Carrier customer service – Why is it not better and what are the solutions ?


If you asked container carrier’s clients to rate their current carrier experience the answers – after a weary shake of the head – would be predominantly negative and in some cases stridently so.

Of course it will depend on how important you are as a client, which carriers you use and how good the carrier people allocated to you are.

In a period when the physical product is to some extent out of the control of carriers, the area that carriers can redeem some semblance of client satisfaction is customer service – in person or on line.

One might reasonably think that this would be an area carriers would be working extremely hard on to improve but there is some previous history and current realities that are not necessarily working in their favour :

  • STAFF CUTS : In the long period of years when container carriers could not make a reasonable return on capital they were forced to go on annual cost saving missions both internally ( cutting staff ) and externally ( cutting supplier cost ).
  • BACK ROOM CENTRALISATION : During the dark years carriers looked for their salvation in doing less things locally and centralizing as much as they could in the cheapest place they could even if that location had no pool of skilled shipping labour.
  • MORE ON LINE PROCESSES : Putting as many of the customer service functions on line as possible has become the default compliment to centralization as a way to increase efficiency ( less rework ) and reduce cost.

The above three items have certainly reduced cost ( for the carriers at least !!! ) and IT improvements have even made some processes more efficient and less prone to error. They have also provided some informational enhancements.

They work well where everything is standard and there is a reasonably normal physical product they work alongside . The problem is that not every shipment falls into a standard template, things do go wrong and the physical product is wholly unreliable at this point.

The disinvestment in experienced people who really understand their own service product means there is far less capacity than historically to deal with problems on the spot.

There is another even more significant factor at play here that does not get much air time. The current deficit in capacity versus demand ( which to be fair the carriers did not create ) has instilled many extra layers of pricing and customer service work.

A shipper who previously placed even spot business directly with the carrier or used perhaps just one intermediary may now go to two or three intermediaries with the same business seeking rates and space to try to find a channel to get their boxes out. That means carriers are facing a deluge of extra rate requests but if you are lucky enough to have good channels this is not necessarily a key problem – assuming of course you accept that it is a seller’s market.

Once the rate turns to a booking the fun ( read serious challenge ! ) begins. Obviously it helps if the client has a contract with some kind of space protection but most contracts are not watertight in this regard and of course there is always going to be spot business – either not identified at the beginning or intentionally left out.

In a situation where sailings are being lost and most sailings in headhaul trades are heavily overbooked several weeks in advance, the ability to secure/keep a booking on a particular sailing and overcome any local hurdles ( not always objective or driven by the carrier’s own interests ) to get a committed booking is taking hugely more resource on both the client and carrier side .

Where customer service really takes a dive is where on going capacity deficit meets centralized  back rooms relying on customer insensitive IT to answer high volumes of booking blockages :

Many carriers issue a standard response to an on line booking on an overbooked sailing that simply says something like  :

Dear Customer
space reject,  booking cancelled, thanks

No attempt to explain and no attempt to provide an alternative solution. Just an instant summary dismissal. Its tough to understand how any customer service organisation can think this is a good approach to live business.


Some carriers have gone heavily down a road of vigorously measuring   some key customer service deliverables. This is well intentioned and in as much as it drives improvement in some processes it’s a positive step.

The obvious concern is whether the fulfillment of the criteria is at a good standard ( no point in getting a meaningless reply within the time criteria ) and whether the ones picked are the ones that really count ( its good to get a correct invoice 2 days after sailing but if the booking process was a 5 week nightmare its not going to get high attention in the client’s mind ).

If I return to the example of getting the instant response to a booking request:

Dear Customer
space reject, booking cancelled, thanks.

The reply is obviously completely unhelpful but in as much as its often instant it may well have met some responsiveness criteria ie job well done ?

So what else may help ?

The following could be potential areas to improve customer service :

  • Use centralized customer service centres for purely standard processes and standard acceptances. Where a fault or rejection takes place move it back to local customer service operatives for meaningful dialogue with clients.
  • Do not use standard IT responses for situations where some interpretive skill is required eg where bookings are rejected and future alternate sailings should be offered ( or at least a view on future sailings ).
  • Re-invest in experienced, well trained people at a centralized and a local level . A carrier person who really understands the business, is fully conversant with their processes/systems and can solve problems should be a very highly valued resource.
  • Rank problem solving customer service positions high in the pecking order in terms of salaries and career path.
  • Recognise that there is burn out for problem solving staff so there may be a limit on tenure – especially right now.
  • Make quality programs address what clients are really sensitive to even if these are difficult to measure.

There is clearly no easy single solution for an unprecedented situation but knowledgeable committed people have to be high on the list.

There has never been a better time for carriers to invest in their customer service product and its never been more needed.