Making Sure Your Fulfillment Partnership Doesn’t End in Divorce

A man and woman are unhappy.

In the logistics industry, we have a saying, “you date your transportation partners, but you marry your 3PL fulfillment partner.” There’s a lot of truth in this analogy. Perhaps we can humor you with the many ways that finding a 3PL is similar to heading to the altar – metaphorically. 

The dating process involves researching, screening, and talking with different potential partners, with Google being the Hinge or Bumble equivalent, right? Search for the top ten 3PLs or the fulfillment companies in your neighborhood. How’s their website? Do they have positive reviews? Do any of your friends know them? Can you get a referral, or is it going to be a blind date? 

Now you’re ready to reach out, make contact, fill out the web form, and wait for it, boom! You get a canned email, a voicemail – or five, and the dating game begins. Who makes the best first impression? Do they care about your business? Are you also being screened or qualified? Are they too sales-y? Have you checked their LinkedIn profiles and determined if they’re mature or inexperienced? And the ones that don’t contact you, was it something you said (or something you didn’t explain clearly about your business?) 

How’s the analogy so far? Bear with us. 

After a few days of back and forth, it’s time for the first date. This is the test now. Face to face (or zoom to zoom). Are you meeting with the people you started with? How’s the neighborhood? Do they keep a clean (ware)house? What about the folks who will be doing the work? Can you visualize a future together? There are so many questions, and at some level, you need to have a good gut feeling about this relationship. You need a partner who cares but who can also manage the challenges that will present themselves. Fulfillment naturally has its challenges.  

There’s no doubt you have put together a roster of potential suitors, so now it’s time to boil it down to your favorite partners and create a scorecard. Financially stable? Check. Good people? Check. Champagne pricing for your beer budget? Will they take good care of the rest of your family (employees)? This is an important decision. Let the negotiation (aka the first fight) begin. We’re officially dating now.  

Time for the prenuptial agreement, rather, the contract. Are these terms reasonable? There’s a lot of expense for this marriage ceremony, and we can’t afford to have it go south. Can we finalize the marriage without missing a day of work? Of course we can; everything is going to be great together!

Let the honeymoon begin, starting with the reception (the kick-off meetings.)  

We’re getting started on the right foot and getting along, right? Any signs of cold feet? Are we having problems already, or so far, so good? And our hopes are high for a stable, mutually gratifying relationship for years to come (forever, maybe?)

And then we have a bump in the road. We never knew that your team was (fill in the blank) not available on weekends. Can we work through these issues together? Where’s that great dashboard we were promised? Where are my B2B orders? Why is this stock not available? Are you not processing returns? Do we need to escalate these problems, or do we need counseling or mediation?  

We’re learning things about each other that we didn’t see when we first met. We hoped to grow old together (at least for five years) and feel content. We thought we would be in tune with each other’s needs. Our relationship may be boring, but is it effective? 

OK. Let’s pull out the agreement and talk about the “D” word. It’s time to separate. Who negotiated these terms? Let’s not make this any harder than it already is.  

Hard to believe we’re going to need to “get out there again” and start dating other 3PLs. But we can’t give notice until we’ve got our next partner lined up.  

Time to formally give notice.  

Whew, we killed that analogy but with the intent of dramatizing some of the things that can go wrong in relationships with fulfillment providers. Picking a new 3PL for your e-commerce fulfillment needs is important and should be treated with respect for the realities of life in the logistics arena.  

To make sure the next relationship with a 3PL fulfillment provider doesn’t end in an ugly and premature breakup, it’s important to know extremely well (i.e., your own business), be able to clearly articulate the needs of your business, and properly vet the 3PL’s ability to fulfill those needs. Consider a checklist of your requirements and ensure those requirements are not only addressed in the negotiations but also in the ultimate agreement or a written statement of work signed off on by both parties to ensure everyone’s on the same page. 

By Tom Behnke

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