Last week, the shipping vessel MSC Zoe lost 270 containers at sea after it was caught in a major storm off the coast of the Netherlands. Among the cargo lost were scores of consumer goods that washed up on the beaches of Dutch and German islands near the spill.
Even with the sheer volume of container traffic across the world’s waters, it’s hard to believe that some containers will fall off their vessels. People don’t simply fall off trains. While some estimates show as many as 10,000 containers going overboard a year, a recent industry survey by the World Shipping Council found that the number was closer to 1500.
Overboard containers might be rare, but problems with shipments pop up all the time. It’s a fact of life in the shipping industry -- the perfect shipment is always the goal, but with so many moving parts in a transaction, something can go wrong.
So whether a container is drifting to the bottom of the ocean or your documents are frustratingly one signature short, here are some tips to deal with freight delivery disasters.
Keep Track of Your In-transit Shipments
It’s easier than ever to stay on top of your in-transit freight. Until recently, the only insight you’d have on your container was when it got picked up from its origin port and when (and whether!) it arrived at its destination port. Now, you can track the vessel carrying your container while it’s sailing with a few clicks. Once you find out what vessel your shipment is sailing on, head over to a tracking site like VesselFinder to see where the container ship is, whether it’s on schedule, and even if something concerning has happened to the vessel and its contents on its route.
Get used to tracking your shipments while in transit, because real-time container-tracking options are getting more robust by the year. Multiple businesses are working on RFID tracking that reports on-demand container location, while remote container-condition tracking is closer than ever. We’re not too far from the day that you can check your container’s temperature, whether its lock has been tampered with, and even if it’s been moved.
Read more about technology that will change ocean freight in our brand-new Whitepaper, "The Future of Freight"
Even though losing a container at sea is unlikely, of those that are lost are due to extreme weather. Get to know your most popular lanes and the weather patterns across them. Know when hurricane and/or typhoon season is. You can easily follow along weather advisory alerts, and even get historical data on weather patterns in a given region, through any number of free-to-use weather-tracking websites.
If There’s Bad News, It’s Best to Own It
No freight forwarder will have a year of perfect shipments. You will have instances (hopefully not too many) where you have to inform your customer about a problem with their order. The key is to break the news to your customer, not the other way around.
These conversations can be uncomfortable, but they’re critical. We all strive for the perfect shipment, but it’s important to be prepared for a breakdown. One freight transaction can travel halfway around the world through multiple warehouses and ports between a dozen different people. In doing so, it has to clear various checkpoints with proper documentation before it can get to its destination. If any of those steps goes wrong, delays will happen. It’s up to you to keep up with any problems that arise during your customer’s freight journey and update them accordingly.
Of course, with so many different places where things could go wrong, it can be hard to keep track of everything. Blockchain technology solutions can help with this. The encrypted ledger method of the blockchain-based supply chain will put all the moving pieces in one secure place for you to review.
Though blockchain technology promises speed, efficiency, and transparency, it doesn’t guarantee that all shipments will magically become perfect. You will still have to have hard conversations every now and then. Own them. That transparency and ability to get ahead of a problem will always be valuable in proper customer service, and it will still be necessary for freight forwarding. Which brings us to…
Don’t Forget the Human Touch
A common misconception about more automation is that the human touch will become obsolete. That’s just not true. Here’s what we wrote about customer service in our new whitepaper, “The Future of Freight: What every logistics professional needs to know for 2019:”
With more and more decisions driven by data, how do you stand out with
buyers making purchase decisions based on interchangeable offerings of similar rates and capacity? That’s where relationships come in. People still want to do business with other people they like and trust. It’s precisely because there are so many interchangeable offerings that relationship management is so important when winning and keeping business.
Part of that relationship management is being there during rough times. Shipment delays, natural disasters affecting operations [LINK], problems with customs clearance, whatever it is, no customer wants to find out their shipment is in trouble through an app. In fact, most customers wouldn’t feel any better if they got a one-line email from you.
Pick up the phone. Make a visit. You may not have a solution, but your customer needs to know you care about their business, and the best way to do that is to show you’re involved with finding an answer. Precisely because the human touch is so essential to building and fortifying your freight forwarding relationships is why it will never go away, and why it’s the best tool available to you when disaster strikes a shipment.
Maybe someday we’ll get to a point where every container reaches its destination without an issue. We’re not there yet. But while containers can get lost at sea, our job is to make sure your customers aren’t adrift as well.
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