Blaming drivers and expecting them to solve problems that may be driven by failures in other areas of an operation can be counter-productive.
Pity the in-home delivery driver. He is the sieve through which an entire furniture-buying transaction drains. This poor unfortunate is fated to fulfill the obligations of his fellow warehouse men; indeed, the furniture-making establishment itself. He may be chided and blamed, forced to work in the elements among hurried and careless “four wheelers,” prodded along by an impossible time schedule, denied a means of communication yet scolded when he does not call in.
What am I getting at? Simple: It’s high time that we stop trying to figure out how to solve all of our furniture delivery problems by blaming drivers. If you answer ‘yes’ to at least one of the following five questions, you may be co-responsible or even wholly responsible for problems often blamed on drivers.
- Do you as an owner, pay enough to retain top-notch drivers, or do you settle?
- Do you provide drivers with any real training other than making them subject to a “lead person” who himself may never have been trained?
- Do you prefer not to examine the contents of what leaves the warehouse, instead relying on your drivers to repair everything or bring it back?
- Do you have a real deluxer or repairman on-site, instead of relying on the guy in your warehouse who assures you “he can fix it” and clearly can’t?
- Do you provide pads, load locks, straps, bands, E-track, or other tools to protect and secure the load?
I could go on. Look, folks, I own and operate my own business, and any one of you could come in and find fault with me in a heartbeat. We’re all keenly aware of each other’s faults but never our own! And the fact is, if I don’t learn, for example, that my business structure is costing me plenty of tax deductions, or that my lacquering method could be simplified and made 80% more effective with a $1000 investment, I might not have a repair shop much longer. Sobering facts. So the hit list above represents several sobering facts that you have to face as an owner of a much more complicated business than mine.
It’s all about who brought you to the dance, isn’t it? After all, many retail owners and managers were introduced to furniture by way of the sales floor, and were never encouraged to wander into the dusty warehouse to learn the back end. To these otherwise talented managers, “blush eliminator” might as well be an off-color joke after a whisper of seduction. If your profit margins are squeezed and back-end operations are having problems, it is only natural to ask, “who is sucking the wind out of my company’s sails?” Often the answer heard over and over again is, “damage on delivery!”
Damaged on delivery
Stupid drivers! Honestly, can they ever manage to deliver something without tearing it up? Management convenes and agrees something must be done. In response, driver meetings are held. Some delivery people are fired, and promising newcomers replace them. Incentive (or penalty) plans are created. Uniforms are purchased, and each team gets a cell phone to use. Paperwork is simplified a bit. Consultants are brought in to train the drivers to make repairs. And while all of this may help, the real problems are never addressed.
Each store department or functional area such as customer service, repair, sales, order status and receiving must be managed and tweaked on a regular basis if it is to stay productive. If the receiving department experiences problems, the whole company will be affected.
A furniture store is like a human body. If the lungs don’t deliver oxygen to the blood, the whole body will be affected: brain, liver, muscles… all the cells. But the real problem may not be with the lungs. A coronary artery blockage may be reducing blood flow to the lungs... mental distress may be causing hyperventilation and an associated buildup of pulmonary CO2 … or the person may be holding his nose!
Similarly, blaming drivers and expecting them to solve the problems that may be driven by failures in other areas of an operation can be counter productive.
It is true that some delivery people often don’t perform their jobs in the best way possible, and others are downright slack. As a retail manager, I remember covering for guys who decided not to show up for work because they had overslept, were drunk or in jail.
Your delivery people may not be angels, but when you are looking for solutions to problems that become painfully obvious at delivery, you should diagnose the problem by considering entire back-end operation.
Start by defining the ultimate goal and establishing benchmarks for your warehouse. (Editor’s note: The FURNITURE WORLD article, “Deliver Customer Satisfaction” by Dan Bolger posted to the Operations Index on furninfo.com at http://www.furninfo.com/operations/bolger0401.html estimates that the best retailers have to make a service call due to product or delivery quality about 3% of the time, typical retailers are at about 6% and many are between 10% and 20%).
If you are shooting for 100% successful first-time deliveries and are shipping in the container, you might as well lower your target and settle for 90%.
A guy like me can train your drivers to make basic repairs, but there are only so many repairs a delivery person can make under the constraints of a busy delivery schedule, before the system begins to collapse. Examples of problems that a driver will not be able to correct under most circumstances include, but are in no way limited to: scratched tops; broken legs; badly crushed wood; season splits; missing chunks of wood; finish sheen or color mismatch.
Tops and crushed corners are probably the first and second most-common problems your operation encounters. For a driver, the depth of a scratch or crushed edge, the sheen of the finish, and the overall environmental conditions (repair outside, already late, customer watching), might make these repair attempts a vain effort.
The only way to know what you are up against is to open, inspect, assemble, deluxe and/or repair and wrap each piece of furniture you sell. Manufacturers frequently mess up, and inspectors don’t catch every problem. Inbound drivers drop stuff. So do receivers and the people who pull and load goods for delivery. Once you start opening and inspecting everything... after furniture is assembled, deluxed and/or repaired and wrapped for delivery... only then can you reasonably hold your drivers responsible for delivery damages (provided you do not have an independent loading team).
Improved accountability is only one benefit of making the decision to open every box. Additional benefits will include:
- No more color and sheen mismatch complaints—everything will be right in front of you.
- No more refusals due to damage that drivers cannot repair (unless they cause the damage).
- No more “wrong color” or “wrong item” refusals.
- Ability to load more furniture on the truck since it can be nested rather than cubed.
- Many more deliveries per truck since the furniture is already assembled, and since there is more on the truck.
- Potential need for fewer driver teams or trucks.
- Fewer cancelled sales (when the customer finds a split top and yells “Take it all back!!!”).
Shipping in the container is but one tripline on the proverbial battlefield for success. Take a walk around your warehouse and look for certain conditions that may predispose your freight to mishandling. For example:
•Do you require that all un-cartoned freight, be wrapped prior to storage? Placing unprotected furniture in racks can expose it to dirt and dust, contact damage, and fading.
•Do your people stack furniture in piles rather than singly, or in the racks? A chair leg poking a dining table top may scratch the finish if the chair is shoved to one side to make room for something else. Do you have racks to help you accomplish this? Racks by their very nature prevent stacking since space is restricted. If you do, are certain bays specialized to accept unusual shapes, like a rack for glass tops, or one for beds? Oddly-shaped items are the hardest to handle and often fall over unexpectedly if not properly stored.
- Are your receiving bays illuminated with dock lights so employees can see what they’re trying to unload, without it toppling over onto their heads? Trailers present up to fifty-three-feet of unlit space.
- Do you provide handtrucks that are easy to use, and are they properly maintained (tire pressure, padded)? A flat tire can topple a payload very quickly.
- Are plenty of dollies available to move furniture around the floor? Shoving furniture across a floor leads to broken legs, torn-out base mouldings and racked carcasses.
- If you do open and inspect, do you provide plenty of natural light? Cool fluorescent light is not what most people have in their homes, so use the light they do have; natural light spectrums are available in halogen, incandescent, natural and fluorescent forms.
- Do your deluxers have what they need to make the correct repairs? One color does not work for every finish; too many colors, however, can be superfluous. Find the middle ground.
- Has your staff been trained? Make sure they’ve been exposed to the latest techniques, and send them to the factories Pto learn specialized finishes if necessary.
- Is your shop equipped with a spray booth? A fresh coat of lacquer makes a world of difference with regard to top repairs.
- Do repair people know how to work on every type of finish you’ve bought? If not, train them, or buy those finishes you know they’ll be able to fix.
The best repair shop evaluation begins with a look at the entire operation. The best way to curtail repairs is to prevent them. While training your drivers is an excellent way to protect yourself against lost sales due to minor damages, it cannot be a panacea for the entire operations’ ills. Your management team must also be strong enough to demand the highest level of performance possible from all warehouse employees. Sometimes the best revisionary policies fall flat because the warehouse manager doesn’t want to be “mean.” The most effective managers balance kindness with firmness. It is not a given that opening and deluxing will help; you must back it up with solid, unyielding managers who will represent your interests on the warehouse floor. A solid manager can pat employees on the back and say “nice job” but will not settle for a half-hearted attempt: The end result of all those half-efforts, you see, may be his termination.
By addressing your operation as a set of units rather than as a whole, you can begin to analyze the effectiveness of each unit, dissecting it to discover its strengths and weaknesses. It may be that a simple procedural change will result in a 5% improvement in productivity; it might also mean a $10,000 investment in equipment. The final decisions are yours to make, and you may need to bring in a consultant to present options and probable outcomes.
Peter Schlosser is a quality control manager living in middle Tennessee. He is a contributing editor to Furniture World where he writes about service, repair and backend operations. Questions on any aspect of this article or furniture repair can be directed to Peter Schlossser at