Opinion: The Customer Service, Dispatch Dilemma

This Opinion piece appears in the Aug. 10 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Greg Shelton
Dispatch Consultant

As the recession deepens, there is growing awareness in the transportation industry of the role dispatchers play in keeping third-party logistics firms and freight brokerages competitive, particularly in the areas where dispatch and customer service collide.

Brokerages and 3PLs are making high customer service standards a priority, because in today’s market, with scarce freight and fierce competition, keeping customers happy is a matter of corporate life or death.

Having realized that dispatchers speak to more drivers, shippers, receivers and customers than anyone else, companies want to take advantage of that contact and ensure positive interaction. That means the old stereotype of a surly dispatcher who is always at odds with drivers has to be a thing of the past.

Obviously, a company that performs with the fewest problems, makes it easy for customers and carriers to speak with qualified personnel, and offers sound assistance is going to get more business than one plagued with bad pickup numbers, poor directions and overwhelmed support staff.

Think of it as the evolution of dispatch, in which basic survival depends on a company establishing and observing customer service standards. In a normal economy, hiring more customer service staff might solve the problem, but that’s difficult during a belt-tightening recession. It’s a dilemma that has caused some companies to reach outside the transportation industry and hire customer service and call center managers to help them make do with existing staff.

An experienced manager from another industry could help a company become more efficient by instituting phone upgrades, call accounting and service standards and by creating clear guidelines for various problem-escalation situations. An outside manager also could optimize staffing models by examining call volume spikes and pinpointing scheduling needs by means of forecasts.

But there is a caveat: Bringing in a manager from another industry might sound good to a company in this chaotic environment, but it also might prove to be counterproductive.

Look at this way: Hockey and lacrosse are somewhat similar sports. They both use sticks, have face-offs and use goalies. A hockey coach, while unfamiliar with lacrosse, could use the same techniques to motivate players and evaluate talent on the field, but that is where his effectiveness would end. Shooting a puck off a stick while on skates is radically different than running full speed and launching a ball out of a net.

This is the potential problem with managers from nontransportation backgrounds. Their intentions are good, but relying solely on their previous experience and knowledge will block any chance of success.

Customer service’s focus is on the individual caller and on never giving that caller cause to consider the experience negatively. Call center managers are trained to promote efficiency and work inside statistical models — calls should be answered in so many rings, resolved in so many seconds and agents should answer a predetermined number of calls per shift.

But one cannot assume these methods will translate effectively in a dispatch environment. A dispatcher’s job is to keep freight moving, and as a result there are countless situations encountered on a daily basis that may require excessive time or a firm hand. A manager has to realize that.

There is a real danger in companies becoming so dazzled with call reports and efficiency upgrades that they fail to see the department actually is regressing. Dispatchers become less self-reliant, less diligent and less focused on the overall goal.

Should dispatchers be evaluated using negative feedback, efficiency and call totals? Of course, but letting these philosophies be the only criteria in defining the position will undermine the department’s effectiveness.

Imagine a dispatcher struggling to get a shipper to stay open but giving up to avoid having an excessively long phone call on his or her productivity report. Or, imagine a dispatcher so afraid of negative feedback he or she chooses not to challenge a driver who refuses to load a truck to its maximum weight.

How can a manager define department goals and guide its operation if he or she does not fully understand the work of its employees? Yet, managers who have no idea of what it means to cross dock, reconsign, repower or clear customs are responsible for the very employees who must know these things.

Managers new to transportation must be given rigorous, in-depth, hands-on training specific to the business and focused on essential tasks. Can one learn to swim by watching someone or by reading a book? Perhaps, but without getting wet, you’ll never know what it’s like.

For managers, this means sitting in the dispatcher’s seat, taking calls and doing the job, not just shadowing a dispatcher for 15 minutes, examining training materials or reviewing department procedures. By doing this these things, managers can develop an honest perspective as to what they are asking of their employees.

Customer service and call center managers can serve as reliable resources if utilized correctly. Their experience with technology and managing large groups of employees effectively can be a valuable commodity for a company, but it must be meshed appropriately with the dispatch department’s core goal.

Failure to do this will result in statistical success, but late freight. The question is: Which service did your customer pay for?

Based in Amelia, Ohio, the author currently is a consultant for Logistics Technology Corp., helping design and test new dispatching software applications for logistics operations.