I've been having a number of conversations recently with freight forwarders who are trying to get their heads around the customer facing side of digitization. There are a lot of jumbled perspectives out there, and I think part of that comes from trying to lump multiple groups of customers into a one size fits all solution.
When product managers and marketers see these problems, they often turn to the concept of personas to help put some definition around who a product is built for (and who it isn't). I've broken down four customer personas here that cover very different freight customers.
Customer A - General Freight
This is the typical generic customer who just wants you to move general purpose containers from point a to point b for them. Low margin / high volume and very price sensitive. The online booking tools in the marketplace serve these customers well. The tools are focused on low friction in the quote to book process and provide basic visibility at a container level. They aren't as strong in reporting on ongoing customer management, but excel at making it easy for your customer to buy from you. If you're looking to move a lot of volume across a lot of customers, then this is the customer you're hunting for.
Customer B - Managed Freight
Similar to customer A but with more volume, this customer wants more reporting and comprehensive visibility at a shipment or commodity level. They're more likely to give you all of their business so they can get the unified reporting benefits. While they are still price sensitive, they're more likely to understand that saving $5 on a single shipment isn't worth giving up a comprehensive reporting tool. Many of the built in "tracker" websites that come with off the shelf freight systems are designed with this customer in mind. If you are looking for a more stable customer base of small & mid-sized accounts and aren't chasing every spot shipment, then your energy is well spent here.
Customer C - Order Management
These are the holy grail customers. They want a true 3PL/4PL type service where you provide order level visibility and reporting culminating in a true landed cost. These customers absolutely understand that price isn't everything and value long term relationships. These customers can vary in size, but usually have not invested in their own TMS. Once you've integrated this service into their business processes and IT systems, you become very, very sticky. If you do things like Quarterly Business Reviews and use terms like "partner" heavily, then this is your sweet spot.
Customer D - Specialty
Project freight, perishables, pharmaceuticals, and other specialized industries have very unique needs. They trust long term partners with experience in their space. They are often willing to sacrifice a bit of digitization to work with people who are "on the inside" of their respective industry. That being said, if there are multiple players in your segment, a strong digital tool may be your path to differentiating and prying some of these loyal customers from your competitors. Unlike, the other three categories where there is a wealth of off the shelf capabilities, you may want to consider investing in a custom tool to serve this customer. They've come to you for a specialized service and they'll immediately sense if you're trying to cram them into a generic freight tool.
So What Should I Do
If your business fits squarely into one of these categories, then you are in luck. You can eliminate many of the tools in the space and focus on the ones that fit best. If, like many providers, you're touching two or more categories, then you may need a hybrid approach. Perhaps purchase one generic tool to cover customers A & B while offering an up-sell for customers C & D.