How to sweat out supply chain issues
“We’ll sweat this out together”
A mantra that we, at Wicked Sheets, have been chanting both internally on the team and externally with our customers, “We’ll sweat this out together,” is a quote that came from one of my favorite operations consultants. He, among countless other team members, who have seen me break down in tears after the receipt of yet another email notifying me of yet another delay in our fabric delivery.
What went from an update each week from our logistics team in Chicago, slowly dwindled into one every two weeks, then three, then a month may even pass before we received an update on our shipment(s). To no fault of their own, they simply had no updates to report. And why not? This article will help you understand.
“Backlog reaches an all-time high”
This is a news headline that you never want to see as a small business owner and/or someone who recognizes the cosmic effect that reports like these have on our American economy. But especially do not want to see if your goods are sitting on one of those ships.
Guess which category Wicked Sheets falls into? Yep, all 3.
Yes, we are an American, woman-owned small business that found a fabric engineering company to produce their proprietary fabric overseas. (We can talk about how we need more domestic specialized fabric suppliers later, but for now, stay with me.) Pre-COVID we had made sizeable down payments on the fabric that we knew we needed per our annual forecast and the news that we were in the running to be listed on Good Housekeeping’s list of “The Best Sheets of 2021“.
Fast forward to COVID times when we, along with numerous other companies, pivoted to make masks. At first, the intention was just to use our scrap and provide them for free to all of our local organizations who didn’t make the first cut of front-line workers who needed PPE. Places like the Jefferson County Coroners, the local Kroger pharmacists, animal shelters, USPS carriers and package handlers, our team members, their family members, etc..
But then, the entire United States got wind of our high-quality, Certified asthma & allergy friendly, breathable masks (with no ear fatigue) and we sold more masks in 24 hours than we sold sheets in 2018. It was off to the races for us and the two best parts of this for me as a business owner were:
- I was able to keep my team employed and even hired 18 other “helpers” who had been laid off or were otherwise unable to work in order to produce masks.
- We started getting big contracts to make masks for government agencies, which made us feel like we were doing our part to help the community at large.
The downside, however, is that given the knowledge that we had about the Pandemic at the time and how long it may last, we made the untimely decision to start using our good fabric for masks, well beyond what we originally anticipated as a short-lived “COVID-related decision”. But, we kept in mind that we had other fabric on order and scheduled to be delivered soon so that we could get back to “business as usual” as a cooling sheet and sleep products company.
Soon, what was “on its way” became “unavailable” and “estimated shipping time unknown”. Due to the global uncertainty of what the Pandemic had in store for us, as well as the lack of empty shipping containers overseas since all of them were sent to America with personal protective equipment (PPE), the shipping backlog began. And with that, so did the “Great Supply Chain Breakdown 0f 2021”.
Sidebar: If you ordered masks from us back in March of 202o, you likely received an email from me referring to the “Great Elastic Shortage of 2021”. At a time when not a lot of people were laughing, this earned a few chuckles from our customers and some more notable shoutouts on Twitter. If you haven’t noticed yet, one of the themes I’m about to advise you on regarding how to handle extended delays and countless supply chain breakdowns, it’s that humor in transparency works.
How Wicked Sheets is handling extended shipping delays and countless supply chain breakdowns
If you are reading this, it is likely you are either one of two types of people:
- You are a current customer on my long and constantly growing list of “back-ordered customers”.
- You are a fellow small business owner facing what I face every morning when I open my email: fear.
Did I mention that my “long and constantly growing list of ‘back-ordered customers'” is chock full of the most patient, understanding, and supportive people that there are in this world? Well, get ready, because they (you) are about to get an immense amount of love from this struggling small business owner.
Why? Because without you, there would be no Wicked Sheets.
Before I share all of my wicked wisdom, let’s go back to what I said in the first paragraph. “who have seen me breakdown in tears upon the receipt of yet another shipping delay”. Misnomer number one about (small) business owners is that we are only in it for the money. Wrong. I make every single decision with my customer in mind and a lot of times, those decisions cost me more money than they generate.
Case in point, this article highlights the issues we have faced once our goods made it off of the water and onto land. The trucking delays are now becoming just as big an issue as the boats anchored out at sea. So the very expensive solution that we came up with was to fly to LA, rent a moving truck, and drive our fabric back to Louisville ourselves. At 5 months pregnant, I bought some compression socks and am ready and willing to do whatever it takes to save my company and serve my customers.
With every delay, comes another day of disappointed customers. With every delay, comes another day of knowing you have no control over “this thing” that makes your company live and breathe. With every delay, comes the fear that the past 13 years of my life as a founder will be anchored just like the boats that our fabric is sitting on. So why the tears? That’s why. I hate disappointing you, just as much as I hate disappointing myself and my investors.
So, here is my wicked wisdom.
Step 1: Remember, small business owner, what makes you different than the big companies you’re trying to compare yourself to.
You will never be able to ferry a private boat like Target or Wal-Mart to go and “grab your goods off the ship” in order to make sure that your customers “have a Christmas”. And if you can afford it, honey, you’re not a small business anymore. You’ve made it to the big leagues.
And no, you cannot/should not just send out a mass email to your customers explaining that “due to circumstances out of our control, your shipment will be delayed”. Instead, try Step 2.
Step 2: Send a personal (or at least personalized) email to your customers.
Use their name. Look up their order. Remember that small business owners typically have (personal) relationships with their customers and thus, deserve a personalized response or notification. It has taken me weeks to try and email every person on my list, but by George, I’m still doing it. Sometimes I only get 7-10 done in a day, but I find this to be far more beneficial than a cold, mass email.
At Wicked Sheets, we have tons of repeat customers so I take it upon myself to re-familiarize myself with them or their previous orders before reaching out. We sell products fit for sad, frustrating, or even embarrassing situations, like cancer, hyperhidrosis, or incontinence. Even though they might want to disappear after you know how much they sweat, they spent money with you and deserve to be seen. So be trustworthy and transparent.
Step 3: Be as transparent as you can with your customers.
In our situation, there have been a lot of times that I have had nothing to update my customers on other than “we are delayed”. And “we are delayed again”. It is a terribly unsatisfying state of affairs. And to a people pleaser like myself, in fact, it is torturous to send those disappointing emails.
But however torturous it may seem when you know you’re delivering bad news, it will be far less excruciating than when you’re sending an email to notify your customers that your company is closing. *Please pray that that isn’t the case for Wicked Sheets.
3a. How to be transparent when you do not have any updates to share: tell your customer just that. Ask them if they wouldn’t mind waiting it out with you a bit longer and that you will update them just as soon as you know something.
Step 4: Incentivize the patient; grow thick(er) skin with the impatient.
Within your budget, incentivize those who are patient and willing to work with you. Offer to include free shipping, if you haven’t already. Offer a free gift as a thank you for their patience. But go in knowing that you cannot please everyone. Not all customers, despite how nice you are or how many times you respond, are going to be willing to wait or understand. In those moments, remember to take perspective; they may be having just as shitty a day as you are or that their financial situation may have changed.
As much as it may hurt you to lose a customer, if you believe in your company and your product, there will always be another to take their place or they may even come back again later. But I can guarantee you that they will not come back if you respond like an asshole (because you are equally as upset and someone called you a “scammer”). Believe me, I know.
I will be the first to admit that I have responded quickly and emotionally to a customer before. He told me that I “should focus on my customers more and I would have a better business” and I had literally just spent the entire day emailing 30+ customers personally and had responded to SIX of his emails within 24hrs of receipt. Clearly, I’m over it…insert evil whence here.
Moral of the story: Some days you just can’t win.
By following the aforementioned steps and working to be a little bit more communicative each day, you are putting yourself in the best position to be successful. The more you communicate with your team and your customers, you will not feel so alone in the battle to overcome shipping delays and supply chain breakdowns. In fact, you will probably start feeling like you really can “sweat it out together”.
Wicked good wishes for continued success and overcoming obstacles, friends.
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