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Customer Service Opportunites through the Internet

by Bob Davidson

In this Internet-enabled world of rapid transactions and instant access to information, what has become the new standard for customer service? With all of the hype surrounding B2B and B2C commerce, dot.com IPOs and the virtual marketplace, one might have overlooked the grand opportunity to make day-to-day life easier for the customer. Paradoxically, customer service in the transportation industry, like many other industries, is evolving toward a high level of customer self-service.

In the not-so-distant past, shippers were required to contact their carriers by phone or fax to request rates, schedule pickups, track shipments or reroute freight. Moreover, a carrier customer service representative was needed to fulfill the request, often with some delay and sometimes with uncertain results. As the new century unfolds, it seems clear that one answer is to empower the customer with robust tools and information to perform his own transactions.

Ideally, customer self-service allows the customer to fulfill his information and transactional needs in an automated fashion without compromising the value of customer care. This is not the same as the automation of tasks, not the same as an organization going “high-tech.” The latter simply involves the introduction of 21st Century technologies into 20th Century organizations, while the first involves the intelligent opening of information systems and processes to customers, vendors and partners.

For several years, carriers have been moving in that direction. Virtually all major carriers now offer tracking of shipments over the Internet. My company, ABF Freight System, Inc., takes shipment tracking a step further, by offering proactive e-mail notification of shipment statuses. We will even send you, if you desire, an e-mail notification if our predictive tracking systems indicate that your shipment may be delayed. ABF and a few other carriers are offering additional visibility through online advanced reports, document retrieval, claims status and much more. At ABF, we now consider our extensive freight handling network to be a “glass pipeline.” Regardless of how you describe it, the fact remains that shipment visibility across the supply chain has never been greater.

Shipment visibility is the first step, but a potentially bigger payoff comes from increased shipment control for the customer. Similar to shipment tracking, most major carriers now allow the online submittal of shipment pickup requests. ABF takes the “control” concept a step further, allowing our customers to actually change destinations of in-route shipments via the Internet. Procedures that historically could take many hours and involve several people, are evolving to instant response through customer self-service.

Moving forward, from a customer service perspective, we need to continually ask two questions. As a shipper, what should I expect from my transportation provider? And as a transportation provider, what functionality must I provide to be relevant to the shipper? Hopefully, the answers will lead to a map of customer self-service, providing total shipment visibility and control to the customer. After all, it is the customer’s shipment. At the same time, these advancements allow the carriers to provide a level of customer service that was previously considered unattainable with existing resources. In doing so, carriers can actually enhance their customer care, by directing freed-up resources to more customer-critical areas.

Fully-evolved customer service should also include personalization and integration. Personalization molds information and functionality to the preferences of the customer, a strategy that keeps the customer committed to the self-service model. Integration along the supply chain allows for the connection of information systems via XML standards, linking shipper, carrier and receiver.

No one can fully predict the future course of e-commerce. Nevertheless, it is clear that carriers can, indeed, must use the power of the Internet to give their customers a superior level of service through greater visibility and control.