Many of us started our careers in freight forwarding learning how to use the Telex machine to send alerts to destination cities, requiring the typing of shipment information into an awkward device that produced a yellow tape that ultimately transmitted the data. The process was tedious by today’s standards, but when it was combined with a telephone call to confirm that the station had received the information, it was the most advanced technical benchmark of the era.
Now, with the advent of e-commerce and other factors that have driven an unprecedented increase in shipment volume, the cargo industry is experiencing another extraordinary technological transformation to digital systems. Consequently, a new set of automation standards is needed to compete effectively and achieve success.
Forwarders and their airline partners realize that the customer base is changing from a group with limited technology skills to the millennial workforce that has never experienced life without the internet. This new generation is paper-averse and demands full digitalization of freight-forwarding operations, with automation in each step in the process. This includes the booking, monitoring and oversight of air, truck, rail and ocean shipments, as well as the customs clearance and customer interaction process. Providing an online platform for customers is becoming standard practice, but before that can happen forwarders must be sure they have a user-friendly and intuitive website.
Regardless of which generation is using the online platform, customers now demand speed and efficiency on websites, with lots of features conducive to making the process easier. Some good benchmark examples are sites furnished by banks and retailers. Pages need to load quickly and be free of inaccessible site links, bad grammar or inefficient content. Being mobile-friendly is now essential, since smartphone technology is swiftly becoming a primary mode of technology interaction.
Most shippers today want to use websites as efficient information platforms, helping to avoid the need to have to talk with people. But no technological solution works perfectly, so it’s prudent to provide a regularly monitored chat function that is staffed most hours of the day to maintain peak efficiency. Customers want fast responses to website inquiries, including shipment tracking and, of course, cost quotes. One of the primary reasons shippers leave a vendor these days is the inability to provide instant price estimates.
Providing web-based automation for customers has become a corporate imperative for any freight forwarder or airline in the cargo business. However, as in a restaurant kitchen, no matter how tantalizing food items may appear on the menu, none will meet the taste test if the chef and staff lack the knowledge and motivation to cook the dishes well. Management and employee buy-in are critical, so that the whole company remains committed to the process of digitally enabling shipment transactions and, to a certain extent, customer service.
Another key concern is computer security and data privacy. Canada and the European Union have developed data use regulations that, if disregarded, could come at a high price for service providers. Forwarders should provide ready access to a transparent privacy and data retention period policy, along with a system that responds quickly to privacy-related inquiries.
Online platforms should be a useful tool to inform users of service information and new product opportunities. Providing space for upcoming delivery enhancements, operating schedules and company capabilities can help validate sales teams’ marketing efforts and hopefully generate discussion during personal interactions with customers.
There is a limit, however, to this wave of automation. Despite the efficiencies for both the customer and service provider with online portals, some shippers still prefer personal interaction with their freight transportation supplier. Providing incentives for those using the online platform is a great idea to improve utilization rates, but forwarders should not penalize customers who chose not to use the website for transactions. Forwarding is still a business of people, and some shippers seek value with an actual person who can provide assurances needed to handle complex logistical challenges, or merely provide a sympathetic ear during the shipment process.
The forwarding industry has been criticized for its slow adoption of automation, but we should rest assured, participants realize that those ignoring technologies do so at their own peril. In fact, many now offer automated tools designed to speed up customer interaction and operational processes for all groups of customers. But using technology as the only means of client interaction may be more dangerous than not. The forwarding business continues to be comprised of people behind the scenes, managing complex supply-chain challenges, who understand that personal contact, not computers, ultimately results in successful and sustained future customer relationships.