Digital & predictable: what shippers really want from supply chains

I learn a lot from customers.

Talking to shippers, exporters and cargo owners always reminds me of what they want (and what they need).

Good rates, great customer service and schedule reliability? Sure, but there’s one thing I hear more than any other — predictability.

Or as a Brazilian melon exporter told me recently: “We know there might be delays because so many things can happen. The key is that we’re notified as soon as possible. Then we can tell the importer to sell the fruits in the right order.”

In other words, customers want the right information at the right time so they can make better decisions.

As we collect more data than ever, it’s tempting to think customers want full visibility, to have up-to-the-minute updates on every movement of a container. Smart containers too can even give us detailed data about what’s going on in the container itself.

But do customers want that data?

No, in most cases, they just want to get on with business. It’s less about visibility and more about predictability.

Or as the Melon exporter explained: “Our business is selling food… not tracking containers or managing logistics. Get it there when it should be, and if it’s not, let me know what’s going on and what you’re doing about it.”

With that information, customers can make better decisions. They can inform their customers and business partners, adjust stock levels, or make other arrangements. Predictability enables them to run their business more effectively.

So how do we deliver predictability?

Well, first we must have the data, but also the capability to share it, and more importantly still — the will.

Standards ensure the data we collect can be shared easily.

It’s of little value to customers if data formats and definitions vary between carriers and ports for instance. Predictability depends on a common language for sharing data. This enables fast, easy, and consistent sharing of data when it matters most (something we’re working on constantly with DCSA).

But beyond the capability to share, we must also have the will.

In the past, there has been a tendency to withhold data, fearful that transparency could upset customers and create issues. Now, as we replace legacy systems and processes, we must also replace legacy mindsets.

Customers would prefer to know rather than be kept in the dark. Shipments can’t always be predictable, but the information can be.

Digitalisation paves the way for predictability. In the past, the biggest impediment to information was simply not having easy access to it.

That has changed.

Digitalisation now allows us to collect, codify, and share valuable information when it matters most. But it’s important we don’t get lost in the data itself.

As we move forward, we must never forget that business is still personal. Digital experiences should enhance the personal touch, not replace it.

Technology frees us from manual tasks, allowing us to focus on the people, where it matters most. And as the comments on my articles continue to prove, we’re an industry built on strong relationships and human connection.

Digitalisation will bring greater predictability, but people will make the journey worthwhile.

Husband, father, bass player, shoeaholic. CDIO at @MSCCargo and chairman of DCSA. I mostly tweet about the digitalisation of container shipping!