White vans have been in the news a lot recently, most notably as a result of the Labour MP Emily Thornberry’s disastrous tweet during the recent Rochester by-election. Beyond the political landscape they have also featured in one of the more intriguing statistics of 2014, which reveals dramatic growth in sales of the ubiquitous white van over the past 12 months; and what lies behind this growth has major implications for customer experience.

The reason for this is simple. A major factor driving the sales of white vans – forgive the pun – is the surge in online deliveries. Having spent a fortune on training, IT and software to improve the consumer ‘journey’ many companies now find themselves at the mercy of white van-man at what is frequently – and increasingly – the only time the customer will actually experience any human contact. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with white van drivers – beyond their reputation for ‘cutting up’ motorists and despite Emily Thornberry’s apparent views on their political allegiances – but any customer touch-point outside a brand’s control creates a risk for customer experience.

A key issue, which even companies that control and manage their own fleets of vehicles seem to forget, is that the actual delivery is one of the most critical touch-points in the entire customer journey. A few examples taken from recent customer tweets demonstrate why:

“So now it’s an @Argos_Online let down – no order confirmation, no choice of delivery time, late and lazy driver, parts missing. Bravo”

“Incredibly RUDE and obstinate @WAITROSE delivery driver this morning”

“I am never using @Tesco Home Delivery again. RUDE customer services and now RUDE delivery driver. Not what you need when nursing a sick baby”

Sometimes there are specific reasons why people use online deliveries, such as the person with a sick baby in the above examples, but in an increasingly hectic world the majority of consumers simply expect their goods to be delivered on time, efficiently and politely. It does not need a PhD in customer experience to see that late deliveries and unhelpful or even rude delivery drivers are going to create significant problems to the extent that many customers will never use that company again.

What is more, research* conducted during the summer of 2014 revealed that almost half (47%) of UK adults are less likely to use a retailer’s “bricks and mortar” stores if they have a bad experience with the SAME retailers online delivery service. In other words a bad online shopping experience will significantly affect whether or not people will shop in-store at the same retailer.

There is, however, another side of the coin. It is a fallacy that consumers will only comment on social media if they have a problem or want to make a complaint, as the following tweets reveal:

“@OCADO yep. 35 mins LATE. DRIVER was very friendly though”

“@Asda A big thank you to the driver who delivered my shopping this morning. LOVELY guy & exceptional service.Thank you”

The point here, of course, is that just as an unhelpful and impolite delivery driver can push customers into the arms of a competitor, a polite and helpful driver can cement a relationship and dramatically improve loyalty. In case you might be wondering just how big a problem – or opportunity – this might be it is worth bearing in mind that Twitter posts about delivery drivers typically generate about 25% of those for websites, which themselves drive large numbers of consumer comments. So this is not a trivial matter.

Last but not least, what might companies take from this to enable them to improve customer experience in 2015? Clearly, brands using their own delivery vehicles should be doing more to improve standards at the delivery touch-point. Here, the need for more training is obvious but companies should also consider incentivising their own drivers to maintain high standards.

As for brands that use third-party delivery services the solutions are less obvious. Larger companies clearly have much greater influence and ‘clout’ over their courier services than smaller ones where pressure on margins will tempt them to use the cheapest option. Cheapest, however, is not always best, especially when you realise that a delivery driver might be the only human contact thousands of your customers experience throughout the whole purchasing process. Alternatively, a brand could look at click and collect, but whichever way you look at it this is one customer experience issue that is only going to get bigger as more and more UK consumers buy online.

*Survey of 1,000 UK adults carried out by SpectrumInsight during August, 2014

Mark Westaby Mark Westaby
Mark Westaby founded social insight specialists, SpectrumInsight, following the sale of one of the world’s largest independent media evaluation companies, Metrica, which he also started.  As well as being a director of the Portfolio PR Group for 20 years, he also chaired the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication for over four years.  Mark is a regular speaker at universities, conferences and seminars.  

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