Back to basics: Remembering the human side of automation

Brandon Fried, executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association

A review of a recently published investment firm survey on freight forwarder customer sentiment proved quite surprising – despite what the news tells us about “what customers want.” More than 1,500 shippers answered questions about their selection preferences and areas of concern when choosing major forwarder transportation providers.

Because digitalization is a constant topic in the news as an essential requirement to assure forwarding success, the highest-ranking answers in the survey were expected to have included automation and technology as primary customer concerns – but they did not.

The results are not to say that automation of freight forwarding processes isn’t top of mind for customers and forwarders alike. Many believe that the efficient handling of shipment data is as critical as on-time delivery. For these modern supply chains, real-time updates on the status, location and expected delivery date of a shipment is an essential component of success.

What the results did show, and what is surprising to many in the industry, is how little overarching customer expectations have changed during the last few decades. In other words, shippers still demand the same set of minimum deliverables, or “hot buttons,” from their forwarders with no significant change expected. Sure, technology and automation are essential, but not as much as many in the industry might think.

Some of the highest-ranking measures of concern in the survey included “normal” expectations, such as shipments delivered with no shortages or damages, efficient execution of pickup and delivery, accurate invoicing, knowledge of global regulatory compliance and overall value for the money spent. The ranking of these requirements came long before the ability to accurately track shipments from origin to destination, timely notification of delays and using a highly trusted freight forwarder.

A primary necessity reported by respondents was the ease of contacting the right person for help, and effective problem resolution. Indeed, technology such as chat bots and artificial intelligence in customer service delivers a pretty impressive performance, but the survey indicates it is still falling short, compared with the ability to speak with a real and knowledgeable person when things don’t go according to plan.

However, other aspects of the freight forwarding industry have benefited tremendously from automating many of the services that once required human interaction. Take the bid process for example. Thanks to interactive technology applications, freight marketplaces exist that allow shippers to enter their shipment specifications and often receive instant quotes quickly. While there are exceptions based on unusual shipment specifications and destination requirements, the waiting time required for rate estimating has shortened considerably.

Overall, this survey seems to indicate that digitalization is changing freight forwarding for the better in a way that allows us to provide some, but not all, aspects of the shipping process more efficiently. However, many of the primary areas of concern expressed in the survey point to the human factor where automation may be a tool but is not a solution itself. Technology continues to change the forwarding business, as it has for decades, but according to the survey it has yet to replace old-fashioned human interaction.

Many successful forwarding companies and their customers agree that people must always be part of the process, but automation must be leveraged wherever possible to increase efficiency. Forwarders understand that the manner in which services are delivered, problems are solved, and new services are developed are all just as important as the actual on-time performance of the shipment. Managing these requirements while still involving people in the process will achieve the most success.

The forwarding industry continues to improve its service reliability thanks not only to advances in automation but to increased competition from previously unlikely sources. Amazon, once a small bookseller, is now one of the broadest product distribution providers in the world, thanks to proprietary technology that provides efficiencies in warehousing, procurement, transportation and even grocery sales. Despite leveraging automation in assuring its virtual retail success, the corporation continues to employ thousands of people behind the scenes, making its exemplary service performance possible.

The great lesson to be learned from the Amazon example is that, in the long run, the employees standing behind automation are critical to successfully providing the vital service requirements that have not changed in years. Indeed, essential customer service prerequisites may seem more important to customers than automation itself, but a failure to embrace technology may open doors of opportunity for companies that could one day be your competitor.

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