On time, every time: How automation helps optimise customer service delivery

A case study for manufacturers and retailers on the benefits of a fully managed, easy-to-use digital trading platform for both wholesale relationships and dropshipping.

Making customers happy by sending out the products they order on time, every time is a top priority for both retailers and manufacturers.

Fast, efficient and accurate delivery enriches the customer experience and the potential for brand loyalty and market growth in what is today a highly volatile retail environment built on ever tighter margins.

The supply chain behind an e-commerce business can involve a wholesale trading relationship, where the manufacturer bulk delivers to the retailer’s warehouse, or, increasingly, dropshipping, where stock is only shipped by the manufacturer once the sale has gone through.

A prime example of retail relationships working successfully on both fronts is clear at simplehuman UK, the multi-award-winning designer and manufacturer of smart home products.

The company’s experience is relevant for any industry sector – from electronics to clothing to food and drink – where a manufacturer is seeking to grow trading partners at pace while staying streamlined.

It also shows how, with the right supplier relationships, retailers of all sizes can make their margins, please their customers and build their brands.

Key to this win, win situation is the optimisation of behind-the-scenes service delivery processes, in this case through a digital trading platform incorporating electronic data interchange, or EDI. The watchwords are ease of use, speed and accuracy.

The background: a spirit of innovation

Founded in the US in 2000, with its UK subsidiary opening in 2003, simplehuman has reinvented tools for efficient living to elevate everyday life through design and innovation. With more than 250 patented innovations, simplehuman has pioneered the smart home category with its international award-winning bins, sensor mirrors, and kitchen and bath accessories that push the boundaries of intuitive user experience and function.

simplehuman UK’s distribution network features leading retail brands, online stores, catalogues and bricks-and-mortar shops. This complex mix of routes to market – not an uncommon scenario in many sectors – requires careful management and a continual eye on process improvement.

To satisfy orders from across the network, simplehuman UK was until 2018 relying on a Windows-based EDI system. It was designed to enable staff at the company head office to share data, integrate it with internal systems and automate processes such as extracting information from paper and pdf. The idea was to save on the costs of manually processing sales orders, invoices, shipping notes, despatch advice, workflow reports and other essential paperwork.

The challenge: how to move to the next level

While EDI had certainly supported company growth over the years, by 2018 the need for more process improvement and scalability was clear. The incumbent solution required too much staff time to start an order process and manage inbound and outbound files. It was also difficult to validate transactions in the event of queries.

While a great way to introduce new products to market – especially for an innovator brand such as simplehuman UK – the dropshipping side was particularly labour intensive, typically involving the physical keying in of single-sale orders not always cost effective to store and ship. With thousands of product orders coming in from different retailers, all requiring acknowledgement, release and despatch, the logistics and cost pressures were becoming increasingly formidable.

simplehuman UK turned to its integration specialist Ian Tofield, an IT industry professional with previous experience at brands such as the shoe retailer Clarks and financial services giant Legal & General.

“A manufacturer who supplies a retailer will typically have a tricky balance to strike,” says Ian. “They need to guarantee regular income for both parties and have the ability to innovate and extend their product range pending market demand. Whether you are looking at a wholesale or dropshipping relationship, any retailer will need its suppliers to support their ability to sell in the marketplace. That goes for both the high street and online. simplehuman UK has accounting relationships with lots of big name brands, as well as smaller outlets. The customer doesn’t know or care if the retailer is using a wholesale or dropship supplier – they just want the product they order in their hands as soon as possible. Behind the scenes, dropshipping can complement a wholesale trading relationship and there are benefits if you get it right, but it is exceedingly labour intensive unless you automate.”

Scoping the challenge that simplehuman UK faced, Ian found that, despite EDI, staff were still having to manually download files from trading partner portals. There were other manual tasks involved in acknowledging orders, providing tracking numbers for despatch and filling out the required fields in automatic shipping notices or ASNs. Another drawback was that outbound orders could only be processed during office hours. Any order made after 5pm on a Friday would have to wait until the following Monday morning for attention.

“Dropshipping was killing the order handling process at first,” he recalls. “The logistics of managing orders manually and the physical keying in of information in an e-commerce environment was a growing challenge. In the time I was scoping this, we received 4,039 orders. Each one needed to be acknowledged, released and sent on its way, some 8,000 transactions in all. We were inundated with orders and it was becoming a nightmare.”

Ian recommended that simplehuman UK explore a managed service solution – a digital trading platform incorporating EDI – to automate the order process. Given the wide range of processes and IT capabilities among the distributor network, a central question in the procurement exercise was whether or not an outsourced provider could enable simplehuman UK to connect to any data format using any connectivity method. The preferred partner would also have to guarantee a flexible working approach, ready access to data held in the service, and HMRC compliance for EDI invoicing. Any new infrastructure would also have to integrate with simplehuman UK’s existing back office system, Sage 200 Extra.

The solution: automation for both wholesale and dropshipping

The winner in the competitive procurement exercise was UK-based Transalis, whose cloud-based digital trading platform was already underpinning billions of pounds’ worth of order processing by companies and organisations around the world.

“They met all our set criteria,” explains Ian. “And they outshone the others in terms of their work ethic and culture. We knew we could grow an open working relationship with them. As soon as the contract was signed in April 2018, they started working on a series of integrations. Crucially, they listened. Once I had done my analysis, they allowed simplehuman UK to define the interface files and mapping documents to support each integration. They really made it easy. For example, as simplehuman UK were using Asana as an in-house project management tool, Transalis were more than happy to keep it as part of building and communicating about the solution. They had the confidence and ability to do that.”

Ian remembers the initial pressures as the project got under way.

“Whereas I knew the previous EDI solution was not going to aid the growth of simplehuman UK in the medium to long term, we still had to work hard to prove we had a way forward. IT projects with third-party developers do have a reputation for slipping sometimes, especially when there are a number of separate developments on the go at the same time. I needed to prove what I was doing very quickly to show the business that this was how it was going to work.”

Ian worked with Transalis to agree the basic processes for integration with accountancy software so that data could be inputted and extracted smoothly. Transalis then made the technical changes required for the overall infrastructure build and EDI messaging.

“Transalis were brilliant,” says Ian. “They had to make these changes and translate the files very quickly to ensure we didn’t have to wait long to sign up our first developer. That’s exactly what they did.”

Within eight weeks, simplehuman UK’s biggest wholesale trading partner was the first to be successfully on board with the new solution. Once the wholesale model was shown to work, the next step was to automate the dropshipping side and so make efficiencies there. Success would help to position simplehuman UK as a recognised dropship vendor, or DSV, in the market. Again, Transalis were able to accommodate a third-party CRM system that simplehuman UK were using so that more DSV orders could be connected automatically.

The outcome: a stronger platform for business growth

After the first wholesale partner was on board, ten further partners – a mix of wholesale and DSV relationships – were added over the following year, extending to 52 connected accounts so far.

The new solution has fully automated a range of e-commerce data processes, both inbound and outbound and in both wholesale and DSV relationships. They include order acknowledgement, despatch advice, invoicing and inventory. Outbound files can be processed 24/7 any day of the year rather than just within office hours. A robust system of validation is now in place with simplehuman UK better able to manage partner pricing and carton quantities while avoiding any risk of order duplication.

Ian says: “To give some context to the connected accounts, when I started work at simplehuman UK there were six active accounts sending and receiving data via their Windows-based Freeway interface. Now we have an automated system that works for big and small retailers and partners.  In my experience, some businesses think they are using EDI properly when in truth they are not. Thankfully, simplehuman UK now has a different level of automation and operation throughout their entire process. Since the solution was implemented, it has successfully underpinned millions of pounds’ worth of orders from across the distribution network. Everything about our processes has been simplified from a customer relationship point of view. We have had no major connectivity issues. It’s a rock solid and stable solution with an absolutely miniscule error rate, less than 1%.”

Summarising the project, Ian says:

“Together with Transalis we have successfully automated whole processes that had previously been run manually, freeing up precious time. This is a perfect case study for many manufacturers in different sectors seeking to engage with a wholesale distribution network or operate as a DSV and go direct to consumer. For retailers, it’s proof that with superb, robust automation in place you can truly rely on your wholesale or DSV partners to support your margins, market presence and customer service. This is a solution that works. It’s scalable, easy to use and it delivers.”

Reflecting on his experience of working with Transalis, Ian adds:

“I love the working relationship with them. Their background knowledge, experience and willingness to be flexible have made this project a success. Aside from the technical aspects of file translation and so on, they understand trading relationships and the world of business including the distinct requirements of dropshipping as opposed to wholesale warehousing. They have done everything we’ve wanted. They have embraced everything we have put their way and shown confidence that a solution could be found all the way through. You can’t ask any more than that from a service provider. This has been the most exciting work I’ve done in my career, being able to apply my industry knowledge to help build a beautiful system.”

The benefits: cost and time savings

simplehuman UK has identified a wide range of benefits from the new solution, both within the organisation and when connecting with trading partners. Here are just some:

Faster turnaround: By avoiding manual processes, simplehuman is making a time saving on the handling of each transaction involved in an order. Since the solution was implemented, there have been more than 12,800 orders from different retailers requiring around 27,000 discrete transactions, each transaction faster than the equivalent manual process.

A better customer experience: When an order is received, it is picked, packed and despatched the same day, even if there is a sudden influx of orders. This supports both the manufacturer-retailer relationship and the ultimate customer experience.

Avoiding pointless orders: Built-in inventory files automatically stop the fulfilment process if the product is out of stock.

24/7 cover: Thanks to continual processing there is no longer a need to key in on a Monday morning what has been ordered since 5pm on a Friday. Inventory files for trading partners are automatically sent out multiple times a day and at the weekend.

Lead-time management: If a retailer needs to have the lead-time extended for order fulfillment, the system can automatically scale to fit the new requirement.

Flexibility: Wholesale and DSV orders can be split out easily to meet the different requirements of retailers.

Template for different verticals and sectors: Any business keen to develop DSV capabilities, whether from the retail or manufacturing point of view, can benefit from automation in this way. This includes small and medium-sized businesses working in, for example, apparel, electronics or food and beverages, as well as bigger retail brands. Senior decision makers, including operations, finance and IT managers, can expect to make significant cost and time savings through an equivalent automation solution from Transalis.

For more information, visit www.transalis.com or call 0845 123 3476 or +44 1978 369 343 (for international callers).

Transalis provides a global digital platform that drives business growth, through cloud-managed services. Based in the UK, Transalis services a digital community of over 10,000 users internationally across Retail, Manufacturing, Distribution, Logistics, FMCG and Health and Beauty.