You think that everything is going along so smoothly.  You’ve sent Request for Proposals to at least three fulfillment vendors, and you expect that within the next two weeks you’ll have all the information you need to prepare your final marketing budget for the business case of your next big program.  And then the phone calls and the questions start.

The fulfillment vendors start asking for more information, but you’ve given them everything you’ve got.  They want to see samples of materials that are not yet designed, let alone produced.  They insist that you specify weekly or monthly volumes, but since the program hasn’t yet launched, you have no idea what to tell them.

You can’t imagine why they want to know when your program launches, or how long it will last (of course that depends on its success, doesn’t it?), and what in the world does it matter what other vendors are involved?

But all of those questions pale in comparison to the last question.  How dare they ask you (an experienced, successful marketing person) how you are marketing your program?  I mean, what business is it of theirs?  None, right?


Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?  Well, take a deep breath, pour yourself a calming cup of decaf, and let me explain why any fulfillment vendor worthy of the name will (and should!) ask such intrusive (bordering on impertinent) questions.

Intrusive question #1: May we have samples of the elements?  First, understand that they’re not going to pass judgment on your materials, but there are simply too many variables for fulfillment vendors to make assumptions about how easy (or difficult) it will be to pick, pack and ship your product or materials. Say you want to send out a retail promotion kit that includes a poster, a video, a product sample, a letter and some shelf-talkers. The price to assemble and ship such an order can vary immensely, so consider providing some sort samples of the approximate size, weight and quantity of the finished materials for an average order.  Assembly services are priced based on the number and types of tasks, so understanding as much as possible about each piece allows the fulfillment house to better estimate the time and effort each task will take.  And then, of course, there is the little matter of shipping.  Your fulfillment house wants to help you meet your deadlines and keep your budget, so they must know about your shipping preferences.  And no, carriers are definitely not all the same.  Size does matter (and so does shape, by the way) when making your carrier choice.  Bottom line: The closer the samples are to the actual materials, the more accurate your estimate will be.

Intrusive question #2: What are your projected volumes by month? The reason for this question is determine if your program will qualify for volume discounts.  This is particularly important for complicated programs, because once the structure is in place your economies of scale kick in, so your cost for each individual order may actually decrease.  Since most programs fees are based on the frequency of processing orders, to save you money your fulfillment vendor may suggest that your orders are processed twice a week instead of daily if the process is complicated and your orders are few.  And if your orders are always very small and there are very few of them, a professional fulfillment vendor will ask you why you prefer to outsource rather than handle the program in-house.

Intrusive question #3: When do you expect to start shipping, and how long will the program run? Any fulfillment program takes a certain amount of time to set up, generally anywhere from four to 40 hours.  Your fulfillment vendor wants to be sure that you share an understanding of what will happen when so that there is sufficient time to set up your program correctly, and so that the right amount of resources are available to accomplish the tasks on your timeline.  For example, if you need to send out one million packages on Monday, your vendor needs to be aware of your critical deadlines so that adequate staff will be available to service your program. But if you plan to send out one million packages over the next six months, the demands on the fulfillment house are very different.

Intrusive question #4: What other vendors are you using for this program? One of the things that your fulfillment vendor does best is manage complicated programs.  If you’ve got materials coming in from 16 different vendors, from printers to partners and other departments, inevitably something will be late, thus adding extra costs to your program.  Letting your professional account manager coordinate all these elements will lessen the burden on you, and will keep you from being the “bad guy” with your other vendors.

Intrusive question #5: How are you marketing this program? You expect to hear this question from your boss, but certainly not from your fulfillment vendor!  But actually, it is pertinent to the success of your project.  Fulfillment vendors are experienced in all sorts of programs, and are in the position to suggest ways to leverage different types of promotional avenues for cost reductions.  For example, a long time ago a client was marketing a product through a magazine, which printed out thousands of leads on labels, and mailed them to her for fulfillment.  She turned over the labels to the fulfillment house, but since she wanted to develop a mailing list, she asked them to copy the labels to enter the data manually in a database, and then mail out the literature using the labels the magazine provided.  Her account manager diplomatically suggested that going forward it would be far less expensive for her to receive the addresses electronically from her promotional partner, and have the fulfillment house print the labels, thus sparing her the cost of hours of data entry. Lesson learned!

Fulfillment houses can also help adjust unreasonable expectations (although that may not always be appreciated), because virtually every fulfillment house has been burned at least once by a client with more enthusiasm than marketing savvy.  Once upon a time a client went a fulfillment house, and wanted to set up a fulfillment program for the 60,000 orders he expected to generate from an ad campaign in a national magazine. He asked the fulfillment house to special order 60,000 boxes for him, as well as dedicate several call center representatives to his account in preparation for the overwhelming demand he anticipated.  As it turned out, the “campaign” was a single classified ad that ran only once, failed to mention the product the client was trying to sell, and so naturally it generated no response at all.  This incident might have had a happier ending if the client had disclosed the extent of his campaign and shared his ad copy with his vendor.  Lesson learned by the client: Scaling up a modest program is much more cost effective than scaling back an overly ambitious program. The lesson the fulfillment house learned was to always find out the full details of a new client’s marketing plans before accepting the program, and to suggest a scalable solution that does not front-load the program with expenses.

So the next time your fulfillment vendor asks you an impertinent question, you’ll know that rather than challenging you, the true motivation is to provide the best service possible.  A fulfillment house’s continued success depends on satisfied customers, which is all they want for you and your program.

Top 5 Most Intrusive Questions Your Fulfillment Vendor Will Ask You (And Why They Want to Know) copyright © 2002 Veronika Noize.  All rights reserved.


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