It’s only when things start to go wrong that we realise just how good we have it when supply chains are healthy and fully functional. It doesn’t necessarily need to be large-scale global supply chain problems either, it can be something as simple as bad weather resulting in delays in cross-country logistics causing certain orders to land with customers much later than expected.
Merchants will understand how supply chain impacts their business behind the scenes, but it’s important to understand also how it then impacts your customer experience. The last thing any merchant wants is for a situation not within their control to cause them to lose or disappoint customers. The best way to mitigate that impact is through a strong communication strategy.
How supply chain issues affect CX
Maybe the most obvious and important CX issue as a result of supply chain disruptions is product availability and stock replenishment. The issue might be materials for production being held up, or perhaps the logistics partner who delivers stock to your warehouse is delayed in some way. When your warehouse runs out of stock, this is obviously bad for customer experience. After all, if they can’t get the product, they can’t progress further in that experience and leave disappointed - potentially for a competitor. Part of this disappointment is in customer expectations - they expected to purchase a product, it’s out-of-stock, they’ve been let down. They don’t know when to expect it to be replenished, so they don’t want to wait around.
Fulfillment costs and delivery times
There are a couple of ways in which supply chain issues can affect fulfillment. The first is in cost - if there are significant delays and roadblocks to fulfillment, then this will push costs up as demand increases the longer that delay remains in place. Second, delivery times will be longer - this may only be by a couple of days but in some cases it may be a couple of weeks or more. These issues will likely be those which most affect your customer experience. Higher costs may affect a customer’s decision to make a purchase in the first place, and if they do then they’ll expect pretty great service. This is due to rising fulfillment expectations thanks to retail giants like Amazon offering fast, free shipping. If when they do place an order they experience significant delays, that will impact their overall view of your brand, even though the issues are outside of your control.
Black Friday, the holidays, and other key sales periods
In an average week, supply chain problems may be easier to manage. They’re less than ideal, however they won’t have as big an impact on your operations as they would during a key sales period with high order volumes. During the holiday season in particular, there usually is pressure on logistics as there is always an increase in demand as more people shop online and more packages head out the door. Add to that additional supply chain difficulty, and things become very difficult during an already tricky season. If manufacturers can’t get supplies, or logistics companies are stuck at port, it causes everything to become delayed. The period between Black Friday and the holidays is crucial for many ecommerce businesses, so snags in the supply chain during this time can be make or break.
This also applies to key sales periods outside of the holidays. For example, if you sell swimsuits and you can’t get them to customers in time for summer vacation, this to your customer is a poor experience even if your store isn’t at fault because your manufacturer was facing material shortages. If your key products are out of stock, or your last-mile logistics partners are running through a delivery backlog, this can impact your customer experience and ultimately your chances for retention and future sales.
Communication is key
Unfortunately, you can’t force supply chain issues to get better. You can’t just ask logistics partners to hurry up, or tell manufacturers to get materials faster. What you can do is ramp up your communication with customers, to manage and temper their expectations. Just 15% of US consumers say retailers always meet their delivery time expectations, and 53% won’t place an order if they don’t know when it will be delivered.
If you advertise 2 day shipping and logistics delays mean it’s more like 3-4 days, then you need to tell your customers before they even place an order. This sets their expectations - if they think they’re paying for 2 day shipping and it doesn’t arrive within that 2 days, they’re going to be upset. If they know that there’s a delay and to expect it to take up to 4 days, then they’ll ultimately be more understanding.
A lack of communication won’t just hurt the individual customer’s odds of retention, but if they leave a review criticizing your store’s delivery experience then this can also impact acquisition. Over key sales periods such as the holidays where timeliness in delivery is vital to customer purchasing decisions, you don’t want recent negative reviews on your post-purchase experience.
Creating a communication strategy for when supply chain issues hit will save your team time, and your customers potential frustration. We’re going to look at three of the areas where your customers will be most impacted by supply chain issues, and which channels you need to use to best communicate these to customers.
#1 - Order Delays
Whether it’s trying to clear through a backlog after Black Friday weekend, or a major delay with your courier partner, customers want to know where their order is at all times. It’s important to communicate that there is a delay, how long you expect it to go on for, and what your customer can do in the meantime. They need reassurance, and this can be as simple as an email from your store acknowledging there is a delay. Not knowing what’s going on causes frustration, and may result in the customer having a negative perception of your store’s overall experience. With ongoing orders it’s important to use more direct communication channels that the customer is likely to engage with if they’re looking for news about their order. That means putting less emphasis on social media, and on channels such as email and customer support.
Email & SMS
The most direct channel stores have to their customers with ongoing orders is email and SMS. When a customer is expecting an update about their order, these will be the channels they expect to receive news through. It’s also the fastest way to communicate these updates, as most people check their smartphone on average 58 times per day, and 98% of text messages are read by the end of the day they’re sent.
Writing and preparing email/SMS campaigns in response to delays can take up valuable time, therefore it helps to have some templates ready to use when these issues arise.
Create campaign and one-off email templates where you can fill in the relevant information, and send to different audience segments affected by delays. This allows you to get information out to customers swiftly, without requiring your team to create these campaigns completely from scratch.
Space out your email and SMS messaging. Create an internal guide on when to send each so that the customer is informed, but not overwhelmed with information. For example if their order is delayed in dispatch, send an email but not an SMS letting them know there’s a delay, then send an SMS once their order has been dispatched.
- Create adapted automated flows to implement during busy periods in lieu of your usual order information flow. For example if over the holidays your courier delivery times are delayed, you can have a flow set up triggered by time and order status communicating to the customer that there are delivery delays. If the order status is “Processing” but hasn’t been dispatched after a certain number of days, this triggers an email letting the customer know that there’s a short delay in fulfillment. This ensures that customers get a regular flow of messaging throughout the post-purchase process, reassuring them that their order is on the way even if there are delays.
Ultimately your customer wants to know why there is a delay, how long they should expect to wait, and who to contact if they feel their order is taking too long. Especially over the holidays, you should also include information about returns and exchanges, as if they’re purchasing something as a gift and delays mean it may not arrive in time then they’ll likely need this information to hand. It demonstrates to the customer that you care about their experience, and want to keep them as up-to-date as possible.
When a customer experiences a delay, they may turn to your customer support team for additional assistance. This may be because they haven’t seen a message about the delay, or perhaps the delay will cause them difficulty for example if the order was for a gift and won’t arrive in time based on the current estimate.
In these cases, you want to have some automated options ready to filter the majority of these enquiries, so that the more complex situations can be dealt with manually.
Create auto-response templates for both your support email and chatbot for different situations. These may be as simple as “Hello! Please be aware, we are currently experiencing order shipping delays due to [reason]. We expect these to resolve by [date].” This may be enough to satisfy a concerned customer.
Ensure any chatbots have information about shipping delays ready to communicate to the customer. Again this may help to field general “where is my order?” enquiries that don’t require the extra assistance of a live support representative.
- Write an internal FAQ for how to proceed with different types of enquiry during periods of delay. Tell your team the orders affected by this delay, so that they also know that any orders outside of this may require extra assistance. This will help your team to deal with enquiries about specific delays in a fast and efficient manner with consistent information.
The more you can prepare in advance, the better your support team will be able to handle the influx of support tickets that typically come as a result of order delays.
#2 - Changes to shipping
It isn’t just post-purchase where you need to stay on top of communication. While it’s important to keep customers with ongoing orders informed, it’s just as important to keep potential customers in the loop. Before making a purchase, they want all relevant information that will help them make a purchase. When there are significant supply chain issues, this often leads to increases in shipping costs and some shipping options becoming unavailable.
Say for example you typically offer a next day service for $5.99, however due to supply chain problems the cost of that increases to $8.99 or more. These increases won’t go unnoticed by returning customers, and may be off-putting to potential customers. The same goes for if the price increases substantially and you no longer offer the option and have to change the delivery methods you offer at checkout. These are crucial in the purchasing process, as 41% of consumers say that their primary reason for cart abandonment is due to shipping costs being higher than expected, and 26% said it was due to delivery time taking too long.
In these cases where you may see a temporary or even permanent increase in shipping costs or change in options available, you want to get ahead of customers simply noticing it and be proactive in how you communicate these changes. The best way to do this is using the communication channels that can catch customers in that pre-purchase phase. The primary channel will be on your site, with social media and email catching engaged and interested customers before they land on your store.
Your store is going to be the obvious first choice for where to communicate any changes to shipping methods and costs. It’s also the most direct channel, as it will likely be where customers turn to for information about shipping. There are a number of areas on your site where you can communicate shipping changes due to supply chain, and these are especially important around busy periods such as the holidays where timing becomes even more crucial to your customers.
Update your FAQ. This is your first step, as this is the information that customers will rely on. They may check these resources before going to checkout, so if there is a disparity between your FAQ and options at checkout they’ll notice this and become confused. If the price increase or option changes are temporary, create a temporary section in your FAQ about this, detailing what options are available and for what cost.
Note changes on product pages. Many product pages have shipping information available to make it easier for the customer, rather than having to go to a different page to find that info. As well as updating your FAQ, note any changes on product pages also.
- Create a site banner to highlight changes. This can be as simple as “Our shipping options are changing, click here for more information”. Link this to your FAQ, or any other resources about shipping and delivery you may have.
These actions will ensure that customers go into the purchasing process with all the information they need, and are not surprised when they reach checkout.
To complement your on-site changes, it also helps to send out email campaigns letting customers know about updates to your shipping and delivery. It may also be beneficial to segment your audience and send slightly different messaging.
Subscriber vs customer - Someone who hasn’t placed an order may not be familiar with your previous pricing and options, as opposed to a previous customer who has experience with your shipping. You may then want to tweak the messaging to acknowledge this.
Loyal customers/VIPs - Loyalty and retention are key to any ecommerce business, so in order to further foster the positive relationship you have with your loyal customers you may want to segment them and send the update along with some kind of offer such as a shipping discount or free shipping code in order to reward their loyalty.
- Ongoing orders - If a customer has already placed an order, they’ll already know about your shipping options and costs. Therefore you want to reduce the amount of unnecessary marketing information in their inbox, so they have a higher chance of reading messaging that’s relevant to them. If you’re creating a series of emails about shipping and delivery, you can have this as a dynamic segment so that when an order is placed after a certain date, the customer is added to this segment.
Backing up your on-site activity with a more direct form of engagement such as email will ensure your customers are aware of any updates to shipping, saving them from potentially being disappointed when they go to place an order.
#3 - Stock issues
You’ve researched a product, looked at reviews, and now you’re ready to buy...only to discover that the product is now out of stock. This can be a very disappointing experience for customers, but when there are issues with supply chain, inventory management becomes a lot more difficult and out-of-stocks become more common. How your store responds to those out-of-stocks and communicates these to customers is vital.
Common responses from customers to out-of-stocks are simply to look elsewhere, or perhaps submit their email for “back in stock” notifications. However during key sales periods such as the holidays, customers will be even less patient with stock issues meaning you may lose a customer due to a stock issue outside of your control. In these cases, customers want to know when stock is due to be replenished, and any alternatives available. If you can provide this information and communicate it effectively then you may be able to acquire new customers even when the products they want aren’t available.
The first place to communicate on stock availability is on product pages for the items in question. As well as indicating that the product is out-of-stock, you should also seek to communicate additional information that may improve their experience despite the item being unavailable:
Expected restock dates.
In some cases, customers may be willing to wait for a product to restock, and having a date in mind for this can be a huge boost to their likelihood of making a purchase once inventory has been replenished. Without a date, the customer won’t know if they’ll be waiting days, weeks, or even months. Especially when it comes to the holidays, for customers this could be the deciding factor in whether or not they choose a competitor.
Recommended alternative products.
When the customer doesn’t want to wait, you may want to recommend an alternative. This may be a like-for-like product, or a recommendation based on store data for that product i.e. other items that customers typically buy alongside or instead of the product in question. This can be very useful around periods such as Black Friday where the chances of an out-of-stock are higher but the customer is still very interested in a purchase to make the most of a promotion.
Offer gift cards.
Where a customer is purchasing a gift, oftentimes they won’t be familiar with your brand or your product niche. In these situations, the customer may not want to try and pick a different product as they had their sights set on giving a gift from your brand and without a restock date a gift card may be the next best option. This gives them the opportunity to still get something their recipient will like, but without the pressure of trying to find an alternative product. You can set up out-of-stock gift card option on product pages using tools such as Govalo.
By capturing the customer’s attention on the product page and offering solutions to their out-of-stock problem, you’re providing a much better customer experience. Even if they don’t make a purchase right away, they’ll remember that your site is proactive in trying to help.
Email & SMS
As well as having back-in-stock notifications set up with email and SMS, it helps to bolster those automations with some extra information. During key gifting periods and holidays, it helps customers who are holding out for that perfect gift if you can give them more information. The key is in only giving them relevant messaging, sticking just to information related to their back-in-stock request. Too much information, and they’ll likely ignore it or unsubscribe from notifications. Therefore you need to have a careful strategy for what information you send.
The first piece of relevant information will be restock dates. If you have a date, you can communicate this in an email or SMS to customers who have signed up for a back-in-stock notification. This will give them a clearer idea of if they’re happy to wait. Another relevant message would be offering alternative product recommendations, especially if there is no estimated restock date. It can be along the lines of “We’re sorry [x] is out-of-stock, but we think you’d love this instead”. This can be particularly useful around the holidays; if a customer has signed up for back-in-stock notifications and the product won’t be back in time for the holidays, you can send an email letting them know and offering alternatives suggestions.
When something goes wrong in your supply chain, it can be a headache to navigate through internally within your business. The most important things you can do to mitigate the impact this then has on your customers is through a solid, prepared communication strategy that gives customers as much information as possible and is proactive in helping them.