We've all seen those infomercials with products that look like they would be genius—if they worked. Little egg cups that will make hard boiled eggs a cinch by replacing the hard-to-peel egg shell with a plastic case ("Never peel an egg again!"). A machine that will suck ear wax out of your ears to prevent painful Q-tip injuries. The gadget that quickly snips off all of the split ends in your hair.
Looks like those egglettes could be a good idea, right? But most of the time, at best, your new, exciting product doesn't work as advertised. Or worse, it fails miserably.
Fulfillment's equivalent of these products are off-the-shelf, web-based order entry tools. These fancy-looking tools appear to allow you to easily take care of all your fulfillment needs: they’ll let you populate with inventory, tell you what you have, and then let you order it. But get them home, test them out, and they just don't work as expected. They’re not offering key core functions necessary to make your fulfillment work—like connecting to a warehouse management system or to your specific order processing. It’s all superficial; there’s no depth. There’s lots of flash and sizzle, but when you try to execute, you end up with just a whole lot of fizzle.
The key to a successful fulfillment program is that it must be driven by a well-functioning web tool (or platform) that can provide the complex solutions for customer interaction, supplier interaction, transactional reporting and compliance management, as well as any other issues you and your business may encounter. That’s right, practicality and reliability that goes beyond a flashy new idea solving a narrow, generic customer need.
Are Your Fulfillment Needs Generic?
Most companies who pick an off-the-shelf model are forced to create their core fulfillment process around the limitations of that boxed software. The executional functionalities are generic, or applicable to any company, not about the potential or necessity for customizing the software to specifically meet the needs of your own company.
Unfortunately, there are very few fulfillment systems that do it all—and virtually none of them can be customized without voiding your support agreement. Once you customize, you’re changing the original code (or DNA). This can affect your ability to leverage new system enhancements or receive annual upgrades to the base software because the upgrade doesn’t recognize the new DNA. Then you're stuck with an old tool that doesn't really do what you need it to do (like that barely-used wax vac sitting in the back of your bathroom vanity that's beyond the return window).
Unfortunately, there are very few fulfillment systems that do it all—and virtually none of them can be customized without voiding your support agreement.
Another threat to customizing an off-the-shelf system for individual tools is that sometimes these one-off customizations don’t play nice with a normal warehouse management system.
Facing this problem alongside our customers, we set up our nexTouch fulfillment system to not only function as a core hub of communications between the customer, the provider and the end-users, but to have the ability to customize as necessary to meet client-specific needs and to stay relevant in the marketplace.
You may be thinking to yourself: “Hey, I tried to customize my off-the-shelf fulfillment system. I ended up stranded out on my own little island with an out-of-date, legacy platform my vendor won't support. How do you guys do it?”
Core Functionality and Customization
We began by setting up nexTouch, our fulfillment platform, as a solid, well-developed system based around our manual processes that were in place long before the internet and any web tool took over. These procedures are how you execute everything in a fulfillment business, from receiving and material transfer to kit building and mailings—basically, the "How-to-Bible of Fulfillment."
Our system was developed by our IT people. We own the code, which allows us to modify it at base level, if and when it’s necessary without the threat of losing vendor support. We strive to put as much new functionality into the base version of nexTouch on a regular basis with the aim of preventing the need for customization by our clients. Our team ensures that these updates are informed by previous customization requests and a knowledgebase of industry capabilities and marketplace trends. They then budget for any necessary investments based on the functionality they’d like to include in the new base.
If there’s a gap in our system and a need out in the world for it, we can adapt and grow at base level. That way, it’s already tailored to your business needs, plus you’ll get the upgrades. That’s a real differentiator in the market.
Properly managing business rule development while allowing for ongoing release—that’s the dance. The expertise is in providing the business functions you need while allowing you to stay mainstream with the rising tide.
So, don’t fall for the flashy look or appeal of an off-the-shelf system—it might look like a genius solution to your fulfillment needs, but it's more than likely a flop. Don’t get wowed by the latest-and-greatest if it wasn’t built around a solid process. More than anything, make sure you are working with a system that offers the back-end functionality you need for your specific business rules.
About the Author
As Vice President of Solution Sales at Harte Hanks, Matt uses his 20 years of experience in fulfillment operations to manage and evaluate fulfillment operations and market solutions. He is responsible for business strategy and consulting, and developing strategic plans for multi-site distribution of literature and product sample programs. Matt's expertise extends to unit management, digital printing and print-on-demand, small package shipping and all aspects of warehouse and fulfillment operations.More Content by Matt Pollock