SCM Fundamentals: Customer Orders: Part 2

SCM Fundamentals: Customer Orders: Part 2

In the last post we looked at what types of customer demand you can expect to see in your system.  Now we will look at what information will be on the actual order that you get from the customer.  This is important because by accepting the order you are in effect entering into a form of contract with them.  You need to be certain that every element of that agreement is in line with your understanding.

What will be on an order?  Well, the layout may vary but there will be some common information on an order when it comes into your company.  I have given you an example of what a typical order may look like but be aware that while it will contain the same information it may appear different from customer to customer. Don’t get hung up on the layout. Focus more on the information.

You will have the date that it was ordered.  This is important because this is the date that leadtimes etc will be based upon.  In some cases, you may also have the time as some service level agreements will have conditions around the time an order is placed. For example, Next Day delivery if placed before 12 noon.  This is important because you may not want to be in a situation where a customer can place an order at 7pm for delivery the following morning.  You should also be aware of time differences if working with international customers.  For example, say you are based in France and claim that all orders placed by 12 noon will be delivered by noon the following day. What happens if you receive an order from a US based customer for delivery the following day in their Paris office, but the order comes in at 5pm Central European time which is still before Noon in the US.  Once you accept a customer order you are in effect entering into a contract to supply the customer and as with any contract clarity is always required.

Delivery date.  This will be the date that the customer requires it delivered.  There may also be a delivery time if there is an assigned delivery slot or there may be an instruction to phone to book into a slot.  If you attempt to deliver outside the agreed slot, then you will be penalised on your supplier performance score.  This date needs to be considered in conjunction with the date that the order was placed to calculate if lead times etc have been adhered to.  


You will most likely have two addresses. One is the Bill to address and one is the ship to address. These may be the same but frequently they will not.  For example, one supermarket chain I dealt with in the past had a chain of stores around the UK. Those stores were served by 10 distribution centres around the UK.  Those distribution centres were stocked from a third-party logistics centre in the centre of the UK. And finally, payment was made by their international headquarters in Germany. 

So, we would receive orders from each of the distribution centres. We had to consolidate that demand into a single delivery to the third-party central logistics centre who would then ship the products onto the distribution centre. But we had to send the invoice to Germany who would then pay us 30 days later.  So, in this case the ship to would be the third-party logistics centre in the UK and the bill to would be the headquarters in Germany. BUT we would also need to make sure the individual pallets were labelled with the distribution centre that the logistics centre had to ship it to.  So, you can see why it is important to have very clear ship to and bill to addresses on the order.

PO Number:  This stands for Purchase Order Number.  We are talking here in this section about customer orders but remember your customer order is their purchase order.  This is important because all documentation related to this order must contain this number. Delivery dockets, invoices, etc.  This is the number that acts like a key on the customer’s system.  This number will be pulled up on their system in every interaction you have with them on this order. And it is not just to be awkward or to make your life difficult.  I have been on the customer’s side on this issue.  I have seen hauliers turn up with full trucks for delivery and no documentation to support the delivery. So, my team had to spend a lot of time and effort trying to work through the delivery and figure out what purchase order this relates to.  Often if the material on the delivery is not urgently required the delivery will simply be rejected.  Likewise, I have seen invoices come in from suppliers not referencing the PO we sent them.  This again causes lots of work for the finance department to try and match up the items on the delivery with open orders on the system.  When you get a PO number from the customer you must have your system set up so that that number can go on all documentation and correspondence with your customer.

Item codes: You may have two item codes on the order.  One will be your item code and one will be their item code. Different companies use different item code systems.  Some can be a simple numeric code something like 101 or 12345.  Others could be more complex codes such as COH507XL-EU

That code may make no sense to you but someone at the customer or in your business it would make total sense. In this case it means Company, Hip, Product range 507, Extra-large size, With the documentation required for the European Union.  I know it means that because I literally just made it up as I was writing this article. But I have based it on the coding structure I saw at a major multinational. 

So, item codes will vary from company to company.  If you are lucky, or if you have requested it from them, the supplier may include your code on the order along with their code. But they may just put their code on the order.  In my experience most ERP systems allow you to put both codes on the database. Therefore, customers and suppliers should work together to make sure both codes are contained on the order. But if the customer refuses to do so and will only give you their code then you should at least have their code on the system. Do not rely only on the description of the product on the order. That will almost certainly result in costly mistakes.

Description.  This is the item description. I have just stated that it should not be used as the only way to identify what the customer is ordering but it should be used as a double check.  It doesn’t happen often, but I have seen customers order items that did not match the description on our system.  This especially happens with first time orders where they may be ordering off a catalogue and someone is manually typing in the code and description.  So, it is useful for them to tell you both the code and what they think it means.  

Quantity For a lot of companies this will be straight forward.  If you sell cars, then the order will be for a number of cars.  But that is not always clear.  For example, I worked for a meat processor where we sold cases to retailers.  A case might contain 10 individual packs of Ribs. Each pack weighs around 500g.  Those cases would be on a pallet with 70 cases per pallet.  So, most companies would order Cases.  But some would order in pallets, some in units and some in weight.  We had to convert orders into the correct units for our system. 

And of course weight isn’t always clear.  If someone says to you on the phone, “I would like to order a tonne of your product” what is the first question you should ask?

Spell Tonne.  Believe it or not Tonne and Ton are different weights.  So it is important that the quantity on the order is an agreed standard and ideally is an agreed order multiple etc.

Also, you may find that agreements between companies may contain a range plus or minus.  This often happens when there is a bulk process, and it is hard to hit an exact number or quantity.  For example, in the meat industry it can be difficult to hit a precise tonnage of meat due to the different weights, sizes and shapes of animals. So, you will find there will be a tolerance built into the order that says a supplier can be over or under by a certain amount.  As a planner you need to factor this into your plans so that you do not end up short to your customer or do not end up with stock you cannot sell. 

You may find that some unscrupulous suppliers will try to take advantage of a vaguely worded order tolerance. For example, I worked for a company that had an agreement with a supplier that they could supply plus or minus 5% over the order (this was for plastic bottles) and their manufacturing process apparently was not accurate enough to allow them cut off at a precise number and the bottles were bespoke to us.  So, one day a member of my team came into my office and told me she had noticed something strange about the recent deliveries from that supplier. They were all over what we had ordered, and we were building up some excess stock in the warehouse.  We reviewed the spreadsheet of deliveries and very quickly a pattern emerged in the numbers.  They were delivering exactly 5% over on each order.  Basically, they had improved their manufacturing process and now could hit the number far more precisely. However rather than tell us that they decided to increase their sales by 5%. I am not sure how they hoped to get away with this long term. Perhaps they hoped that they as a relatively small supplier to a large multinational would not get noticed. But they did.  Their sales rep was in my office the following morning and had to negotiate a price decrease for the rest of the year to keep our business.  So be careful as either a customer or a supplier that quantity ranges put into an agreement in good faith are only used in good faith.

Unit Price. This will be the price per unit.  It is important that this is on the customer order as in effect the order is a legally binding document and once you accept it and acknowledge the order you are agreeing to supply to that quantity for that price.  Yes, down the line you may get lawyers involved and a court may find that the order was not legally binding but at that point you have wasted so much time and money you will regret not having this clarified up front.  You would think that the price would be agreed and set well in advance of the order being placed but it can change even with the longest standing customer.  For example, there may be annual price reviews where both parties sit down and agree prices for the coming year.  Where a disagreement arises is one party may think the new price comes into effect immediately and another may think it comes into effect at the start of the next fiscal year. 

Also, sometimes the new price may be agreed by sales but not communicated to other departments.  I have seen it happen on numerous occasions in different companies.  You query a price from a customer only to find out the salesperson agreed the new price for this order when he visited them last week.  Salespeople are great with dealing with the customers.  But so many of them are not great with dealing with their own company administration.  So, the unit price should always be listed on the order and any discrepancy clarified before the order is accepted.

Total Price.  This is just the unit price multiplied by the quantity ordered.  It should be a relatively simple calculation.  But it can highlight some discrepancies in the order.  For example if they order in pounds (lb) but use a price per kg then the numbers won’t add up.  It rarely happens but this is more of a sense check that the total price on your system matches the total on their order and if it does not then something has gone wrong somewhere along the line.

How will the order come into you?  So now that we have looked at what information the order will contain how will you receive that order?  You may think that all orders will come in online. That is best practice and that is what many of the universities teach their students.  Then you hire a student on work experience from college and the first time they have ever seen a fax machine is when it starts spitting out sheets beside them. 

In the real-world orders are received in several different ways. Yes, some are high tech and modern, but many companies still use the old ways they trust.  Unless you are a large company able to dictate terms to customers you must be flexible to be able to take orders in whatever way they want to give them to you. This includes what I call direct ways.  These include

  • In person: You could have someone call into your shop of company office and place an order.
  • On the Phone: Someone could phone in their order
  • Via post: It doesn’t happen very often but every now and then it does.
  • Via fax: I physically hate fax machines (and given the rate at which they break down for me the feeling is mutual) but for some reason, that defies logic, they are still quite common in some industries.
  • Via e-mail: This is now the most common form of what I’ll describe as direct communication from the customer to the company.

The one thing all these direct methods have is you as a supplier must have a process in place to manually enter all this information into your system.  Every ERP system will allow orders to be manually entered.

Online: This is the process that we are all most familiar with as individuals.  We order something from an online store, and it gets delivered to our homes.  Well, this happens for companies also.  There are lots of online store providers that companies can use. The likes of Shopify, WooCommerce etc make it very easy to “trade online” by making it very easy to set up an online shop.  You need someone in your office to maintain that system, but it is relatively easy to do these days.  I would sit online ordering between the manual process and the fully automated process because it can be both.  Depending on the ERP system you have you may be able to integrate orders from your online system directly into your ERP system.  Or you may need someone to manually enter the data.  It really depends on the system you have.  

EDI: This is the fully automated process.  It is called Electronic Data Interchange. This is where the ERP systems of both the customer and the supplier directly communicate with each other, so the order gets loaded into the system.  There may be a step where someone checks the data before confirming it but in companies where there are a lot of orders or where a relationship of trust exists between the customer and supplier then the orders may go through without being checked.  So now you should know what makes up customer demand and how it will come into your company and how your company will process it. 

There is one final step. 

Acknowledge the order.

Once you are happy with everything on the order and have entered it on your system then you should acknowledge receipt of the order back to the customer.  This gives them confirmation that you have received the order and will supply it on time and in full.  You can’t just let customers assume that the order has been received. For example, if you order something from an online shop you expect an e-mail from them very quickly with details of your order.  Well, the same thing applies in Business-to-Business orders.  Most ERP systems have an option to do this automatically.  But if the order has come in in person then there may be a disconnect between the system and the customer. You must have someone in your office who is responsible for this communication.