If you ship, you more than likely will have questions about shipping. It's not a vocabulary or an industry that is easily understandable, at first. With practice and research, however, you can be on your way to embodying Aristotle Onassis in your office. OK, maybe that's a little over the top - but you get the idea. Here are some of the basics of shipping and I hope they help you out.
1. Proper classing & MNFC coding. One way to ensure you'll pay too much is to class your freight incorrectly. Guessing, assuming it's the right number, and being unaware of changes can cost you an arm and a leg in the transportation world. For example, one customer of mine had used the exact same NMFC number as long as they had been in business. On occasion, however, NMFTA (who meets normally 3 times per year), may decide to adjust their descriptions to better categorize items. This is exactly what happened to a very good customer of mine. When we told them about it, they were extremely grateful they didn't run into a re-class fee. If you don't get the NMFTA updates yourself or if you have a freight broker who doesn't check these type of things out for you - you are probably paying too much and will get hit with re-class charges. And after you get hit, you'll feel like hitting someone - and that's no good for anyone.
2. Work with people who know what they're doing. As I mentioned above, my customer service team caught a re-class involving one of my top customers. Would your shipping department have caught that? One of the main reasons I wound up working where I did is due to the experience level of our customer service team. Some of these folks have forgotten more about freight than I probably will ever know. People who know what they're doing can eliminate delays, assessorial fees and making carriers upset. Incompetent people frustrate everyone involved and your freight has a good chance of winding up in Siberia in the dead of winter.
3. Leverage your existing relationships. If you have relationships who provide you with free shipping (outbound and inbound), you truly need to count your blessings. Having someone take care of the financial cost of logistics for your company is amazing. For most of us, however, we have to trust and work to foster relationships with people in the industry who can make things happen for us. I have to rely on my incredible customer service team (actually, I GET to rely on them). They have to rely on their carrier contacts, the carriers rely on the dispatch and the drivers - you get the idea. We all have to rely on someone in this industry, whether we like it or not. Leveraging the relationships you have been given can be a blessing when you treat people well and stay as true to your word as possible.
4. Have a plan B. This probably won't come as a surprise to you, but everything does not always go according to plan in the freight world. Weather, traffic, flat tires, overheated engines, fatigue, and vacations can all have adverse consequences on freight being delivered on time and in good condition. By the way, those are just the reasons off the top of my head - I'm positive I could come up with more. What's the old saying? Expect the best but prepare for the worst. I'm betting whoever first said that was in the transportation industry.
5. Know what's reasonable. I once had a customer call me to yell and tell me I was single-handedly holding up their production at a facility. "OK, Shannon (not her real name), how exactly am I doing that?" I asked. "Your driver was supposed to be here 3 days ago and now my plant is at a standstill!" was the loud and harsh reply I received. "OK, I hear you and I understand you're upset - can I ask you a few questions? Did you guarantee the shipment?" "No." "OK, it's 3 days late, give me the details on the shipment." "It got picked up on the east coast 4 days ago and it should have been here by now." "Shannon, since we're on the west coast, standard transit time is 6 days - and that's without a guarantee. Are you telling me you relied on a driver with a non-guaranteed shipment to make a coast to coast run in 4 days over a holiday weekend?" Know what's reasonable. That driver was never going to make that run in 4 days, even without the extenuating circumstances. In truth, the production shifted their manufacturing schedule to another product and then caught up after the shipment got there. Not a huge deal - but Shannon looked like an idiot to her boss because she didn't have a clue what was reasonable and what wasn't.
6. Getting upset doesn't help anyone - especially you. Everyone regrets flying off the handle. (Except maybe sociopaths, but that's a different article... ) When you finally do calm down, you feel childish, ashamed and pretty stupid. The only thing worse than how you're feeling? How the people you work with view you. Even though your moment of weakness made you feel childish, ashamed and pretty stupid - the people you work with now have this etched in their brains as if it were the 10 Commandments. Your reputation is tarnished and you're viewed as irritable, irrational, cranky and downright jerky. No one wants you to attend the company picnic now. You are no longer welcome at the annual Holiday party. OK, both of those last two are exaggerations, but you get the point. At the beginning of my transportation career, a seasoned vet pulled me aside when I was getting too uptight and told me something that has served me well: relax. You now have that terrible 80's song going through your head right now, don't you? You're welcome.
7. Look for the Strengths and Weaknesses. Every system - your own trucks, 3pls, carrier direct - has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses given your situation. Perhaps you're shipping to Colorado. At the time of this writing, carriers are quite hesitant to go to Colorado since they can't find much backhaul from that particular location. They simply don't want to run their trucks back empty and burn fuel they aren't getting paid for. Odds are, you won't move your business, so geography can be one of your inherent weaknesses. Let's go the other direction - you are a seasonal shipper who grows and distributes Christmas trees in the state of Oregon. Almost every carrier with trucks available is willing to go the Pacific Northwest since they know they can transport Christmas trees anywhere in the lower 48 during the fourth quarter. Guaranteed backhaul! Carriers love that kind of stuff and will probably be willing to cut you a deal.
7.5. Streamline communication. Make sure you provide all the details for the entity handling your shipment. This includes, but is not limited to, dimensions, weight, origin, destination, class, NMFC, is it stackable, and the list goes on. If your transportation company has an online commodity book you can use to describe your products to carriers - take advantage of it. The commodity book will save you loads of time in the future because you won't have to retype everything item each time. Finally, ask if you're missing anything. Even people in the business (myself included on occasion) miss things. It's not intentional, but it does happen. Anything you can do to eliminate back-and-forth communication helps your transportation company and most important - you.
OK, you might still have some questions. What's an NMFC code? Who is the NMFTA and why are they important? Is a 3pl some sort of government conspiracy? HELP! Relax (there's that song again), and reach out to me anytime you like.
Mike Tanner is The Shipping Mogul and can be reached at 360-281-2787 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Outside of transportation, he loves hanging out with his family, is a rabid Kansas State Wildcats fan, and enjoys some good sautéed cabbage.