There's a scene in the George Clooney movie Up In the Air where Clooney's character, a real pro at business travel, talks strategy about airport security lines. Don't get behind old people, he says. They're slow and their bodies are riddled with hidden metal.
I travel enough where my wife no longer has to remind me to put my tiny tube of toothpaste into a plastic bag. I get to the airport early and avoid anyone with kids or a luggage cart. I'd pay extra not to have the hassle, but that's not really an option at a time when terrorists are trying to ignite bombs in their shorts. Convenience and commerce took a back seat to security a long time ago.
Last month, I boarded a plane to see a customer who won some business that involved moving goods across the U.S.-Canada border. That's a specialty at our company, and I was looking forward to showing him how we manage it.
I've seen shippers large and small get tangled up at Customs because of a paperwork error and there's no one to deal with it until morning. I don't want to get behind those guys when I'm moving freight.
The preparation and coordination for clearing the border start long before the truck leaves the loading area. It takes a team of people — both at the shipper and the carrier — working together:
- Policy guys
Designate one person in-house to write down customs compliance procedures and contingency plans. Cover every scenario from late documents to a weeklong border closure. Make the plan accessible (on paper, on your network, etc.) and revise it as needed. If everyone knows what to do in any given situation, there won't be any panic when something goes wrong.
Who will deal with problems as they happen? Who's on call when the “customs expert” is out with the flu? A fast response can save you days.
Customs penalties and delays can wipe out the efficiencies that come from investments in more efficient production equipment and training. Cash flow can be crimped and production lines slowed because shipments are held up. These are the real costs of badly managed customs procedures.
- Customs brokers
Carriers can only present the documents they're provided. The ability of the customs broker to enter the data accurately and, more importantly, in a timely manner, allows the carrier to deliver the freight on time. The closer you and the shipper work with the customs broker, the more cost and inefficiency you can drive out of the system. Never forget, though, that customs brokers make a living managing your money and have your freight as collateral. Nothing slows down a shipment like a past-due notice from your broker. Make sure they get paid on time.
- The IT guy
You can fill out a paper form and give Customs all the information they need, but electronic filing can give you a big advantage in speed and accuracy (we offer better pricing to customers who use technology). Bring the IT guys to the table so they understand what's required and why.
As a salesperson, you're not selling trucks and trailers. Your important resources are creativity and a clear head. There's no better way to demonstrate your value than by helping the customer understand procedures and streamline his shipping.
You know how I said I'd pay extra to not have to deal with the hassle of travel? Shippers do have that option — by working with a carrier that knows what it's doing.
Mike McCarron is managing partner at the MSM Group of Companies, which specializes in transportation and logistics service between Canada and the United States.