Any marathon runner will tell you that the last mile is the longest, and you are likely to hear a similar claim from anyone involved in supply chain management. The difference is that while the runner is simply battling with mental and physical fatigue, there are tangible reasons why the final step in the supply chain needs to be treated extra carefully and given our fullest attention.
What do we mean by last mile delivery?
It doesn’t take a genius in supply chain management to understand that last mile delivery is all about the final step when a buyer receives what he has paid for into his hands. It could be the arrival of that Amazon box at your front door, the weekly groceries delivered to your mother, or even that shiny new car unloaded in the driveway.
When we talk about last mile delivery, however, we don’t just mean the act of delivering it. We also mean the speed and manner of delivery. Put simply, this is the part that the buyer sees, so it is where the real value can be added. That might mean delivering faster, or providing up to the minute tracking so there’s no need to wait in all day. It could as easily mean delivering better - from the grocery delivery man helping to pack heavy items away to the girl who delivers your car giving it a last wipe down before handing over the keys.
So it is that last mile delivery has become a key factor by which businesses can differentiate themselves from the competition. Consumers will not hesitate over seeking out an alternative if their supply chain and logistics partners provide a service that is anything less than exemplary. come up short in providing top-notch supply chain services including last mile delivery software.
Aspects of last mile delivery
There are several distinct elements that make up the last mile delivery process:
- The request or order is entered onto an IT system
- The item arrives from the manufacturer or supplier at the delivery hub
- Delivery tasks are assigned and optimized
- The item is scanned out / dispatched
- The item is delivered into the hands of the buyer / receiving party
As we look through those points, it becomes clear that last mile delivery has changed in recent years. There are two key points to consider here.
The first is transparency. Tracking is par for the course in today’s logistics. On the face of it, data availability and sharing is a good thing. The end user has visibility of what is happening and having this data at his fingertips means a reduced likelihood of confusion, less time wasted fielding customer service calls, and so on. It also means more exact delivery windows - what would you prefer to see out of “delivery today between 9AM and 6PM” or “Mark is now four stops away and will make your delivery in approximately 23 minutes”?
The downside to so much transparency is that it leaves nowhere to hide. When goods are delivered on time and undamaged, that’s not a problem. Any glitch, however, and the shortcomings in your last mile delivery process are exposed for all to see.
The second point worth keeping in mind is that final step of delivery into the hands of the buyer or receiver. A decade ago, it predominantly meant delivering goods to shops and other retail outlets, at least as far as retail deliveries were concerned. Today, and especially in the wake of what we lived through in 2020 and 2021, it is as likely to mean personal delivery to a front door.
It provides more opportunities to really stand out from the crowd by delivering an exemplary service. But at the same time, it is passing the decision making process on to individual buyers. They can be fickle, and they are unlikely to be as logical and strategic in their thinking as a business that’s making a decision about procurement.
It is therefore doubly important to be aware of what receivers want from last mile delivery. So instead of merely looking at each of those steps listed above in terms of what can go wrong and how it can be improved, let’s instead evaluate the process from the receiver’s perspective and what he or she wants from it.
What do customers want and expect?
Every single one of us is a consumer, so it should be an easy task to see this process from the receiver’s perspective. Here are the key wishes and expectations from the last mile:
Don’t overcomplicate your thinking. Whether it is components being delivered to a business or groceries to a household, getting them as quickly as possible is always the number one priority.
Specifically, consumers want precision tracking, and the more information the better. What time will the delivery be made? Of course, that is important - but ideally, they also want to know where is the delivery right now? What is the name of the driver? What does he look like and what is he driving?
It’s little comfort knowing that the parcel will be delivered by Gemma at 12:52 if it turns up damaged. Now packing and handling goods in such a way that risk of damage is minimized is a topic for another day, but comfort can still be provided to customers here by providing adequate warranties and insurance. People are not stupid, they know accidents happen, and where you can really stand out is by pulling out all the stops when something goes wrong. It does wonders for trust and repeat business.
A specialization sets you apart from the competition by meeting niche needs. These might include extra fast deliveries by motorcycle courier or bespoke vehicle for extra urgent or sensitive deliveries, or perhaps deliveries made by bicycle in city centers for consumers who place sustainability at the top of their agenda. The more specializations you can offer, the better, as long as you can genuinely deliver on promises.
Convenience and flexibility
Customers are no longer prepared to go out of their way to drop off or collect goods. As already suggested, they are also unwilling to wait around for hours just to take delivery. Offering the most convenient delivery will win you business, but what that really means is offering flexibility. For some receivers, it is actually easier to collect an item from a secure drop off point in town if, for example, they are not on close terms with neighbors. Others will have no qualms about parcels being left on the porch. It’s all about anticipating what will be convenient for different customers and being as flexible as possible.
How to improve last mile delivery
Now that we have a firm grip on what last mile delivery really means and entails, as well as what customers expect from it, we can start to crystalize some strategies by which we can make a tangible difference.
1. Providing real-time tracking
This satisfies the customer’s thirst for information, leading to reassured customers and a reduced workload on customer service representatives, who see a reduction in calls and messages.
Many delivery companies already offer this feature as part of their delivery management software system, so the customer automatically receives a tracking link showing the driver’s location in real time. Typically, it also provides supplementary information such as the driver’s name and headshot, as well as how many other deliveries are to be made before he reaches the customer.
2. Centralizing logistics data
Streamlining, centralizing and making optimum use of the vast amounts of available logistics data, such as delivery deadlines, stock inventory, and so on leads to all-round improvements in last mile delivery practices.
As well as optimizing routine operations, centralized data also provides an early warning system when things are liable to go off the rails, from delays to cost overruns to potential safety issues.
In addition, improved visibility from centralized data memes faster and better-informed decision making, allowing supply chain businesses to operate what almost amounts to a system of continuous improvement in their last mile delivery operations.
3. Better driver communications
When it comes to what is quite literally the last mile, communications need to be second to none. Yet this often proves to be a point of weakness. The driver is the customer touchpoint and needs to be fully informed of everything from last minute changes to delivery instructions to adverse traffic conditions. As well as improving the customer experience, it invariably means greater employee satisfaction and reduced driver turnover, too. After all, nobody likes mushroom management, and that includes delivery drivers.
4. Automating delivery changes
When delivery change notifications are automated, the customer knows about changes or delays as soon as you do. A delay is never good, but is sometimes inevitable. Customers will take the news more philosophically if they are told ahead of time rather than after waiting for hours and then wasting more time in a virtual telephone queue for customer services. It also takes the pressure off those service agents on the end of the phones.
5. Offering more choice and flexibility
We touched on this earlier, but choice means more than just providing options for where the parcel is left or when it is redelivered if nobody is home. For example, a growing number of stores are offering last mile delivery, in what almost harks back to trends from the 1950s and 60s when every store had a delivery boy or two at its disposal. The difference is that this is more likely to be outsourced in the 2020s. Be prepared to think outside the box here, but never losing site of what customers want. It’s all too easy to create an innovative product or service only to find that that nobody asked for it or wants it.
6. Auditing driver performance
We’ve said it before and we repeat it here. The driver is the customer’s touchpoint. If he or she is polite, cooperative, and goes the extra mile for customers with special needs, for example by carrying a heavy box into an elderly customer’s room of choice, that’s great. But a surly and uncooperative driver can just as quickly undo all the good work a company has put into last mile delivery protocols. Keep in mind that many of the measures outlined here, especially in relation to tracking, place drivers under additional pressure. Clearly, there is an area of risk here, with drivers hurrying to meet deadlines and letting customer service levels slip, or worse, driving dangerously in a signwritten vehicle.
7. Automation of route planning
With automated route planning, last mile delivery is optimized for faster delivery and reduced costs. A sophisticated route planning system can make automatic adjustments to take into account updated instructions, driver delays, or changes to traffic or weather conditions on the route.
The last mile is the hardest - so make it count
We said at the beginning that the last mile is the hardest. It is also the one that can make or break the overall customer experience and is most likely to sway the balance between customers happily returning with repeat business or going elsewhere.
There is a wealth of technology out there that can be brought to bear in order to enhance last mile delivery. But in order to get the most out of it, it is vital to approach the subject from the customer’s perspective, understanding what customers require and how technology can help provide it. That way, logistics businesses, and supply chain managers avoid falling into the time honored trap of devising a great solution and then desperately looking for a problem for it to solve.