Meet the Masters: Bill Black
As president of Black & Co., a consulting firm serving the publishing and direct marketing industries, Bill Black has worked with virtually all major book and magazine publishers. Throughout his many years of service to both industries, Black has crystallized a reputation for being the foremost authority on fulfillment. Black's first-hand fulfillment knowledge was gleaned from being owner and marketer of "The Classics of Golf" for a number of years. He now pauses to reflect on the ideal fulfillment manager, the peskiest products to deliver to consumers and his favorite golf course.
Q: How did you get into the fulfillment business?
A: I got into the fulfillment "business" when I went to work for my cousin's mail-order book publishing business, Walter J. Black, Inc., as marketing manager. Eventually I became CEO, and fulfillment, of course, was part of the job. I went to work there right out of college because my cousin's top aide fell out of a canoe and drowned. Publishing is, after all, the "accidental profession."
Q: What qualities make for a good fulfillment manager?
A: Good fulfillment managers are honest and upfront when things go wrong. If staff levels are low and things can't get shipped on time, they don't hide it. If the local post office is being a pain, they won't try to bury the issue. If the warehouse is poorly laid out and it's taking too long to pick and pack orders, they'll surface the issue.
Bad managers try to bury problems, pass blame, and cover up. The truth will come out.
Q: Which merchants execute almost flawless delivery to customers?
A: Almost flawless delivery can be found in many places these days. It's become much more the norm than before. Excellent consumer experiences are the expected level of performance from Amazon.com, L.L. Bean and plenty of others. Where fulfillment falls down is on the customer service end, particularly in reconciling billing disputes and charges. That's much more frequently found.
With Federal Express, United Parcel Service (UPS) and various services from the United States Postal Service (USPS) now available to all, simply getting the product to the customer is much easier.
Q: How has the Internet impacted the fulfillment process?
A: The Internet has completely changed what people expect from the fulfillment process in that they now expect immediate, accurate and accessible information about their account and package shipment. That's now the norm, and any company that does not link its shipment information to the customer account level is in big, big trouble. People just won't stand for that lack of information any longer.
Q: What are some of the most difficult products to fulfill?
A: Products that are difficult to fulfill, I think, are ones that have perceived regularity in their arrival. I know that Sports Illustrated is due in my house every Thursday. When it's late, I get mad. Magazines have another fulfillment blind spot in their persistent refusal to offer automatic renewal charged to your credit card.
The concept that I need to renew my Sports Illustrated subscription that has been in place since 1954 (my uncle founded it) is truly absurd. And that practice is all across the magazine businessstupid and thoughtless.
Q: Have you heard or experienced any good fulfillment flub stories over the course of your career?
A: There are plenty of fulfillment flub stories; most far too painful to relate. Careers have been ruined, and businesses weakened by fulfillment snafus.
Q: If you could choose another line of work, what would it be?
A: A golf pro.
Q: What's your favorite golf course?
A: Walton Health, outside of London, where I'm an overseas member.