How Retailers Can Prevent Shipping Delays From Hurting Their Reputation, As Supply Chain Issues Continue

Delays happen — and during the pandemic, shipping issues have become all but inevitable. Whether it’s a package held up at an overburdened warehouse or a whole container’s worth of inventory stuck for weeks at a congested port, these delivery slowdowns have created headaches for retailers and shoppers alike.

For companies, customer satisfaction is at risk every time an order arrives behind schedule.

“Brands absolutely should be concerned, because the experience of getting a product is as important as the product itself,” said Deb Gabor, a branding strategist and the author of “Irrational Loyalty: Building a Brand That Thrives in Turbulent Times.” While, as a brand, you may not be at fault if a package is stuck in a FedEx warehouse or a cargo ship is waiting to unload, it’s your reputation that’s on the line — fairly or not.

As Gabor put it: “You’re responsible for the entire experience of the brand. So treat it that way.”

So how can companies ensure they’re keeping customers happy, even when things don’t go as planned? Here are four strategies that will set retailers up for success:

1. Manage expectations

There’s no value in overpromising if it means you might underdeliver, so provide information that’s as accurate as possible from the start.

“Expectation starts at the time of purchase,” said David Morin, senior director of retail and client strategy at Narvar, a customer experience platform. “Our best retailers do a really nice job of setting expectations at the time of purchase by providing a variety of options around delivery.” That way, if it may take a week or more for an item to arrive, at least the customer has the chance to choose expedited shipping or in-store pickup if they need it sooner.

Where retailers can get tripped up is if they only account for time in transit, said Morin, especially as many fulfillment centers have needed more time during the pandemic to pick and pack goods before they are sent off.

If companies are worried about scaring off customers with longer delivery estimates, they can at least rest assured they aren’t alone. In a recent National Retail Federation survey, more than 97% of retailers said they had been impacted by port and shipping delays.

However, this doesn’t mean that retailers should underpromise, either. When Amazon increased its usual two-day delivery estimates to ten days or more early in the pandemic, many customers were surprised when their orders arrived well ahead of schedule, said Matt Kleinschmit, founder and CEO of Reach3 Insights.

“It led to some consumers of Amazon wondering, ‘Do they really have a handle on this?’ Because what is actually happening is so different from what they’re saying,” he said.

2. Communicate early, often and openly

Customers don’t want to be left in the dark if there’s a delay — especially now that many are finally once again shopping for events and vacations.

In one Narvar consumer survey, 98% of respondents said they feel better about companies that communicate immediately if something goes wrong.

Either way, retailers should provide regular information: If a customer doesn’t receive an update by day three after they have placed an order, they are more likely to call support, per Narvar research.

While this communication will vary depending on a brand’s unique voice, it should hit some common marks, said Gabor. “There is a right way to do it and that’s to show regard for humanity, acknowledge that it’s a bummer for people … and be prepared to show them a plan for what you’re going to do to make it work out.” What brands shouldn’t do, she added, is place blame elsewhere or decline to offer any solutions.

Aside from dedicated emails or texts about the order, retailers should also consider other channels their customers might engage with.

“If you have campaigns or automations scheduled to go out after someone makes a purchase, or when an item ships, update those emails to include information about timing, when your customers should expect to receive their items, and what to do if they have any questions,” said Kady Srinivasan, SVP of marketing at Klaviyo, an automated marketing platform. “You never know what a customer is going to look at, so over-communicate with your customers at every touchpoint.”

3. Show your appreciation

In a post-holiday survey conducted by Convey, a delivery experience company, 47% of respondents said they would be unlikely to return to a retailer after a bad shipping experience.

Some of these customers might reconsider, though, if the retailer sweetens the deal. “If you can do it, now is the time to be generous,” said Srinivasan. “Use your data to recognize and surprise and delight your most valuable customers through freebies, samples, additional discounts, or with a dedicated phone number for them to call with any questions.”

Note, though, that gift cards and discounts are not a replacement for refunds: Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Fashion Nova to pay $9.3 million after it found that the retailer failed to properly notify consumers of shipping delays and offered customers gift cards rather than the right to cancel for full refunds, as is required by law.

4. Focus on building trust for the future 

Strong customer relationships are perhaps the best insurance policy for the next time something goes wrong. So, once they’re able to, companies should strive to deliver positive experiences and meet customer expectations as consistently as possible.

“When brands have worked really hard to build up that strong emotional bank account with consumers, consumers are willing to cut them a little bit of slack,” said Gabor. And even then, communicating problems is crucial. “It’s when the retailers don’t tell anybody, and then on top of that they fall down on the shipping expectations — that is when those relationships are put at risk.”

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