For every education business with which I am familiar, the last year (and more) can only be remembered as tough. We know too well the obvious challenges brought about by the global pandemic. However, the ripple effect of the pandemic caused issues we never imagined. As each wave of new obstacles hit with long and wide-reaching tentacles, companies such as Follett were forced to pivot, bob, weave, and rethink how we fulfill our commitment to our customers.
With that in mind, a difficult year called for a difficult message to our customers. Under normal circumstances, we would send a happy message wishing everyone a happy summer and a restful break. But due to the challenges we’re seeing in our business at Follett and throughout the industry’s supply chain, this year I felt the need to take a different approach. I wanted to share the letter my company sent to 500,000 librarians, teachers, and district leaders:
This spring, I spent a few weeks in Texas taking care of my nephew Knox. His dad, who was critically injured and lost three limbs in Afghanistan, was undergoing surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD.
Knox and I went to a theme park, and the seven-year-old convinced me to join him on what was quite possibly the most frightening, intense ride I’ve experienced.
THE JOKER™: Carnival of Chaos is a ride that swings up to death-defying heights, then plummets quickly towards the ground, before doing it all over again.
This past school year and that ride have a lot in common.
Like the rest of the world, the past 15 months have been filled with highs and lows at Follett. While we have had 150 years of experience in understanding the peaks and valleys of our business, this year has been an anomaly.
Now, we’re on the upswing with you.
I know some of you are waiting too long to receive your book order.
I know some of you have been frustrated by instability in Destiny®.
I know some of you want us to build eBook and Destiny features faster to keep up with teacher and student demand you’re seeing for digital resources.
As Follett’s leader, I apologize to those of you who did not receive the level of service that you, and we, expect.
In the past three months, all the orders we didn’t see during the height of the pandemic hit at once. We’re increasing staff as quickly as possible to handle the orders, but we haven’t kept pace with demand.
Much like other industries across the country, every aspect of our supply chain is facing stress. We’re even struggling to get materials like binder board for FollettBound® books and paper for our Follett Book Fair flyers.
To help mitigate these issues, we’re expanding our fulfillment capabilities at our facilities, and we’ve added bonuses to support our staff in working through the backlog of orders as quickly as possible.
To continue to improve Destiny Discover®, we’ve accelerated the development of the key features we know you need so they are ready for fall. We’re continuing to work to improve the stability of our technology platforms to handle the double-digit increase in usage we’ve seen during the pandemic.
Back in Texas…
Despite waiting in line for an hour and a half, when we got off the ride, Knox looked at me with joy and said, “Let’s do it again.”
I wasn’t about to get on that ride again, and I certainly hope we don’t ever have to repeat the events of this past year.
On behalf of the Follett team, I want to thank you for turning to Follett for your business and thank you for your continued patience. Please know, we are committed to doing everything we can to return to normal levels of service despite the ups and downs.
Since sending this letter, I received responses from many customers who appreciated the additional color and information about the challenges facing the industry that services education. It’s important to realize that honesty and understanding often go hand in hand – by admitting we were not prepared for the extent of the supply chain challenges that hit, but that we were doing our best—our customers were gracious and supportive, for the most part. It’s clear that portions of our supply chain are pressured, and our publisher partners have the same hiring, staffing, and paper-sourcing challenges, and in some cases have reduced the number of new titles they are producing to accommodate.
As the head of a publishing company shared with me, “The supply chain and hiring challenges are real. The difficulty securing paper (and board) combined with lack of staffing at the printers have caused disruption in our supply chain,” said Ben Mondloch, who heads up Cherry Lake Publishing Group. “Volume is up, which is good, and along with that comes the assumption that life would get easier, but my job has never been more challenging. Every day, I feel like I’m letting our customers down because we can’t get them the products that they need/want. Frustrating.”
“Britten’s roller coaster analogy could not be more apt to describe the level of sea-sickness so many in our industry experienced during this challenging year of COVID-19,” said Roger Rosen, President and CEO at Rosen Publishing. “At Rosen, we have weathered the storm through the grit and dedication of our team and the common cause we made with so many of our colleagues such as Britten and the Follett organization. We, too, are experiencing hiring challenges in our warehouse operation and have had so many of our fulfillment staff pulling overtime and working every weekend to keep up with demand as society has been getting back to normal. We are all striving to provide the highest level of service to our esteemed customers, and I can see bright lights at the end of this tunnel.”
Another colleague, Benjamin Conn, CEO of the Classroom Library Company, also shared his thoughts on supply chain issues. “This year has been the most challenging by far,” Ben told me. “For my company, getting books from publishers has been the biggest hurdle in our post-COVID recovery. Prior to COVID, we would receive books in as little as two business days; in some cases, we are now waiting five weeks for books from major publishers that they have in stock. Customers are understanding to a point, but they need materials for instruction, so the supply chain issues directly spiral down to the classroom. Business is slowly returning to normal. But only time will tell.”
‘Now Hiring’ signs are around every corner, creating significant challenges filling jobs. At Follett, we’ve held two job fairs to fill as many as 120 positions in our McHenry, Illinois warehouses. Despite multi-channel marketing campaigns, attendance/sign-on bonuses, and an increase in our base wage, we have only been able to hire an additional 15 team members during the past two months.
While these are difficult times, I am truly optimistic as the world and our schools reopen. I feel certain that the entire supply chain and delivery experience will continually improve with our renewed focus and attention. Most of all, we appreciate patience and understanding more than ever, as we have always known that teaching and learning never stop (as every educator proved this past year!) and learning tools are critical and timeliness is essential.
Mostly, I look forward to seeing the new face of education as we emerge from the pandemic.