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Forwarders are becoming increasingly vocal about what they consider to be the inadequacies of a handful of the largest companies in the business. In a series of interviews with The Loadstar, a key phrase used by many companies was ‘listening to customers’ – something many consider is a skill lacking among some of the largest operators.

“You need to go into the detail of why – and what – a customer wants,” explained Marie-Christine Lombard, chief executive of SNCF Geodis. “Customers are key. You need to dive into the details that are required. But you have to listen in a structured way.”

There is certainly a perception among many forwarders that the key to beating lower-priced competition from market leaders is better customer service and customised products.

IJS Global, a medium-sized forwarder with staff of 600 and turnover of some $300m, recently beat off competition from the very top tier of forwarders for a pharmaceutical shipper contract. Rene de Konig, chief commercial officer, said: “Initially we found that larger customers went to larger forwarders. But they want the extra service, and you have to listen to them.

“Many larger forwarders think they can provide it all  – but they don’t have the human touch. We made a specific investment in people. It’s a different kind of investment, and it pays off.”

IJS decided to focus on a few sectors including healthcare, aerospace and defence, high value items and B2C. It also launched a new company, BioPortEurope, which offers advisory services and logistics, among other things, to the pharmaceutical and medical devices industry. “Not many logistics companies do healthcare right,” said Mr de Konig. “We offer a one-stop shop, and we take care of the whole package. You can take the worries of the customers away. We can offer insight into the supply chain that some larger companies cannot.”

Geodis, which will unveil its new strategy in September, is focusing on giving key global accounts the supply chain they need, and then ‘cascading’ it to other customers.

Ms Lombard said: “In the supply chain you are part of a global movement. You have to understand the market of the future, where customers are thinking of manufacturing, what problems they have with raw materials and suppliers, how critical logistics is to their customers and so on. By asking those precise questions you start seeing what type of customer you have, and as a supplier of supply chain solutions, how you can best help them to develop the business taking into account their requirements.”

Damco is another company, albeit slightly larger, which said there were some markets, such as pharma and automotive, that it had declined to enter. “Sometimes you just have to make some choices about the markets you want to serve,” chief executive Rolf Habben-Jensen told The Loadstar in an earlier interview.

While no one interviewed by The Loadstar wanted to name names, one major forwarder in particular was mentioned repeatedly by at least five companies, for failing to listen and giving proper customer support, such as sending out an email saying: “We can’t answer queries after 6pm”.

“You have to stick out your neck, and take ownership. It’s about building relationships,” added Mr de Konig.

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