Is there anything as satisfying as getting home after a long day to find a package just waiting there for you? It’s like a dog who’s glad to see you but didn’t pee on the couch.

More often than not that package is from Amazon, even if the stuff inside isn’t. But the company has just ruffled everyone’s pages by moving into the delivery game. This post is about why that makes sense.

bizmarketer elizabeth williams last mile

Amazon is very good at owning the first mile. It’s ridiculously easy to find, order and pay for almost anything you need and a good many things you really don’t. That’s one bookend, and it’s very important to get absolutely right since screwing it up is guaranteeing lost revenue.

But the second most important mile is the last one because this is where things can go stupidly wrong. Like with a dryer: A few years ago we ordered a swell washer and dryer set from a place with an orange roof that wasn’t a Howard Johnson’s. Sure enough, a few days later, up pulls a truck and in come our new appliances. Which was great, except for the part where the dryer door was smashed. Not cool.

Did we want to keep it, wondered the delivery guys? No. We did not. We wanted them to take it away and bring us one that worked. So began days of fingers pointing at other fingers. The delivery guys aren’t responsible since clearly the damage happened at the warehouse; the distribution guys aren’t responsible for broken things shipped from the manufacturer; the retailer isn’t responsible for anything that happens after the credit card clears; the manufacturer isn’t responsible for stuff that happens after products leave the factory.

It was like one of those wedding dances that everyone in the room knows, except you. If not for a sales person who cared and was willing to help, we’d probably still be hanging out our laundry and scandalizing the neighbours.

I understand that stuff breaks and nobody likes it to be their problem, but I’m also quite sure that nobody in the marketing or sales departments of the retailer, manufacturer, distributor or delivery firm has any visibility into these last mile issues, beyond the part where they signed the contract to make it someone else’s problem. Too bad, because the last mile is fu*king sacred.

The Last Mile is Sacred

Whether you are a marketer getting that air freshener into someone’s bathroom, an IT shop turning up the new ERP or a chef sending that plate to table, if it all goes to shit in the last mile then why bother?

We leave so much of our last mile to chance in the form of other people. We trust unreliable delivery services, we put untrained people in our stores and on our help queues, we watch a million dollar ERP platform fail because it made so much sense to outsource the implementation and look the other way.

These sorts of things are the intersection of expectation and experience that defines a brand. Like most intersections, it’s the place accidents tend to happen, and the last mile is often that spot where we sneak a peek at our phone instead of executing a tricky turn and, well, now there’s paperwork.

So while people are wringing their hands about big, bad Amazon putting delivery people out of business, I see an opportunity. What if, instead of being the wildcard in a customer experience, last-mile folks could be a guarantor of a great experience? What if there were third parties so good and so efficient, it simply wouldn’t make any business sense for the brands who own the transaction to try to manage the last mile?

The Business Case for the Last Mile

I know, I know, that was the sunshine and roses those guys promised in the first place, and it was supposed to be enforced through a contract with claw backs and penalties blah, blah, blah. But somewhere along the way we began to believe a certain amount of breakage was acceptable, and it was just cheaper to have the supply chain yell at itself for a few days while the customer waited for a resolution, than to do it properly in the first place.

Amazon is standing up to that belief, and along the way pulling a whole bunch of cost and risk out of their ecosystem by owning the last mile.

But for vendors who aren’t Amazon, what if we could all stop arguing about who broke the dryer, and have a trusted partner who checked it at the warehouse, and didn’t let it on the truck, and who checked it again at delivery and took responsibility? Now imagine they hooked it up, showed the customer how to use it and took the packaging and old dryer away? That’s something, as a brand marketer, I would figure out a business case for, and I think it’s a part of Amazon’s business case, too.

At the very least here’s where I think marketers can do some digging.

  • What are all the touch points with your customer from the time they purchase to the time they receive your product or service?
  • How many third parties touch the transaction from the time the customer says yes?
  • What are the penalties for third parties who make a mess of things?
  • What incentives do you have for your third parties not to make a mess of things?
  • What is the customer experience when a mess of things is made anyway?
  • What reporting do you have to indicate whether or not messes are being made?
  • Do your customers have a clear escalation path for getting messes cleaned up?
  • If there is a high degree of real or potential messiness in your last mile, what is cost-benefit of getting more or less involved in it?

If you are thinking Amazon is an outlier here, I think they are actually just the most visible part of a trend. In case you missed it, Ikea quietly bought TaskRabbit last year to solve one of its most irritating last mile issues – the putting together of the bookshelves – and I will be unsurprised to see a fresh focus by bigger brands on the last mile experience.