Opinion: What’s up with your shipping staff?

Are they over worked? Are they burning out? Not enough time to do everything? Overwhelmed? Do they understand what they have to do? Do they need training? Do you need to look at your process and see where you could be making it easier for them to do their jobs more efficiently?

Let’s scratch the surface and delve deeper into those issues that you just can’t put your finger on when it comes to your import or export shipping operations. Do you feel like things are just a little bit out of control? That you don’t quite have a handle on your shipping operations or that you are at the mercy of others for accurate information? Does your gut tell you that something is not quite right but you just don’t have the time to deal with it right now? Welcome to the stress caused by uncertainty - and shipping is notoriously plagued by it. But unfortunately…it’s all your fault!

You have no control because you have no process. You have no process because you do not have a deep fundamental understanding of the industry. Because you do not have that understanding, you are at the mercy of “experts” that “guide” you by selling you their services. But since you are no expert, it’s hard for you to determine the validity of their advice.

What I’m saying is that you are pretty much in trouble in the short term. But, if you are determined to change that and don’t want to suffer from stress related ailments, then keep reading because this article will help you gain perspective and help you develop the tools, processes and procedures to regain control of your import and export shipping operation.

Now for a word of warning: this is not rocket science but it requires a lot of work and commitment to detail, especially in the beginning. Secondly, do not just take everything that I tell you at face value and then try to carbon copy it. Every situation is unique. Every company is different. You have to listen. You have to reflect. Perhaps you have to Google the topic a bit more, ask some questions, do some digging and then you have to use that knowledge gained, develop your own process that works for your situation and continually monitor and tweak it.

Once quickly if you find your rhythm and you have your protocol down, you will be in control. You will be able to identify problems not pre-empt them. You will be able to define your needs to suppliers and measure and compare their services in every detail in order to determine the best options are implemented. You will be able to save a lot of money and continue to do so. As an employee you will be able to increase your value as an asset to your company. As a business owner, you will increase your margins or gain a competitive advantage. And lastly, you will be able to alleviate some of that consistent pressure caused by the stress of uncertainty relating to your import and export logistics.

To begin this journey, let us first examine and acknowledge a few things that are relevant to your import and export logistics setup:

1.     Your logistics is a fundamental part of your business. You need to acknowledge this and give it the attention and respect it deserves. It requires skill and expertise to ensure that it is working for your business and not a source of frustration or hole in your pocket that is losing money. You need to understand that it is an extremely dynamic environment where pricing can often adjust very quickly to the balance of demand and supply. Knowing what triggers these changes within each mode and direction could mean the difference in taking advantage of very favourable rates or paying more than you should.

2.     Your staff is key. I cannot stress this more. Even more so when you outsource your import and export logistics. You need skilled and experienced people that are able to do this job. This job requires the same amount of accuracy and expertise as a lawyer or architect. What makes it hard to choose somebody is the lack of high quality and relevant qualifications that you can rely on to ensure that the person has at least the minimum requirements. Personally, I like people that have worked in various positions at forwarding and clearing companies. The more they did, the more they have seen. Also, it would be even better if they worked for a few different agents, that way you know they have exposure to different agent’s protocols and that deepens their knowledge base and ability to work the system. It is also critical that you ensure your staff is continuously learning and attending industry related events like talks, round tables and training seminars. It should form part of your KPI’s that you evaluate their performance on. To ensure that they are attending these events and taking in the knowledge that is being presented have them submit a short summary to HR of what the experience has thought them and how they could possibly or not implement what they have learned. I would recommend that they attend one such industry event at least every quarter and attend a learning course at least once every 2 years to ensure their knowledge is relevant to current trends and market conditions.

3.     Do not over-extend your logistics staff. There are very different disciplines in logistics. Try to ensure you have the right person in charge of each aspect. Your import and export specialists are not warehousing and distribution specialists. They at one point hand over cargo to each other but they sit in different positions in the supply chain and have very different functions to fulfil. Also, it takes years of experience to become skilled in either of these departments. It does not make sense to think that a single person has 2 lifetimes worth of expertise.

4.     Demand transparency - yes, DEMAND IT! Transparency is vital to decision making and problem solving. You cannot fix what you cannot see. You cannot monitor what you cannot see. Demand transparency internally from your staff through the adherence to protocols that ensures standardisation and quality of the decision making information. Information is the backbone of efficient and effective cost saving logistics and you can only achieve this through transparency. The devil is in the details and trying to manage your shipping costs as a percentage of the overall costs of an item and thinking that as long as the agent keeps it below 10% is all you need to worry about has made a lot of agents a lot of money over the years and you will eventually feel the pain when the market suddenly changes and conditions produce higher rates than what you have been used to.

5.     If you are not sure, ask for help from a knowledgeable neutral party. Anybody that facilitates or provides any of the services that you require when you ship is not a neutral party. They are trying to sell you their services, it is only logic that they would prop themselves up as a better solution by selectively pointing out their benefits and steering your attention away from their shortcomings. You are looking for somebody with years of experience but that does not benefit from any form of commission structure with any service provider in the industry and if they do that they disclose it up front and explain it in detail. I understand that this is a daunting task, especially if you are not well versed in the technicalities of import and export logistics and that is exactly the reason that you should seek out the help of a consultant to analyse and develop a suitable solution for your internal operations and management.


The more you start to understand the inner workings of your import and export logistics operations and processes the more you will realise the importance of ensuring that it is run as a “tight ship” and that you need to be in absolute full control of this aspect of your business or it will be a source of consistent pain and stress both financially and emotionally for your business and your staff.

Contributed by: Melinda Lotz, passionate industry practitioner!