The COVID-19 pandemic has companies across the supply chain seeking efficiencies by cutting team members and increasing automation. But we can’t provide exceptional customer experiences with layoffs and more machines. We will only survive and thrive if we train our employees to serve across multiple business segments.
Over the last 10-20 years, we’ve seen businesses in transportation acquire a real assembly-line approach. Today, most of the leading third-party logistics (3PL) providers have clear lines of distinction between pricing, order entry, dispatch, inside sales, outside sales, and accounting functions. They’re siloed. At some larger companies, they put different business groups in different physical locations. There aren’t even options to do different tasks, because the degree of specialization has gone so far that it’s literally all someone does.
Companies try to motivate staff, but instead of being part of one connected unit in pursuit of a common goal, they have very different incentives:
All three are doing their jobs, but no one is really working for the customer. The operation becomes disjointed, with everyone blaming one another when things go wrong.
All employees need to be incentivized based on the customer’s success with the organization. You can’t have everyone working against each other. Your team becomes internal competitors. That’s not a good experience for employees or customers.
An argument can be made for that super-efficient model in the short term, but there’s a grind to it that wears people out. Certainly you can buy up organizations and put them into this orange-squeezing approach that wrings every last bit of efficiency out of everyone involved. But if you’re trying to grow organically, it’s a difficult culture to maintain.
We can still have specialists, but we want people to perform their specialties without being completely separated from the rest of the company. We always want to make sure there’s an overlap, so that even the most customer-centric person has a carrier or two they’re responsible for.
Consider an upskilling initiative that gives people the skills they need to be successful, and helps them cross business segments. In a brokerage group, for example, this could mean offering pricing sessions and talking about market dynamics, where all members of the team are invited whether they’re actively working in pricing or not. For less-than-truckload and intermodal, it could take the form of information and training sessions that give employees perspective on all of the solutions available to clients. Sales employees could be engaged in role-playing, with groups spanning new hires to experienced leaders.
What matters most is that you’re training employees in what’s going on beyond their own efforts, so that they develop empathy and an understanding of how coworkers are contributing to shared goals.
Companies know that automation and technology are important for efficiency. But what if we try to replace the personal relationship between shipper and broker with a tech shortcut?
When traffic comes to a standstill and trucks break down, a computer can’t think on its feet and offer a creative alternative. But employees can. They bring the problem solving, empathy, and accountability that customers need, now more than ever during a pandemic.
For logistics providers, the incredible disturbance to business as usual during COVID-19 requires all employees to go the extra mile. It’s not just a question of maintaining supply lines; people provide the necessary human contact that social distancing is preventing in everyday life. The pandemic is just as much a mental health concern as it is a physical health crisis. It’s vital to develop that empathy.
The human element is the key to success in the logistics business. It’s the empathetic, innovative and personalized efforts that will help companies survive this moment. Automation is certainly driving efficiency, but the ways in which we use it are key.
Don’t be afraid of your employees becoming more valuable. Give them the tools to cross boundaries and add the human touch to your business. They will make all the difference with the customer.
Eric Masotti is vice president of logistics at Trailer Bridge Inc.
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