is merely satisfied. You want a customer who is delighted. Customers are delighted when the package promised in a week arrives in four days. They are delighted when you only charge them for surface but ship by air. They are delighted when you give them one extra for free, or a free sample of another related product - which they may well buy in the future. They are delighted when they feel you have given them the red carpet treatment. But remember, they expect on-time and accurate delivery, and rightly so. They are only delighted when they get everything they expected and more.

A delighted customer is the one most likely to become a repeat customer. She is also the one most likely to give glowing reviews to her friends, so you can tap into the power of viral marketing and add more customers with no added marketing cost - which means not just more sales but also more profits. It starts and ends with realizing every single aspect of fulfillment is really communication between your customer and you, the otherwise invisible and largely anonymous supplier. Fulfill fulfillment fully and you create a win-win for your company and your customers alike!

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Another Out-Of-This-World (And Free) Source of Valuable Knowledge

In my never-ending search to bring you the very latest and best e-business info in the galaxy, I've come across a truly exceptional resource. MarketingProfs.com is a terrific site written by some really smart (and really great) people, and it has a ton of practical stuff you can use to increase your business right away. They also put out an excellent newsletter that I look forward to and read diligently (don't even THINK of interrupting me). To learn more and to subscribe, check out MarketingProfs.com.

The Grok

Who Ya Gonna Call? Customer Service!

You go into a great big department store, and at the very back of the second floor there's a little office suite called "Customer Service." Most of us don't give it a second thought Ö we simply think of it, if we think of it at all, as the place we go to wait in line when things go wrong.

E-tailing is a different world. Your customer service, the degree to which you keep your customer delighted, starts the instant he or she lands on your website. In e-business, customer service isn't where you go when you have a problem, and it certainly isn't what happens after the sale is completed - it's everything that goes into creating a superior online shopping experience from start to finish.

Think about it. You don't have any online sales people moving about, interacting with your clients and representing your products, your sales philosophy, your guarantees, or anything else that is distinctive about your business. You rely exclusively on your website to do this (even an acknowledged brand in the bricks-and-mortar world can fail if you don't rethink your online approach to customer service). A prospect arrives at your home page (or somewhere within your online store) and is immediately in need of customer service.

During shopping, customers use service to find or inquire about products. Do you have this item? Is this sold separately? How much comes in one of those bottles? Is this product compatible with that product? A host of questions is behind even a single purchase. So how are you going to help them get the answers they need so they want to make the purchase from you and not one of your competitors?

During the buying process, customers need service to explain billing issues, receipts, payment options, the checkout procedure. This is a critical point for most shoppers, and you don't want them abandoning their shopping carts in confusion, frustration, or because they don't trust you.

Once the order is placed, customers need to be able to check the status of an order being processed. They want their purchase acknowledged, and they like follow-through. They may even want to track its shipping status. Give them everything they need so they have the cyberspace equivalent of carrying that item home.

When the item is received, customers may have questions about how it works. Something may be missing. They may decide the product isn't suitable. They need service to handle exchanges or returns. Do you give prompt, knowledgeable and complete responses to questions? Do you answer questions, or do you point them somewhere else, making them do more work and causing them to get more frustrated? Do you quickly, efficiently and cheerfully honor your guarantees? Assist with billing errors?

The keys to great customer service are in things Iíve mentioned before:

Make it simple and easy for your visitor to find information and navigate your site.

Give them helpful and descriptive information about your products or services.

Prominently display your toll-free number and other help tools.

Make it clear and simple to buy from you.

Give the customer a reason to place his or her confidence in you - inspire trust.

Customer service on the web is a comprehensive package, an on-going dialogue with your shopper. Don't miss out by thinking it's a little office hidden at the back that the customer calls when there's a problem after the sale. By then, itís much too late.

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GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledge and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

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