Delivery management is a lot like comedy: timing is everything. Scheduled deliveries are scheduled for a reason; simply put, it matters what time they happen. In B2B deliveries, customers often have strong time window preferences that are rooted in serious business needs. Even parcel deliveries can be time sensitive, e.g. if you’re delivering medication or other similarly important goods.
All of which is precisely why it’s so strange that, for many operations, “on-time” just means “not late.” Sure, there’s plenty of use cases where no one is going to complain if a package shows up early, but when it comes to something big and bulky, for instance, being early can often be a real inconvenience.
The data we collected as part of our 2022 Big and Bulky Delivery Report bears this out. We found that a large percentage of consumers (31%) said that they considered early deliveries inconvenient—and 60% said that they’d be unlikely to purchase from the same business again after a delivery failed to arrive within the promised window.
The upshot from this is pretty clear: if you’re delivering early, particularly with big and bulky items, you’re risking repeat business from a large swath of customers. The question is, why is early delivery an issue, and how can you ensure that you’re actually meeting customer needs.
Why Do a Third of Customers Say that Being Early Is Just as Bad as Being Late?
Okay, first things first. What’s wrong with showing up early? For one thing, if you’re delivering to a consumer’s home, there’s no guarantee that they’ll even be there. Sure, the pandemic changed our expectations about how much time the average person spends at home, but the reality is that people often have to make special arrangements to be home during the promised delivery window, and anything outside that window is going to be inconvenient. If you’re really early, it may even result in a failed delivery—even though it’s the last thing either party wants.
If it’s a B2B delivery, the issues can get even more obvious. You might deliver to a construction site before there’s anywhere for the delivery to go. Or you might wind up in a restaurant’s parking lot during their lunch rush, when no one has time to accept the order and the manager’s frankly annoyed that you’re taking space.
This might make it seem like the problem with showing up early is the potential inconvenience—and it is—but it’s also the same problem as showing up late: lack of trust. Your customers want to be able to feel like they can trust you to keep your promises, and this extends to showing up at the right time perhaps more than anything else.
Challenges to Delivering at the Right Time
Of course, no one ever said that delivering right within the promised ETA window was easy. In some ways, a lot of things have to be going right for you to show up early, even if it's just that earlier deliveries took less time than anticipated. But, on another level, it likely means that your ETAs were off, which can signal larger planning issues.
Here are a few of the reasons that it’s so difficult to deliver at the right time in the first place:
- Estimating ETAs is challenging without the right technology: Accurate ETAs throughout a delivery run require you to effectively estimate not just travel times between stops but service times at the delivery sites, all of which might vary from product to product and driver to driver. Getting it right by hand with any real degree of precision is virtually impossible—instead, it requires an AI-powered solution that can use the accumulated data from past deliveries to generate incredibly granular predictions.
- Visibility is hard to come by: Simply put, if your last mile deliveries are a blackbox from the time the trucks leave the depot to the time they complete their last stops, it’s impossible to keep even the best laid plans on track. Even when you have data coming in from out in the field, it’s hard to make sure that you’re getting the right data at the right time. The result is that it’s not clear what’s happening over the course of the delivery run, which leaves you with little control over the outcomes.
- Maximizing your delivery capacity often involves guesswork: There’s real-time visibility that offers clarity on the day of delivery, but there’s also visibility into how much delivery capacity you actually have on any given day. It’s not uncommon for businesses to feel that they should be getting more deliveries out of their trucks and drivers than are. Often, this is a result of ineffective route optimization. To keep your operations cost-effective, you need to ensure that you’re delivering as much as you can per day, but you can’t risk late deliveries by loading up drivers with plans that don’t actually work.
- Customers need visibility too: Delivering at the right time isn’t just about hitting a time window that you calculated. It’s about doing what works for the customer—which means that you need to provide complete visibility into the delivery process from end to end. While our data found that there were big fractions of consumers who don’t like early deliveries, it found near universal support (90%) for customer order tracking.
3 Best Practices for Right-Time Deliveries
When push comes to shove, you really need to deliver at the right time—not early, and definitely not late. We’ve seen some of the reasons why it’s hard to do that, but what are the best practices that delivery organizations can leverage to ensure they meet their delivery windows and delight their customers?
Here are a few strategies for making that happen:
- Leverage AI: We gave a little bit of a spoiler for this one in the section above, but it really does bear a separate discussion. The trick to ensuring that your drivers arrive when your customers expect them is to use AI-powered delivery routing technology to generate highly accurate predictive ETAs as you’re creating delivery routes. This process really can’t be separated from the process of planning routes to begin with (since it directly reflects your delivery capacity), but the result of leveraging this kind of technology to optimize delivery routes is better capacity utilization, improved ETAs, and more efficient delivery operations overall.
- Prioritize true visibility: Real visibility is about having the right data in the right place at the right time. When your deliveries are already underway, that means live, up-to-minute order status updates that jump out at you from a single dashboard. If you have to hunt for the right information, it may be out of date by the time you find it, and your hopes of managing by exception—and delivering at the right time even when things aren’t going precisely to plan—will be thwarted. How do you make real visibility happen? By focusing on both data integration (i.e. connecting the right systems) and user experience (making critical information easy to spot).
- Connect with your customers: Again, 90% of customers want to track their orders. And when you keep your customers up-to-date throughout the delivery process, you have the chance to build trust by making—and keeping—delivery promises that actually work for your customers. The exact ins and outs will depend on your specific use case, but generally speaking you should be able to send your customers regular texts, emails, and calls with delivery updates and offer them a live tracking portal so they can see the exact status of the delivery once it’s underway. It’s hard to overstate how important this is for giving customers a feeling of control over their delivery experience and making them feel more confident that you’re actually going to deliver when you say you are.
If it seems like there’s a lot of talk of visibility in these best practices, that’s because it’s a crucial part of keeping your plans on track. When you have clarity into your operations at every step, your plans are actually optimized. When your plans are optimized, you can execute on right time deliveries and delight your customers by keeping your delivery promises.