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In just a few short months, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed how supply chains are run.

Companies are adapting to a new remote-work environment, and the crisis has come with a surge in shipping demand as well as constrained capacity, causing rate spikes across the industry. From February to March alone, the average rate to hire a truck on the spot market increased 6.1%. Against this backdrop, digital freight-management solutions are becoming even more crucial to ensure that shipments are completed in a timely and cost-effective way. Those needs are even more critical for food manufacturers, where freshness and timing are imperative.

While cloud-based logistics management has been on the rise in recent years, the COVID-19 crisis is now creating a sharp divide between haves and have-nots when it comes to technology. Cloud-based technology is increasingly becoming a must for logistics providers, with at least 30% of shippers saying they expect 3PLs to provide these I.T. capabilities. As a result, logistics providers that depend on antiquated solutions to manage shippers’ loads are now struggling to meet customer demands — partly because of systems and processes that weren’t designed for users to work remotely. These providers are failing to provide on-time communication and accurate visibility, resulting in missed freight exceptions, poor transportation management, and unhappy shippers.

With about 50% of companies already using resources like big data analytics and cloud-based tools, logistics companies will need to find a way to catch up as an industry. The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing the importance for shippers to partner with logistics providers that invest in cloud-based collaborative transportation management systems (TMS), as well as automated tools, to ensure that shipments are handled efficiently and effectively, every time. Here’s how these kinds of digital tools can optimize supply chains through COVID-19 and beyond.

Remote booking. With capacity tight, finding reliable, cost-effective carriers for every shipment is a challenge. It’s also complicated by the fact that many of us are working remotely. A logistics provider that offers cloud-based mobile tools can make it easier to connect with shippers in real time, directly from your mobile device.

When evaluating solutions, look for providers that offer mobile apps to keep your team and carriers connected. This not only streamlines the cumbersome rate shopping process, but can also ultimately shave down transit times during this busy period for shippers. 

Real-time load management. “Real-time visibility” has been an industry buzzword for years, but not all real-time solutions are created equal. Especially now, it’s important to have transparency in operations and stay connected with drivers. Artificial intelligence (AI) systems are becoming the new standard: they not only allow you to see freight moving in real time, but also to create a digital paper trail of their whereabouts directly in the platform.

If your provider says they offer real-time tracking, be sure to ask how they facilitate this type of visibility. For example:

  • Does the logistics provider have an artificially intelligent algorithm that can identify without human intervention whether the truck driver is falling behind schedule, and notify the correct users immediately?
  • How exactly can an algorithm trigger this event?
  • How is this truck plugged into the TMS?
  • Is the truck driver plugged in via mobile application, electronic logging device (ELD), text message tracking, or internet of things device tracker placed in the trailer?
  • Is the integration robust enough? Can the logistics provider demonstrate on a case-by-case scenario? 

Being prepared to ask questions and discuss your shipping needs will allow you to pick the best logistics provider based on their experience with managing relevant, evolving tools like AI.

Contactless billing. Maintaining a cloud-based digital trail for payments isn’t just more efficient; it’s safer during COVID-19. In addition to real-time visibility, explore whether your logistics provider offers digital billing capabilities. They eliminate the need to manually exchange paper to keep workers safe, and provide a record you can easily access digitally to review payment status. 

Achieving excellent supply-chain management will require the use of AI-based systems, cloud-based technology and workers collaborating in a way that truly benefits the greater good of the business. As the world adapts to the new normal of COVID-19, these types of tools will be useful even beyond the current crisis. By choosing a logistics partner that has these tools and resources at their fingertips, you can continue to grow your bottom line and keep operations running smoothly — even in the midst of a pandemic.

Nick Darmanchev is founder and CEO of Archerhub, an asset-based digital freight broker.

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