A peek behind the scenes of Summer Peak
The summer season is the busiest time of the year in supply chain management. It’s so frenetic that the weeks leading into Australia’s summer holiday are known throughout the industry by just one word: “Peak”.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges and new urgency to the whole industry. The added pressure is felt in the office where the din of incessant phone calls, keyboard tapping and urgent conversation is reminiscent of a stock exchange trading floor.
‘Tis the busiest time of year
Seasonal factors impact global supply chains. Australia’s build up to a summer Christmas also coincides with the peak period in the US, from Halloween to Thanksgiving and then to Christmas. It also aligns with a frantic period in China where many companies are working overtime to fill their orders prior to the Chinese New Year shutdown in January. The network becomes so full that volumes do not traditionally return to normal levels until well into February.
This is the time of the year a 4PL team like efm particularly shines. Designed to bridge the performance gap in carriers by leveraging sophisticated technology and a dedicated team, a 4PL provides customers with peace of mind that if a truck gets caught up in Dubbo with a package that needs to be in Melbourne by Christmas Eve, it will step in and do all it can to find an alternative solution.
Likewise, if network congestion is such that deliveries will be delayed across the board, efm will provide clear and transparent information outlining the realities of the circumstances, allowing their customers to proactively communicate with their customers and therefore protect their brand reputation.
It is the time of year when people like efm’s General Manager – Transport Operations excel, working long days with her team, liaising with Customer Service, Account Managers and carriers, and problem solving.
“You never know what you’re walking into at the start of a shift,” says General Manager – Transport Operations, Mary Watkinson. "The whole operations team must be ready to put in the hard yards to solve problems that impact efm’s customers.”
“Everyone is switched on to provide a higher level of service.”
All hands on deck
It’s just on 8am when Mary receives the first notification of a carrier disruption. Within 10 minutes of arriving in the office, the wider teams are informed of the upcoming disruption and all teams swing into action.
Customer Service is briefed on the potential impacts, Account Managers are on the phone discussing options with their customers, while Mary continues to liaise with the carrier for updated communication.
By half-past-eight, the Transport Operations team and the Account Managers are meeting to discuss how the day will unfold. Due to the impact of COVID-19 this is often a dynamic and fast-moving situation.
“On some days,” says Mary, “I don’t know what I’m walking into when I get to the office.”
The key to keeping freight moving is communication. “Fortunately, because we’ve been communicating effectively with our customers through the pandemic, they’re very understanding when problems arise,” she says.
The other big advantage that Mary’s team has is access to efm’s consignment management system, OneFlo. “The software really gives us agility to see across the whole day’s inventory and find a work-around for our customers,” says Mary.
Minutes – not hours – are crucial
On busy days, the decision-making timeframe is minutes not hours. Suppliers are filling orders and consigning freight from early in the morning. If there’s a problem, it could snowball to disrupt their entire day. Official notifications go out from efm to customers starting at 9am.
Half an hour later, efm’s Account Managers are discussing with customers tailored solutions to the day’s disruptions. The control tower view afforded by efm’s OneFlo system means that Mary’s team can usually find an alternative carrier if the customer cannot delay the shipment.
It’s ten-o-clock and Mary’s team has been hard at work for two hours. Within 30 minutes, critical consignments are identified, and solutions are being put in place to make sure loads that can’t be delayed can be moved by alternative carriers.
On days like this, having access to a suite of carriers is a bonus for efm’s customers because it is often possible to allocate a consignment to a transport partner.
“If you only have a direct relationship with one carrier,” Mary says, “you don’t have the option to shift the load; but we can do it quickly because of our relationships across the industry.”
Account Managers must be on their toes
From early in the morning to the close of business, efm’s Account Managers are in the front line.
“They have to be on their toes,” Mary says. As Transport Operations Manager, Mary must be across all the permutations that are unfolding. One customer may have the ability to shift from Carrier A to Carrier B, but there are knock-on effects that ripple throughout the supply chain.
If Carrier B is suddenly hit with new consignments, this could spring another trap; suddenly they are overcommitted and cannot guarantee pick-up and delivery. “I have to let our carrier partners know what’s coming, and make sure they can handle the extra volume,” Mary says.
If they can’t, then Mary and her team must go back to the drawing board and find alternate solutions. A standard movement may no longer be an option and a bespoke approach may be required.
DIFOT numbers and COVID
For most of the year, an important part of Mary’s day is helping Account Managers and efm’s Customer Service teams manage the expectations of both customers and carriers. COVID-19-related disruptions have reduced Delivery In Full and On Time (DIFOT) rates, leading to backlogs and bottlenecks.
Customers expect deliveries to arrive on time, and carriers need a good DIFOT rating to maintain their credibility in the industry. However, this year DIFOT rates have fallen to the mid-80 percent rate due to disruptions – industrial action by drivers, COVID shutdowns, staff shortages, and the shift to online retail – throughout 2021.
Mary says efm does not “hide behind” false DIFOT numbers and is honest with customers about the impacts of COVID-19 and other delays. “Our value add is that we find solutions,” Mary says. “We’re not pretending that the DIFOT rates are perfect, and we don’t use COVID as an excuse,” she says.
The OneFlo system provides critical data to highlight DIFOT issues, manage consignments, and find optimal solutions when supply chains breakdown. It helps customers understand where the pain points are and what is driving the performance.
Always have a back-up plan
Throughout the day, the efm team works quickly, responding to critical issues as they arise. “We always have a back-up plan.” When carriers experience a back log or major disruption and reach out for support, efm is able to quickly adapt, thus delivering a quality customer experience and also supporting its carrier partners.
Sometimes this means working well into the night. “We find a way,” says Mary.
A big part of Mary’s day is ensuring that efm’s intelligence gathering efforts run smoothly. This ensures that immediate problems are identified and addressed, but crucially, it is also about planning for the next day, the next few days, and the weeks ahead.
Peak proves the value of a 4PL partner
There is a lot going on in the efm offices on any typical day, but the intensity rises to meet the challenges of Peak. It is almost impossible to do this for business to manage with in-house resources which are finite and difficult to build up quickly in response to disruptions.
“Customers would not have the level of service they have if we weren’t involved,” says Mary. “It’s our job to makes sure that freight doesn’t sit in limbo,” Mary says.
Because each customer has a direct relationship with an Account Manager– who can call on the Transport Operations Team for support – efm is able to find the ultimate solution for all critical issues.
Mary and her team are not magicians but using the combined skills of efm’s dedicated team and the datasets provided by OneFlo, they are able to keep consignments moving - and customer informed - even amidst the complex challenges of Peak.
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