Latest 20 May 2021 | Best Practices | 9 min read

How Retail and Ecommerce Brands Can Use Conversational Data to Combat Unpredictable Supply Chains

Supply chains, waistbands and family relationships - all things put under a far greater strain than would be preferable since March 2020. For the purposes of this article, we are just going to focus on the first one. 

Over the course of the last 12+ months countries have been in fluctuating states of lockdown, creating issues around factories, transport, stores and every link in between that makes the global supply chain function. According to Accenture, 94% of Fortune 1000 companies have had supply chain issues due to Covid 19, with 3/4 of businesses negatively impacted.

 

'With the COVID-19 crisis, fundamental changes in consumer behavior, supply chains, and routes to market are knocking companies off balance. Responding to the pandemic has underscored the need for leaders to accelerate the adoption of agile ways of working and value chain transformation to help outmaneuver uncertainty.'

Accenture report 

 

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Which Industry’s Supply Chains have been Affected?

If you take Accenture’s statistic above as an indication of the impact Covid had on global businesses, that’s most companies who’ve seen some kind of disruption. Supply chain issues tend to fall into 5 categories:

  1. Demand drops
  2. Demand surges
  3.  Reduced productivity 
  4. Storage and access restrictions 
  5. China and raw materials shortage 

It feels so long ago that we saw constant news footage of shopping carts piled high with toilet paper and empty shelves where it used to be. We may not have realized it at the time, but this was a taste of what was to come across a number of industries, and each disruption fell into one (or more) of the 5 categories listed above.

Many of the other problems we’ve seen have followed the same pattern. For instance, there’s a global bicycle shortage. With Covid having the dual effect of gyms being closed and more people looking for ways to exercise, and a need to find a safer way to get around than the confined space of public transport, the bike industry has been affected.

Asian factories, where most parts are manufactured, were disrupted by temporary closures, impacting distribution already disrupted by the pandemic. Even bikes that don’t go anywhere weren’t immune, with Peloton customers suffering up to 10 week waits for their $2,500 exercise bikes. People were making orders quicker than the company could supply them, forcing Peloton to invest more than $100m just to shorten delivery times. 

 

94% of Fortune 1000 companies have had supply chain issues due to Covid 19, with 3/4 of businesses negatively impacted

 

In the UK, as the roadmap for coming out of lockdown was set out, it became clear that garden socialising was the next chance for families and friends to spend time together. It led to a surge in orders for outdoor furniture and plants. If you add supply issues relating to Brexit into a chain already stretched by Covid and an enormous ship doing the world’s slowest 3-point turn in the Suez Canal, stores simply didn’t have enough of what people wanted. 

The issues aren’t necessarily expected, but theoretically they could be predicted, and if they can be predicted, the number of dissatisfied customers can be kept to a minimum.

 

Tracking Intents - Where have Retail and Ecommerce had the Biggest Volume Surges?

 

Stock Queries

The Story:

The graph below is taken from one of Conversocial’s partners - a large UK-based eCommerce brand. It’s not difficult to spot when the country first went into lockdown and people were starting to get in touch with questions about stock.

Stock queries peaked at the start of each UK lockdown for this eCommerce brand | Conversocial

The stock queries spiked to 5x pre-pandemic levels as the UK locked down over the past 12+ months

 

The announcement of the second national lockdown in November, which also contained the enforced ‘Digital Christmas’, and third in January also saw similar spikes to 5x compared to the same week in the previous year. With customers unable to get into stores at various points over the lockdowns, online shopping became an important source of revenue for brands and a lifeline for consumers in need of products. Most retailers’ systems aren’t designed to deal with such a steep increase in handling customer queries and were inevitably struggling to adapt their supply chain to become a purely online operation.

 

The Solution:

With a spike in online orders, the inevitable rise in stock queries isn't far behind, often because a customer can’t buy what they’re looking for. A brand can use two tools to handle customer queries, with private messaging channels best placed to enact both.

If there’s supply line issues, offering the chance to register for updates via a bespoke bot flow means the customer is safe in the knowledge that they’ll be told as soon as an item is back in stock. The second solution is the proactive message that registered customers receive. Using Conversocial’s Notify tool, a triggered notification is sent as soon as consumers can buy the product again. 


This isn’t a solution that’s unique to a global pandemic, there are items retail and eCommerce brands can predict will need some pre-emptive measures put in place for. Take last year’s Playstation 5 release as an example. There were always going to be customers who would be disappointed, visiting multiple retailers but still missing out.

Brands are competing for future custom when the next tranche of Playstations comes, so offering the chance to sign up for an update using a customer’s preferred messaging channel would give the company better customer retention and engagement for a future game or accessory releases for the console.

 

Delivery Queries

Delivery queries spiked 5x in March 2020 | Conversocial

Delivery queries spiked 5x in March 2020 

The Story:

Across the board, retail and eCommerce brands have seen an increased demand for orders and deliveries. Rather than it being purely a symptom of enforced lockdowns and closing of stores, we believe it’s actually been a catalyst for a digital transformation in how consumers shop. The graph above shows delivery intents for two of the UK’s largest supermarkets. There’s the initial spike in March, aka Lockdown 1.0, when people were trying to stay as safe as possible and looking to convert from in-store shoppers to getting deliveries. 


The dramatic surge in March actually masks the more interesting story this graph is telling. The number of delivery-related queries has remained 5x higher than pre-pandemic levels. Our own consumer survey last year found that 81% of consumers would continue online shopping after the pandemic and 41% looking to carry on using home delivery services. Rather than trying to weather the storm until things ‘go back to normal’, brands need to recognize the shift towards more online shopping and adapt their operation to meet the changing behavior.

 

The Solution:

For some context, Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, added 16,000 permanent staff to help pick and deliver all of the new orders coming in online (which had risen from 600,000 to 1.5m a week) but even they initially struggled to meet demand. Not every business can afford to bolster their staffing levels to the scale they need, so the way to handle the surge in delivery queries without risking disgruntled customers is automation.  

More specifically re-engagement and WISMO (where is my order) updates via automation. In the case of supermarkets, an increase in delivery requests inevitably will mean some weeks or days that delivery slots are not available. Asking a customer to register for updates when something becomes available. Using a platform like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Apple Business Chat takes the onus away from them to check back and means they won’t miss out on finding a slot when it becomes available. 

Increased delivery queries for other types of retailers are more likely to center around status updates. This is where creating automated WISMO flows can help relieve contact center pressure. With delivery queries 5x what were before pre-pandemic, using messaging channels to push out the updates at scale addresses the issue of the increase in conversations without significantly impacting a brand’s costs.

 

Damaged Order Queries

Supply chain damaged orders

Damaged order queries spiked 800% in 3 weeks 

 

The Story:

One unforeseen consequence of the pandemic by retail and eCommerce brands was the strain closed stores would have on the supply chains and delivery services. The graph above shows the spike and continued high volume of customer conversations around damaged orders for an electronics brand in the UK. Clearly the increased volume of online orders affected the supply chain, leading to an 800% increase in conversations for that particular intent over the course of 3 weeks. 

We can also see that it’s taken over 12 months to bring the volume down to close to pre-pandemic levels. Supply chain issues are complex, expensive and difficult to fix quickly, so if a brand experiences an issue that could cause them to lose customers, alternative measures need to be taken to ensure that even if there’s an issue with the condition of a delivery, it’s dealt with in a way that creates a positive experience for the customer.

 

The Solution: 

In our Conversations with Conversocial podcast with Dan Gingiss, he told us; “...a customer that’s had an issue resolved is often more loyal than a customer that’s never had an issue in the first place.” – it’s a principle that applies to this situation. The fixing of a supply chain issue 12 months down the line doesn’t placate an angry customer who’s received a damaged laptop. Alongside the review of a delivery system needs to be a CX strategy that will deal with the complaints efficiently and effectively, resolving the issue in a single conversation. 

If brands can direct customers to a messaging channel with an automated flow that collects the relevant information – order number, issue with the item etc – the possibility of sending a replacement without needing to speak to an agent would be the ideal resolution to a customer’s issue. If that process is too complex to introduce, Conversocial’s Automation Solutions can gather the relevant information, using a tool like Agent Assist, ahead of a customer speaking to an agent over Messenger or WhatsApp, meaning they have all the information required to quickly resolve the issue.

 

Messaging Channels Fix Relationships Damaged by Supply Chain Issues

Conversocial’s mission with every one of our partners is to understand how our platform can help extend the CLV of a brand’s customers. Most supply chains weren’t equipped to deal with an unexpected and unprecedented turn of events over the past 12 months and the issues experienced didn’t have to be terminal for the brand/consumer relationships. 

We’ve seen that the digital transformation of consumer habits means these problems aren’t going away, because behavior is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic norms. Evolving the supply chain to meet customer demand can be costly, just ask Peloton, and won’t happen overnight. What can be done is introducing private messaging channels to customer experience strategies that ensure continuous engagement across the lifecycle. 

In the world of online retail and eCommerce, Conversocial’s suite of tools enables brands to mitigate problems that arise pre-order, during and post-delivery] in a way that avoids customer churn and can build stronger bonds with consumers.

Reach out if you’re interested to hear more about how Conversocial helps brands build relationships with consumers and not treat humans as tickets.

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