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The New Year has started off with a bang. With the stock market at record levels, unemployment at historic lows in Canada and the United States and a new U.S. tax bill that promises to put extra dollars in the hands of American purchasers, it is not surprising that consumer confidence is at a high. The strong GDP numbers reflect that people are spending money again. It is no wonder that the Dow Transportation index is also at record levels (https://blogs.wsj.com/marketbeat/2011/07/01/dow-jones-transportation-average-close-to-record-high/ ). This is great news for trucking companies.

December was also a historic month for the trucking industry. The electronic logging device (ELD) mandate took effect at the end of December. This measure which is designed to increase driver safety, is projected to restrict the availability of truck capacity in the United States. Of course, a driver shortage has already made capacity tight. Companies that comply with the mandate must work within specific time windows. Those that don’t conform to the mandate risk being pulled off the road, over time, as compliance becomes stricter.

The result is that freight rates are projected to increase in 2018. In a letter to customers (https://www.sdcexec.com/warehousing/news/12371547/jb-hunt-tells-customers-to-budget-for-10-percent-cost-increase ), JB Hunt suggested that freight rates may increase by as much as ten percent or more. At the Surface Transportation Summit held in Toronto in October 2017, John Larkin, Managing Director of Research, Stifel Financial Corp. shared the following rate increase projections with the audience.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_dreamstime_xl_31478542_20160826-151328_1.jpgDuring this period of modest economic growth and ample capacity, freight rates have been in decline. This is confirmed by the various market indices that track freight rates. Lower energy prices that have translated in lower fuel surcharges have also helped keep freight rates in check. The data also indicates that some shippers are switching modes and moving from intermodal back to highway service to obtain faster service at more attractive rates. Looking ahead to the future, 54 percent of the trucking companies responding to a recent Inbound Logistics survey expect static growth in the near term.

Despite the drop in freight rates, 75 percent of shippers surveyed in the same study stated that reducing transportation costs is their top priority while only 38 percent indicating that finding capacity is a challenge. The static economy and low energy prices would appear to be creating a “perfect storm” for shippers seeking to meet their greatest challenge. The danger for shippers is to get greedy as many did during the Great Recession. We remember seeing shippers bid their freight multiple times a year in the hope of continuing to drive lower freight costs. While we are big believers in the value of high quality freight bids, we are also a strong proponent of the old adage, “you get what you pay for.”

We all know that just as there are cycles in the stock market and the housing industry, there are cycles in the freight industry. What goes down will go up again. Shippers that surround themselves with “bottom feeder” carriers at discounted rates will likely have a rude awakening when the market turns. Moreover, with new government regulations coming into play and the volatility of fuel prices, capacity will likely tighten and freight rates may rise sooner than later.

So what should thoughtful shippers do to manage their freight costs as smartly as possible? As stated above, we still believe that conducting a professional freight bid exercise, once a year or every two years is a wise thing to do. For shippers that include a range of quality carriers and logistics service partners in the RFP and conduct multiple round events, this is still a great way to secure savings in freight costs.

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The essence of successful freight rate negotiations is an honest exchange of information. Carriers count on shippers to supply them with complete and accurate information on shipment weights, dimensions, volumes by lane, seasonal spikes and any special service (i.e. job site deliveries, weekend pickups etc.) requirements. Shippers expect carriers to be able to supply them with the correct types of equipment to pick up their freight at the designated time, to provide adequate amounts of equipment at the right time to move their loads, to meet their designated transit times over 95% of the time and to provide good customer service and quality information as they outlined in their submission and interview.

While this all seems so straight-forward and reasonable, there are a host of challenges that get in the way of committed shipper-carrier relationships. Here are a few to consider.

Changes in Shipment Volumes

Business conditions are constantly changing. There are ebbs and flows in the general economy that can impact on many industries, including both shippers and carriers. There is ongoing competition in the market where shippers win or lose customers every day. Then there are mergers and acquisitions and new product launches (or old product cancellations) that can lead to rationalization of locations for factories or distribution facilities. The net impact of these changes is that the shipment volumes discussed in an RFP may not come to pass or the actual volumes by lane may vary over time.

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The first part of this blog focused on the operational, service and equipment issues that constitute a strong shipper-carrier freight agreement. This blog will address the financial and business issues that need to carefully captured in detail.

6. Rates and Service Charges

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b2ap3_thumbnail_dreamstime_l_19275327.jpgFurther to the last blog, a well written motor carrier agreement can be a powerful tool in promoting partnerships between shippers and freight companies. Listed below are some of the major components of a comprehensive contract.

1. Parties to the Agreement

The document must clearly identify the parties to the agreement, including the use of any third parties or sub-contractors. This is very important since it is critical that all transport companies that perform services for the shipper have the same licenses, insurance and service levels as the primary party to the agreement. In other words, they must be a replica of the primary party or any differences must be so stated. The agreement must also make clear that the parties to the agreement are independent contractors. Neither Shipper nor Carrier shall have the right to enter into contracts or pledge the credit of or incur expenses or liabilities on behalf of the other party.

2. Services

a) Types of services

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Motor carrier agreements or contracts are documents signed between shippers and carriers that set out the parameters and processes under which two or more companies work together to provide freight transportation services. These documents, often prepared by lawyers (with input from freight management professionals), set out a range of service expectations and freight rates that define the relationship between the parties. While freight agreements have come into widespread use, the question is if and when these documents are necessary?

One could argue that if two or more parties are operating in good faith, do they need a legal document to circumscribe the nature of their relationship? If shippers and carriers are supposed to work together as partners in an open and trusting manner, does a formal, written agreement get in the way of a business partnership arrangement? Does it inhibit open and honest communication?

Do motor carrier agreements create a rigid framework that reduces flexibility? Are they detrimental to the sometime unpredictable and fluid nature of freight transportation? Does a formal agreement make it more difficult for a shipper to obtain additional equipment or after hour’s service? Do they place carriers with a limited set of equipment into a straight-jacket? Does the fear of punishment or service failure force a carrier to provide equipment and service to one client (that has a contract) at the expense of another client (that doesn’t have one)?

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If your company provides hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in revenue to certain carriers, they are a critical part of your success, or failure and vice versa. While a rate quote may be a suitable form of agreement between shipper and carrier, for low volume service providers, it is not adequate for larger bid awards. There are several reasons for this.

First, a written agreement between the parties can spell out the nature of the business relationship (e.g. parties to the agreement, governing law of which country, state or province, services expected, etc.). Second, in this era of tight capacity, there is a requirement to obtain written commitments from transport providers on various elements of service performance (e.g. on-time pick-up, transit times, billing accuracy etc.).  These can be detailed in a set of SLAs or Service Level Agreements that can be attached to the core agreement.

Third, the full set of rates, accessorial charges and terms and conditions should be attached so there is no disputing the costs the shipper will incur over the agreed contract period.  Fourth, there should be a written understanding concerning the length of the bid award and a mechanism or formula (e.g. CPI increase) for rate increases in subsequent years. Fifth, there should be a written understanding as to what measures can be taken in the event of non-performance.

The intent is not to create legalistic, adversarial relationships with a company’s core carriers; rather signing written agreements will establish a framework for service performance and communication that can promote understanding and co-operation. In other words, the document will provide clarity with respect to expectations, performance and costs that can be quite beneficial to both parties.  

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Over the past eleven years, my colleagues and I have worked on a variety of successful freight RFP or freight bid projects. During that time, we have observed a number of factors that are the keys to success. This is the first in a series of blogs that will provide tips on how to run a successful freight bid.

1. Obtain Buy-in and Participation from the Operating Divisions

In some multi-plant or multi-division companies, the RFP project is approved by the head office CFO or President. While the divisions may pay the carrier freight invoices, their participation in the RFP may be limited to reviewing the proposed carrier list or bid documents or simply being made aware that the project will be undertaken. This is not adequate.

Since the division managers are directly involved with shipping and receiving goods on a daily basis, they often have information that head office personnel don’t have. It is essential that these people be engaged at the beginning, at key milestones throughout the project and at the end to ensure a successful project. The division freight personnel should be asked to not just read status requests or respond to written requests for information; rather they should also be engaged in conference calls on specific topics (e.g. freight loading and unloading requirements, documentation of local cartage runs, pick-up and delivery requirements in specific branches etc.) so the bid documents completely and accurately reflect the shipping characteristics of your firm.

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In last week’s blog I provided an overview of Omni-Channel Retailing, a very important transformational change that is taking place.  This change will have a profound effect on the retail and freight industries.  In this blog, I will outline some of the impacts that it likely to have on carriers and LSPs.

The catalyst for the changes to shipping processes and pricing has been Amazon Prime. Back in 2005, the online retailer announced free two-day shipping on qualified items. Designed to enhance loyalty and fuel top line sales growth, the Amazon Prime program has had a huge impact on Amazon’s success in recent years.

The impact has rippled through the retail and transportation industries. Brick-and-mortar retailers, in particular, have scrambled to devise strategies to counter free shipping.

In response, retailers are deploying a variety of solutions that leverage one of their best assets—their stores. This coupled with the growth of mobile commerce and social shopping, has seen the emergence of a new approach that represents a kind of boundary-less retail, where the silos between brick-and-mortar, catalog, and Internet retailers have disappeared—at least as far as the consumer is concerned. This is what many are calling omni-channel retailing.

The transportation and logistics companies that wish to be effective in the Omni-Channel arena must align their service portfolios and infrastructure to meet the needs of the retailers and consumers who will be increasingly operating in this environment.  To gain a better understanding of where omni-channel retailing is going, UPS commissioned a research study of 3000 consumers.  ComScore, a leading digital analytics firm, performed the study.  The result is the 2013 UPS Pulse of the Online Shopper: A Customer Experience Study.  Here is what they learned from a carrier perspective. 

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As the year 2013 winds down, it is time to reflect on the major transportation trends of the past year.  While I saw and read about a wide range of developments, these are the ones that resonated most with me.

1.Technology Comes to Freight Transportation

Last year I predicted that we would see a flurry of new technologies come to freight transportation.  They did and I wrote about some of these new companies on several occasions during the year.  Technology was successfully applied to the freight brokerage business, freight portals, LTL density calculations and to other segments of the industry.  Buytruckload.com, PostBidShip, Freightopolis, QuoteMyTruckload,  and Freightsnap were featured in various blogs during the year.  They are changing the way business is done in freight transportation.  Watch for more of these companies to surface in 2014.

2013 has been called the Year of the Network by numerous supply chain and transportation industry thought leaders.  Companies that built a successful supply chain trading partner network focused on three elements:

Connectivity— unite disparate systems and trading partners

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In last week’s blog, I shared some ideas from the recent SCL – CITA annual conference on how to improve shipper- carrier collaboration.  Various suggestions were proposed by a panel consisting of two leading shippers and two major Canadian carriers.  Some other thoughts were expressed during other tracks that day.

The panelists presented some suggestions that came out of a joint meeting between the Ontario Trucking Association and the Canadian Industrial Transportation Association.  Here is more of what they had to say.

Removing Waste from the Shipper and Carrier’s Operation

During the panel discussion it was suggested that it is through trust, communication and dialogue, rather than through an RFP, that opportunities to remove waste from a shipper’s operation can be identified, discussed and solved.  The RFP process is typically too rigid to allow for a meaningful exchange of ideas and for the development of action plans. 

Since the focus in an RFP is typically on rates and service, it doesn’t create a forum for dedicated problem resolution.  Moreover, by not creating project teams, action plans and time lines to remove waste, the inefficiencies typically doesn’t get extracted.  The shipper continues to perform the same functions, in the same way, with its existing and/or new carriers.  Drivers continue to be pick up half full loads since opportunities to consolidate freight or change pick-up dates are missed. As one trucking executive mentioned, the savings generated from these types of initiatives can be much larger than the two percent saved as a result of the freight bid.

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Tight capacity is driving shippers and carriers to take a hard look at the value of freight contracts. Shippers are seeking rate stability, good service and capacity commitments.  Carriers are looking at securing the most attractive yields on their assets and consistent volumes on lanes that fit with their core competence. One method of helping both parties achieve their goals is by capturing the key elements of the business relationship in a well crafted contract. To create truly Win-Win freight agreements, there are a number of core principles that need to guide these discussions.

Pricing is one Key Element of the Total Package

Shippers are looking for competitive rates. Carriers are looking at offering rates that are competitive, so long as they produce a satisfactory return. Competitive rates are a starting point, a way of filtering and ranking potential carriers in terms of cost savings or cost containment.

One of the critical guiding principles in the carrier selection process should be to evaluate potential business partners across a broad set of variables. These requirements should include size and type of fleet, safety rating, energy efficiency, service performance, and EDI capabilities. A good contract should spell out the shipper/carrier expectations and requirements for each of these items. Rates are very important and will ultimately be a determining factor but they should be partof the total package.

The contract should spell out the length of the award and the level of rate increases in future years. All rates, accessorial charges and fuel surcharges should be spelled out in the appendices.

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