The Current State of Carrier Customer Service
Customer service in the freight industry has long been in need of updates and improvements. Most customer service models employed by freight carriers still rely on outdated tools and systems for fulfilling an increasing volume of customer service demands and expectations, and the industry is falling woefully behind. While freight shipping has experienced a steep increase in volume, most carrier companies still rely primarily on phone and email communication to handle the majority of customer inquiries, neither of which can match the speed required by shippers today.
Wait times for shippers calling understaffed customer service lines can easily surpass 45 minutes, which is untenable in an industry where shippers have countless logistics issues that must be resolved in a matter of hours to maintain efficiency. In addition, many carriers utilize a centralized customer service number rather than giving out the direct numbers of terminals. While this is an understandable effort to keep terminals from being overwhelmed by calls that may affect their operational capabilities, it results in another layer placed between the shipper and the solution to their problem due to a lack of visibility.
Many times the representatives answering calls at a centralized service do not have access to the information or the systems used by the terminal and must call the terminal directly to acquire the necessary information to fulfill the customer service request, creating a redundant situation where the service representative must act as a middleman between the shipper with the problem and the entity with the solution rather than being able to provide the solution directly to the shipper.
If the shipper is using a 3PL service to manage their shipment, as is often the case, there are now three entities between the shipper and the help they need. The shipper calls the 3PL, who in turn calls the centralized customer service number, who then must call the terminal directly to obtain the information necessary to fulfill the request.
There are too many links in the chain from request to resolution.
The other main mode of communication in the industry, email, can be similarly outdated and even slower. Shippers sending an email to a carrier can feel like they are speaking into the void, often receiving no response or confirmation that their request has been received, or receiving a response too late to be effective in resolving their issue. Gone is the era of 1-2 day response times for email requests; logistics simply moves too fast to wait days for a reply regarding an issue that may require a solution in mere hours to have any real value to the shipper.
Why Haven’t These Problems Been Solved?
The freight industry has traditionally been slow to invest in customer service technology solutions, instead focusing resources on operational efficiency. But as consumer expectations have grown and been met by other consumer industries, freight carriers are falling further and further behind the customer service standards that consumers have come to expect in other marketplaces. And while it may be understandable that the record volumes being experienced in the industry right now have many carriers struggling just to keep up operationally and resulting in even less investment being allocated toward customer service, this model represents a failure to understand how improving customer service can significantly reduce the carrier’s cost to serve in the long term.
It can be expensive to implement new technologies that enhance customer service, but in the long run these systems will reduce costs, streamline customer service resolutions, and potentially introduce a truly differentiated offering that can generate increased revenue. The redundancy of labor costs involved in the current model is costing carriers unnecessary resources that could be allocated towards technology and automation to upgrade customer experience.
Before we can improve the customer experience, we need to understand the common inquiries carriers face.
The most common customer service inquiries from shippers prior to the shipment leaving their possession are in regards to when the truck will arrive at the pickup location.
Often when a pickup is scheduled, the shipper has no visibility regarding the status of the truck, and the only way to check if it is on schedule is to call a customer service representative who must then call the dispatcher at the local terminal to get an update on the location of the truck. The vast majority of trucks today have electronic logging devices (ELD) which have the capability to show where the truck is located, but no carriers have connected this data to customer facing applications.
The other frequent pre-shipment request is to cancel or reschedule a pickup. It does not make sense to wait on hold for 45 minutes to submit this request, but if you don’t, it could result in the shipper incurring unnecessary TONU (Truck Order Not Used) charges. Carriers should want to make it easy (within reason) to change a pickup so as to not waste the carrier’s time and resources by sending a driver that does not end up making a pickup.
The bulk of requests for shipments in transit are either requesting a change or inquiring about the
Current shipments happening in real time can be most affected by long wait times on hold and slow replies to email requests. If a last minute change must be made to reroute or return a shipment that is in progress, shipper and carrier communication should be far more rapid in order to maintain efficiency for both shipper and carrier. Any technology that can automate updates online and allow the customer to request changes to the shipment will greatly improve the response times of carriers and eliminate a large volume of calls and messages that contribute to the already long hold times and email overloads hampering carrier customer service centers.
ELDs and similar GPS technologies can also provide visibility and status updates for shipments that have been sitting at a terminal for too long, allowing shippers to know where their shipment is and when to contact carriers if there is a delay or other problem.
After a shipment has been completed, customer service calls and emails are primarily centered around insurance claims for damaged goods, requests for proof of delivery paperwork or other shipping documents, and resolutions to any invoice disputes that may arise. Once again, any automation technology that can put this information in the shipper’s hands immediately upon the completion of a delivery will cut down on the number of calls and emails inundating customer service representatives.
Short Term, Mid Term, and Long Term Fixes
One of the easiest short-term fixes that can improve customer service among carriers in the freight industry is providing visibility to representatives. If a customer has to wait on hold for an extended period of time, at least provide the person they eventually get in touch with the information with which to handle the request. If carriers cannot provide direct numbers to terminals and dispatch for fear of being overwhelmed with calls, then provide the centralized representatives access the same systems and information used by the dispatch and terminals to avoid unnecessary layers of personnel between the shipper and the answers they require.
Another way to reduce the overload of calls and email requests is to provide additional forms of communication. Live chat software is an effective way to allow customers to contact 3PLs and carrier customer service teams without waiting on hold or waiting for an email reply. Not only does a live chat feature facilitate a more immediate form of communication, but it also allows customer service agents to handle multiple requests at once rather than operating a single phone line. Depending on the volume of requests and level of staffing, agents may also be able to handle live chat requests as well as phone calls, further reducing labor costs.
In order to make email communication more effective, carriers should introduce a service-level agreement (SLA) into email responses. SLAs provide an immediate acknowledgement that the email was received and set expectations for a reasonable response time, giving the customer confidence that their request has been received whilst managing their expectations regarding when they will receive a reply. The old days of 24+ hour response times for email are ineffective in today’s fast-paced logistics environment, and updating email protocols to provide reliable answers in hours, not days, is paramount to the success of this form of customer service communication.
In addition to an SLA, ticketing system software could be introduced that has the ability to efficiently organize customer service requests. Not only would this reduce the clutter and overload in the email inbox of the customer service team, but a ticketing system can keep track of requests, show what is being worked on, and log a history of each case. Organizing customer service inquiries in this way will also allow carriers to run metrics regarding the volume and nature of requests both as a whole and also from particular customers, providing information with which to better optimize customer experience, improve the customer service team’s performance, and effectively prioritize time and resources. Ticketing software tools are available in a number of off-the-shelf options, and can eventually be expanded to accommodate other use-cases such as sorting damage claims and disputed invoices, yielding further metrics with which to grade customer service performance and identify recurring problems with certain customers.
The long-term goal for optimizing customer service in the freight industry should be centered on a shift toward automation and self-service. Empowering shippers to self-service and enhancing API support will vastly reduce the traffic jam of customer service requests being handled by representatives and will streamline many aspects of the shipper’s experience. Because large volume shippers are most likely already working through a 3PL or TMS, carriers are already receiving the majority of these bookings electronically. If API support is enhanced on the carrier website to allow customers to modify or cancel shipments, change a pickup, request a reroute, or file a claim through an API, these larger shippers can utilize these tools directly rather than call or email a customer service agent.
While introducing and supporting an API connection may require a significant investment of time and resources, creating a consumer facing front-end for whatever system the customer service team utilizes to resolve requests can help alleviate some of the volume of calls and emails in the meantime by allowing customers to enter their own tracking numbers into the system to retrieve information, reducing labor time for both carrier and shipper.
Still a Long Way to Go
When it comes to customer service solutions, the logistics industry still has a long way to go before it catches up to the high standards set by other consumer industries such as airlines, banks, and retail. The lack of customer service in the industry has led to middlemen such as 3PLs and freight brokers gaining a larger portion of business simply due to the fact that they are willing to pick up the phone, answer emails, and call carriers to wait on hold and track down answers for the shipper. Implementing even a few new technologies to their customer service model will greatly benefit carriers in both the short and long term. However, if carriers made customer service a priority and introduced significant improvements to the structure of their customer service system, they could have a truly differentiated offering for which shippers would be willing to pay a little extra per shipment. Eliminating the hours shippers spend on hold and the time wasted waiting for email replies, as well as providing the ability to self-manage shipments online can not only reduce the labor costs associated with customer service and increase the revenue earned per shipment, but also vastly improve the customer’s experience overall.