How to align your customer care to shipping delivery expectations

Keeping your customers educated on your shipping process allows you to better manage customer expectations, discusses Caroline Mason of John Mason International.

The key point to note with regards to customer service in the world of international shipping is to educate your customers about the shipping process so that their expectations are managed. Right from the first enquiry, expectations need to be handled so that whatever perceptions the client may have with regards to shipping/transit times are realistic. You may have a wide range of clients, some who are familiar with the international shipping process and others who are not. In all cases, you will need to make sure their expectations are realistic otherwise this will cause you problems further down the line. Regardless of if you are choosing to ship via air freight, sea freight or rail, the principles are still the same.

We would always recommend being upfront and honest about providing accurate transit times. Setting up false expectations, e.g. promising a shorter transit time to win business in the short term is not advisable; your reputation will suffer in the long-term. Make sure all of your sales team are aware of this and that they are all giving exactly the same information out with regards to shipment transit times and delivery estimates.

A complex shipping process

The international shipping process is complex and there are many factors and third party companies involved which means providing an estimated transit time, rather than a fixed one, is advised. Shipping line vessels for example are affected by many external factors such as port congestion, port staffing levels and weather conditions (for example, stormy seas can affect vessel sailing times). Shipping lines will provide vessel ETAs but it is important to keep in mind, that this is only an ‘estimated time of arrival’ in the same way that a vessel ‘ETD’ are provided, ie ‘estimated time of departure’.

In addition, shipping lines can sometimes ‘roll over’ cargo in certain instances to the following vessel. This does not happen very often but if your customer is educated about this, they will be prepared and in most cases, appreciate the additional knowledge.

Customs clearance for example, can often take longer than expected. Customs and other import operations can also be affected by the political situation of the country. A port strike for example can cause long delays and the backlog of shipments after the strike has finished can lead to problems continuing for several weeks after. In this case, the key is to advise your customers as soon as you are aware of the problem, don’t wait for your customer to contact you.

Updating clients

Be proactive and constantly update your clients, reassuring them that you are doing everything you can possibly do to avoid delays and you will advise them as soon as possible if there are any issues. If you have a shipment tracking system, you will need to update this or send a personal email to clients. In some cases, it may be advisable to replan the routing of a shipment to avoid a particular port.

Often when a new regulation comes into force, there can be a slight delay as operations staff become accustomed to the new regulations. Bear in mind also seasonal fluctuations. Holiday seasons, such as Christmas for example, can sometimes cause some minor delays as public holidays can lead to skeletal staff in some offices.

You can advise your customers (whether it is a business to business or business to consumer relationship) that they need to respond in a timely manner to all your requests for customs information. This will ensure that delays are minimised and the risk of a fine, which can be imposed by customs for delayed or incorrect paperwork in some destination countries, is also eliminated or reduced.

Dangerous, restricted and prohibited items – be diligent

You will need to be aware of dangerous, restricted and prohibited items for each country. Shipping lines are very strict with regards to hazardous cargo and airlines have very strict regulations which must be followed. Bear in mind also to make sure that all import permits have been applied for and received. In addition, some countries for example Australia and New Zealand, have strict quarantine regulations and full compliance is required. Further information regarding Australia and New Zealand quarantine is available on the site and the Ministry for Primary Industries website for New Zealand

It is important to note that import regulations and shipping procedures change on a regular basis and a system is needed to make sure that your records are updated and the information you give to your customers is kept up to date. Not being aware of a new regulation for example, could cause your shipment to be ordered by customs to be refused entry into the country. It is often a good idea to join an international trade organisation or the overseas section of your current trade body as they may provide advice when regulations change. It is really important to have a reliable source of up to date information for all destinations you are shipping to.

Keep your import/export knowledge up to speed

In summary, the best way to ensure a smooth customer service experience during international shipping is to make sure that you and your team have all the technical knowledge and export and import information, updated on a regular basis. Your local Chamber of Commerce may have export and import courses available so that could be a first port of call. In addition, networking events and talking to people in the international shipping industry is another way of building your knowledge.

The second point is to make sure this information is passed on to your customers in a clear and easily comprehendible manner. If you are a small business, you may wish to outsource the shipping process to a freight forwarding company or a commercial shipping company but in any case, the more knowledge you have about the process and pass on, the more accurate your customer’s expectations will be.

Further reading on shipping

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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