Machines are good servants but poor masters
- Date: 31/03/2015
TT Club’s Development Director, Brian Sullivan had the honour of helping judge at the British International Freight Association (BIFA) Awards this year. The opportunity gave him a special insight into the recent innovative achievements of which entrants into the Awards are justifiably proud. Here he comments on a significant trend that he observed.
Over the last decade or so much has been made of advances in IT technology that have enabled forwarders and logistics service providers to enhance greatly the services they offer. Many operators are proud, and rightly so, of the tailored or ‘off the shelf’ systems in which they have invested to track shipments, make the documentation process more seamless, increase the accuracy of invoicing, customs clear consignments more efficiently and many other time and labour saving innovations. It might be argued that you are not going to be competitive unless you can offer customers ‘IT solutions’.
In addition to achieving efficiencies in their operational processes and improving profitability, logistics companies were striving to differentiate themselves, give their offering something unique and avoid the commoditisation that was starting to afflict the services they and their competitors were providing. In recent years I feel that investment in IT has been so universal that the benefits it has brought have, if anything increased the trend towards so-called ‘white label’ services, where one company’s proficiency is almost matched by every other player in the market.
So what now can make an operator stand out from the herd? What sort of innovation can help garner market share and lift profitability?
I think a clue to the answer is given in the commendation given by the judges to the winner of the Award sponsored by my own organisation, TT Club. Freightex, the cross-channel freight transport specialist was the winner of the BIFA European Logistics Award this year. The company was lauded for, and I quote the BIFA website, “Its aptitude for using technology at the sharp end to change its distribution model so as to provide an optimum solution to the logistics challenges presented by customers. Equally important was the contribution made by the company’s own people, which was significant in the scale of the project”.
Freightex was a worthy winner but it was not the only entrant who extolled the importance of its people in the submissions that I saw as one of the judges. There is little doubt that the so-called ‘soft skills’ of staff from a number of organisations in the sector are starting to make the all-important difference in service levels of the more successful outfits.
I realise that this answer is not the proverbial ‘rocket science’ and that companies in all sectors of business, not just freight transport have long relied on their people to build long-term relationships with customers, getting to know their business and its needs as if they were themselves part of the customer’s internal structure. However trends, and indeed what is ‘trendy’, in management philosophies at any one time do oscillate in the fashion of a pendulum and the race towards more sophisticated IT that we’ve seen over the past decade has had the tendency to swing the dominant paradigm of business strategy away from the more labour intensive human touch.
It is now becoming clearer that within the freight sector, state-of-the-art IT systems (as so many of them are claimed to be) are no longer sufficient to enable a service provider to get ahead of the game. Perhaps the urge to cut cost by pushing greater elements of the booking, documentation and clearance processes back down the line to the shipper is beginning to pall or it’s just the basic human urge to communicate with another person rather than a machine. Either way my sense is that transport operators and logistics service providers are now increasingly saying to their customers, “We have a knowledgeable, reliable and responsive individual who will take care of your shipment and only inform you if the intended plan for it has to change”. I would conclude by suggesting that it is people who make things happen and sophisticated IT is merely another rather necessary tool in helping them.