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One of the most frequent complaints I hear from carriers, in person, on social media, or at conferences, is about the number and quality of freight bids that they receive. Carriers complain about the poor quality of the data, the number of carriers in the bid, and about the lack of professionalism in the bid process. They also assert that if the shipper would just meet with them face to face, rather than through a bid process, the result would be more successful for both parties and would take a lot less time, money and effort.

My company has designed and executed many successful bids over the past fourteen years. We have learned that for many shippers, success comes from getting “your house in order” before executing the bid. This is what is involved.

Many shippers have been moving the same freight, to the same consignees, using the same processes, for several years. In their haste to put their freight out for bid, they overlook certain aspects of their business.

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A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog entitled “How do you know when it is time to conduct a freight bid?” (http://www.dantranscon.com/index.php/blog/entry/how-do-you-know-when-it-is-time-to-conduct-a-freight-bid ). In that blog, I outlined a set of general conditions that shippers can use as a guide to reach this decision point. Half way through the first quarter of 2017, I find myself thinking about this issue again. Here’s why.

The stock markets in North America are hitting record levels on an almost daily basis. Usually this is a sign of good economic times ahead. The US Consumer Confidence Index in December of 113.7, reached its highest level since 2001, a sure sign that people are ready to open their wallets and buy things. The National Purchasing Manager’s Index increased to 54.7% in December 2016, an increase of 150 basis points over the previous month and the 91st consecutive month for growth in the overall US economy.

The Shippers Conditions Index for October 2016 increased to a neutral reading of 0.4. FTR, an American transportation consulting service, expects that shippers will see a couple more months of neutral market conditions before they may be impacted in the latter half of 2017. The impact would in part be due to potential capacity issues stemming from the Electronic Logging Device (ELD) implementation scheduled for the end of 2017.

ACT Research’s For-Hire Trucking Index sees freight rising faster than capacity, increasing the gap to levels not observed since 2014. January freight volumes for TransCore’s Link Logistics continue an upward trend after a surge in freight volume in December 2016. Although the record for highest load volumes for January was set in 2014, last month’s load volumes are the second highest recorded for the month of January, and compared to last year load volumes have leaped 43% year-over-year.

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The subject of online freight bids and internet freight auctions came up a few times at the Surface Transportation Summit that took place in Toronto on October 13. The carriers that raised this topic spoke of the high volume and poor quality of bids that have been hitting the transportation industry this year. One carrier was so fed up with the internet auctions in which they were participating that they made a decision to opt out of them.

It is clear that where there is a market opportunity, there are a multitude of companies that are seeking to meet the needs of unsuspecting shippers. It was apparent from the carrier comments that there are a number of unqualified or underqualified, unprofessional providers, some with very limited expertise, who are providing an unsatisfactory service to their customers and a disservice to the industry. These are some of the issues that were brought to light.

There are bids on the market where the carrier is being asked to quote on 6000 lanes of traffic, a massive undertaking. In one case, the carrier was provided with shipment data that stated that there are 1600 truckloads of freight that move on a particular lane each year. The carrier that is the incumbent, looked at their data and noticed that they move only 160 LTL shipments on the particular lane each year.

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Some large LTL carriers have announced rates increases this fall. Old Dominion, XPO Logistics, YRC Freight and UPS Freight have all declared 4.9 percent GRI rate increases on non-contract LTL freight that took effect in September. In survey after survey, shippers have claimed that cross reductions are their number one priority. How can these two conflicting strategies be resolved?

It is important for LTL shippers to realize that LTL carriers are serious about making these increases stick. Despite somewhat muted demand for LTL service, carriers are making a determined effort to secure these increases.

One of the major reasons for the focus and discipline is balanced capacity. Most of the large LTL carriers shrank their networks considerably in the aftermath of the 2008-09 recession. As a result, there’s not a lot, if any, excess LTL capacity. Yield management is the priority this year. With limited capacity, there is little value in triggering a price war. A race to the bottom does little to help carriers raise their margins. LTL carriers are looking at their margins per lane and per account and taking action on contracted and non-contracted freight to improve yields. What can shippers do to mitigate these GRI increases?

For companies that have significant volumes of freight, they can put their business out for bid, leverage their volumes and sign multi-year contracts with minimal rate increases in subsequent years. There are a number of Best Practices that can be employed to make your freight bid a productive process (http://www.dantranscon.com/index.php/blog/entry/freight-bid-tip-1-obtain-buy-in-and-participation-from-the-operating-divisions ). For shippers that routinely do this on an annual or bi-annual basis, there are other avenues to pursue.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_dreamstime_xl_31478542_20160826-151328_1.jpgDuring this period of modest economic growth and ample capacity, freight rates have been in decline. This is confirmed by the various market indices that track freight rates. Lower energy prices that have translated in lower fuel surcharges have also helped keep freight rates in check. The data also indicates that some shippers are switching modes and moving from intermodal back to highway service to obtain faster service at more attractive rates. Looking ahead to the future, 54 percent of the trucking companies responding to a recent Inbound Logistics survey expect static growth in the near term.

Despite the drop in freight rates, 75 percent of shippers surveyed in the same study stated that reducing transportation costs is their top priority while only 38 percent indicating that finding capacity is a challenge. The static economy and low energy prices would appear to be creating a “perfect storm” for shippers seeking to meet their greatest challenge. The danger for shippers is to get greedy as many did during the Great Recession. We remember seeing shippers bid their freight multiple times a year in the hope of continuing to drive lower freight costs. While we are big believers in the value of high quality freight bids, we are also a strong proponent of the old adage, “you get what you pay for.”

We all know that just as there are cycles in the stock market and the housing industry, there are cycles in the freight industry. What goes down will go up again. Shippers that surround themselves with “bottom feeder” carriers at discounted rates will likely have a rude awakening when the market turns. Moreover, with new government regulations coming into play and the volatility of fuel prices, capacity will likely tighten and freight rates may rise sooner than later.

So what should thoughtful shippers do to manage their freight costs as smartly as possible? As stated above, we still believe that conducting a professional freight bid exercise, once a year or every two years is a wise thing to do. For shippers that include a range of quality carriers and logistics service partners in the RFP and conduct multiple round events, this is still a great way to secure savings in freight costs.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Sample-Routing-GuideV1_20160429-193844_1.jpgMany shippers don’t achieve the cost savings they expect from their freight bid exercises. This can happen despite the time, energy and costs that go into these projects. Based on our work with shippers over the past twelve years, these are the main reasons why this happens.

A Failure to Provide Full Disclosure of Requirements and Expectations

As a prelude to the execution of a freight bid, shippers are required to gather and document the scope of their freight transportation requirements. For carriers to bid properly on a shipper’s freight, this goes well beyond volumes, lanes and transit times. Carriers need to understand everything about the pick-up, linehaul and delivery operations. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. The omission of certain requirements can lead to erroneous carrier selections and turmoil after the bid has been completed and the freight has been awarded. Here is one example.

Some shippers require early morning (i.e. 7:30 AM) deliveries. Not all LTL carriers are able to supply this service in all locations on a consistent basis. If carriers are not informed of this requirement in the RFP and then expected to meet this requirement in certain locations after the bid has been awarded, this can lead to service failures and pressure to bring back the incumbent (s).

A Failure to Gain Buy-In and Support from all Divisions and Sister Companies

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As everyone knows, it is very difficult to time the stock market. While we are all aware of the old adage, “buy low and sell high”, in reality, this is not easy to do.

When it comes to freight rates, it is sometimes problematic to select the right time to put a company’s freight out for bid. The last few years have been particularly challenging for shippers. After the Great Recession, carriers have been adding capacity in a prudent and deliberate way. Gone are the days when carriers build transport companies and hope that shippers will come. In addition to managing their fleet capacity, carriers have also been challenged with the struggle of recruiting qualified drivers.

Consolidation in the trucking industry has been very prevalent in recent years. In Canada, companies such as TransForce have acquired large chunks of the small parcel, LTL and truckload sectors. There are simply fewer carriers for a shipper to choose from. Carriers have gained pricing leverage over the past few years.

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In my last blog, I outlined a set of tips to help carriers achieve greater success with Freight Bids. Here are a few more.

Put your best foot forward early in the process

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Freight Bids or Freight RFPs have been around for over two decades. Every year we hear comments about their imminent demise. Unfortunately for many motor carriers, this is wishful thinking. While these exercises are often detested by freight companies, they are popular with shippers across North America. Why? When well done, they provide the shipper with better service providers at a lower cost.

One of the popular themes at many freight conferences is the talk of shipper-carrier partnerships and collaboration. I have heard this theme for a decade. If only shippers would sit down with their carriers, they could pull costs out of their operations and become more efficient.

While this is possible and even probable, the problem with this scenario is that the shipper is left wondering if carrier B could pull even more costs out of the operation than carrier A. This explains why so many shippers have contracted their freight to logistics service providers. They are not convinced that if they forgo the RFP in favor of collaboration, they will derive the maximum benefit. Thus the popularity of freight bids.

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Final Reflections on Freight Bids

Posted by on in Freight Bids

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Freight bid projects have become one of the most commonly used methods of sourcing freight transportation services over the past two decades. They have become popular with shippers for obvious reasons. When done well, they produce good results. Manufacturers and distributors can strengthen their supply chains by selecting a dedicated group of professional transportation companies and save money on freight costs.

The carrier perspective on freight bids is often quite different from that of most shippers. They tend to dislike them for several reasons.

1. Many bids are not well done.

2. The process of responding to these bids is a lot of work and they often don’t produce any business.

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Monitoring carrier performance is an ongoing process. Some trucking companies will track performance for new shippers with a heightened level of intensity for a designated period of time and then revert back to old habits or standard service levels when the shipper’s focus is no longer there.

Every shipper should understand that there is no start or finish date to monitoring carrier performance. During the bid process, shippers need to outline the service performance that they expect and set up processes and reports to receive actual performance data on an ongoing basis. A web-based dashboard can allow shippers to monitor key KPIs (e.g. missed pick-ups, on-time deliveries) in real time. Monthly scorecards can provide the shipper with detailed reports and highlight any service failures that may have occurred. For new carriers, weekly reports and meetings may be necessary to ensure a smooth implementation.

As the carriers come up the learning and performance curves, these meetings can be cut back to monthly, quarterly or semi-annual, as needed. Success from freight bids is a result of a high level of attention to detail. Dashboards and scorecards that provide information on service, billing accuracy, missing or lost freight, are invaluable tools. These tools coupled with ongoing meetings will help keep the carriers’ “feet to the fire” and maintain the levels of savings achieved.

 

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If your company provides hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in revenue to certain carriers, they are a critical part of your success, or failure and vice versa. While a rate quote may be a suitable form of agreement between shipper and carrier, for low volume service providers, it is not adequate for larger bid awards. There are several reasons for this.

First, a written agreement between the parties can spell out the nature of the business relationship (e.g. parties to the agreement, governing law of which country, state or province, services expected, etc.). Second, in this era of tight capacity, there is a requirement to obtain written commitments from transport providers on various elements of service performance (e.g. on-time pick-up, transit times, billing accuracy etc.).  These can be detailed in a set of SLAs or Service Level Agreements that can be attached to the core agreement.

Third, the full set of rates, accessorial charges and terms and conditions should be attached so there is no disputing the costs the shipper will incur over the agreed contract period.  Fourth, there should be a written understanding concerning the length of the bid award and a mechanism or formula (e.g. CPI increase) for rate increases in subsequent years. Fifth, there should be a written understanding as to what measures can be taken in the event of non-performance.

The intent is not to create legalistic, adversarial relationships with a company’s core carriers; rather signing written agreements will establish a framework for service performance and communication that can promote understanding and co-operation. In other words, the document will provide clarity with respect to expectations, performance and costs that can be quite beneficial to both parties.  

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As the freight bid process comes to conclusion, there is an urgency to award the business so the shipper can begin enjoying  the cost savings that were achieved. While this is understandable, it is important to keep several things in mind.

First, if business is being awarded to new carriers, they need to come up a learning curve before they are as experienced as the incumbents. Second, some new carriers may have over committed during the bid process and are not able to perform at the expected level. For example, they may only serve certain lanes on particular days of the week or they may not have enough head haul or back haul traffic to bring their equipment back as quickly as expected.

Sometimes the shipper is at fault by not identifying the full scope of their requirements during the bid process. The company may have forgotten to disclose or incorrectly assumed that every carrier can make an 8:00 AM pickup or delivery every day. When informed, the carrier may determine that the best they can do, with their network, is effect a 10:00 AM or 11:00 AM delivery but no earlier. This may not be satisfactory for the shipper since they may need the freight early in the morning so they can dispatch their delivery vans at 8:00 AM to provide the service demanded by their clients.

We suggest that you test market at least some of the new carriers while keeping the existing carriers in place on those blocks of business. In other words, share the freight until such time that the new carriers have demonstrated that they can meet the service requirements. Guide the new carriers through the transition in order to increase their odds of success. Remember that this will create a win/win situation. This is also a good test of the professionalism of your incumbents.

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We live in an ever-changing world. Trucking companies come and go. They are being bought, sold, merged, downsized and resized every day. Under new management, a company may flourish or deteriorate. In this era of driver shortages, carriers are being very deliberate about how they allocate their capacity. As they focus on yield management, this precious capacity is being supplied to the carriers' most profitable customers.

In addition, trucking companies are constantly adding and losing business. A trucking firm may add a new account tomorrow at a higher margin than they are receiving from your business. This may cause them to make their capacity more readily available to another client. The bottom line is that it is always prudent to prepare for a “rainy day.” In other words, there is value in having backup carriers for most of your business.

This means that it is critical during the rounds of bidding, to smooth out the variances in rates between your “low bidders” and the others who were on the short list. By doing this, it reduces the cost differential in making a switch for any of a variety of reasons (e.g. poor service, carrier goes out of business, de-markets certain lanes etc.).

It should also be kept in mind that a carrier will not be too motivated to serve your company if they are a backup carrier in name but receive no freight. To achieve success with freight bids, carefully determine your primary and secondary carriers. This should include both asset and non-asset based providers.  While the temptation is there to give all your freight to the low bidder, to maximize savings, this can be a risky strategy. Where possible, select primary and secondary carriers. Give your backup carriers a reasonable volume of freight so as to keep the primary carriers “honest” and to keep all of your transportation providers engaged in serving your company.

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We live in an era of impersonal communication. E mails, text messages, tweets and GoToMeetings have replaced face to face communication in many instances.

The decision to award millions or tens of millions of dollars in freight transportation to a set of carriers is a very important one. You don’t want to entrust your company’s business and reputation to poor service providers that say they will meet your needs and don’t deliver. You don’t want to commit your business to carriers that offer low pricing to secure the contract and then come back a few weeks later with a rate increase, claiming they misunderstood the bid. These situations happen all too often and they can be very disruptive and financially punitive to shippers.

It is our view that the bid evaluation and award process cannot be done effectively through automated computer programs. There is a requirement to meet “eyeball to eyeball” with companies that may be your future business partners. These meetings should have a formal agenda. In addition to pricing issues, there is value in reviewing the carriers’ operations in detail. This includes:

a) fleet size and age

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