At first glance, logistics and Olympic snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis’ infamous gold-medal-losing race may not appear to have much in common. 

But take away the snow, the global television audience and the intense media scrutiny that followed, and you have a vivid illustration of what happens in supply chains countless times a day: Like Jacobellis (who made the mistake of celebrating what appeared to be a guaranteed first-place finish a few feet too soon), many companies relax their shipping visibility just shy of the true finish line, even though many other competitors are nipping at their heels.

Think about it: Few companies these days would dream of shipping goods from Asia to the Americas or from US city to US city without the help of sophisticated visibility systems. But how many rely on similar systems and processes once individual customer shipments are loaded onto last-mile delivery trucks? Just as important, how many can say they know for sure what takes place while delivery professionals are at customers’ homes? 

The answer is not enough. And that’s a mistake that could be costing companies more “gold” – also known as repeat business -- than they think. 

Thankfully, better last-mile visibility has become far more achievable in recent years due to the emergence of several new systems and services and the more strategic use of some techniques and devices that have been in companies’ tool kits for years. 

GPS: A Birds-Eye View of Driver Activity
For example, consider the case of GPS systems. In addition to their primary function of assisting delivery teams with navigation, these tools have the ability to enhance a company’s visibility in at least three key areas.

First, if a customer calls or emails with a shipment-related question on the day of a delivery, a GPS device can help customer service reps track exactly where an item is at the time of the query. As a result, CSRS can provide customers with much more accurate, real-time information about the locations and estimated arrival times of their orders.

Second, companies can use GPS tools to see how closely driver teams are sticking to the delivery routes that have been mapped out for them. It’s good information to have since any deviation from these routes could have a domino effect on on-time delivery and fuel costs.

Third, companies’ dispatchers can combine the real-time geographic information provided by GPS devices with their companies’ order and route information to make last-minute decisions as needed (like changing the sequence in which items are going to be delivered) in order to improve customer satisfaction.

Hand-Helds, Smartphones and Blackberries – A Quick (And Accurate) Look 
Or think about hand-held devices: They may be small in size. But they ultimately can deliver huge visibility benefits. Among other things, they can eliminate companies’ reliance on route sheets and cell phones and reduce the inefficiencies associated with manually updating key information each time an order’s delivery status changes. In a matter of seconds, delivery teams can scan items as they’re loaded onto a home delivery truck and off-loaded at their final destination; they also can capture customers’ signatures once delivery is complete. Then their scans can immediately be transmitted, so schedules, tracking programs and reports can be updated continuously and simultaneously, providing all stakeholders with the latest, most accurate visibility. 

Should these devices have cameras on them – which most now do -- drivers can also use them to photograph and send photos of any deliveries that have damages. As a result, companies can see what’s wrong with items while teams are still in a customer’s home – and immediately recommend the best corrective strategy. This is especially useful because sometimes the right incentives, such as a discount for accepting an item as-is, can be less expensive than the cost of a return and re-delivery. 

In a similar vein, hand-held devices can also help drivers set a company’s exceptions management process in motion, whether that exception is a damaged product that needs to be reordered or a delivery that needs to be moved back an hour or two due to substantial delays. Best of all, these capabilities are all now more affordable than ever because companies no longer have to invest in the rugged but expensive hand-held machines that were the only game in town until a few years ago (unless their drop-offs involve a high piece count, because that requires much faster scanning). Instead, if they have the proper software, they often can use Smartphones and Blackberries for the same purpose – at a fraction of the price. 

Surveys: An Inside View of the Delivery Experience
This final tool may seem like an odd fit, because it’s more typically employed to measure other aspects of company operations such as manufacturing or marketing. However, customer feedback about how well delivery teams performed is one of the most valuable and underutilized supervisory resources companies have available to them today. 

Whether this feedback is collected via leave-behind surveys, a call-in number or outbound phone/email surveys, it’s an excellent way for companies to see what’s really going on when these teams reach a customer’s home. 

These surveys don’t have to take long. Nor do they have to be administered by a “live” customer service rep; in fact, automated phone surveys, which are less expensive to administer, frequently have a higher response rate. But they do need to measure the service attributes or performance requirements that companies deem the most essential to their last-mile delivery success – and that they might not otherwise be able to confirm. (For example, measureable attributes might include how professional a team looked, how polite they were and how carefully they moved through a customer’s home when making a delivery). 

Just as important, survey feedback needs to be used, because unless companies act upon the information that customers took the time to provide, they’re only providing the illusion of caring about delivery quality. And customers in this day and age can see through such illusions very quickly. 

Whether it’s offering disgruntled customers a small-value gift card to take the sting out of a less-than-satisfactory deliveries or contacting a team that failed to wear the required uniform or protective booties to remind them of what’s expected – companies must let all concerned parties know they’re truly watching and that they care.

Go For the Gold
There are some who might say that these recommendations are much like dessert – much-appreciated and nice to have but not essential. After all, they argue, last-mile deliveries usually occupy very small fraction of a very long supply chain, and that makes their significance in the overall scheme of things marginal at best.

However, when you think about in strategic terms, that fraction of time could potentially be the most important of all, because it’s the only segment in the entire supply chain that companies’ customers actually see. Just as important, last-mile deliveries represent the final chance that companies have to shine before a transaction is complete. 

It’s your call: Do you want your company to be known for first-rate performance all the way to the finish line? Or do you want to be viewed as the company that almost did? The answer you choose could be one of the most competitive decisions you make all year.

Jonathan Turner is with 3PD. Visit for more information.