For years, T&L providers were trapped under the weight of manual business processes. In fact, one study found that 3 out of 4 logistics providers have not automated key customer-facing processes like scheduling shipments, monitoring changes and updating customer statuses.
The reasons T&L providers lag behind aren’t surprising— fierce competition drives prices down and squeezes already razor-thin margins. Higher personnel costs can make it seem risky to invest in new products and services.
But when you consider that that there is $1.5 trillion of value at stake for logistics players—and an additional $2.4 trillion worth of social benefits as a result of widespread digital transformation in the transportation industry—the question is: can logistics providers afford to wait?
Smarter Processes Start with Robots
To compete, you must be able to offer better service. What’s the highest-impact, lowest-effort way to become more efficient and provide better customer service?
Automation, of course.
Robotic process automation (RPA) is often a great place to start because it’s a cost-effective way to expand margins and grow revenue. Software robots act as a digital workforce, working side by side with employees to cover repetitive tasks. RPA mimics the actions of people, and can automatically collect and input data between portals, websites, internal applications and bank systems. For example, many third-party logistics (T&L) providers are working to eliminate the manual processes that draw data from various websites and use it to support pricing strategies.
RPA can be deployed in weeks, not months, because it doesn’t rely on complex coding or come with a heavy IT burden like older technologies. Plus, it works with your existing and legacy systems. The ROI can be almost immediate since productivity gains are compounded across thousands of transactions. That translates to greater capacity and agility.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways automation can transform T&L:
Real-time, high-value service to more customers
Better service is critical to winning new customers and retaining top accounts. Yet, outdated systems and manual processes slow operations and hinder the ability to grow revenue. Automation plays an essential role in enabling customer service excellence and premium services, such as the ability to request a shipment pick-up by email. These offerings typically require significant re-keying of data and updating of multiple systems to keep data synchronized, which presents challenges for any company. The process could take up to one full-time equivalent (FTE) role per premium customer.
By deploying RPA in customer service, a smart software robot can extract shipment details from an incoming email request for a pick-up, log in and schedule the job, and access customer portals to advise stakeholders of schedules.
RPA also improves the customer experience by extracting relevant information such as the bill of lading, carrier invoices and other pertinent documents. This all happens within seconds, rather than hours—meaning customers, vendors and other stakeholders can be automatically updated of job progress, including the location of GPS-enabled vehicles. The customer experience is smooth and streamlined, which means service and end-user satisfaction rates will improve.
Typically, transportation and logistics providers employ a corps of back-office staff and customer service representatives (CSRs) to manually enter and re-key data for primary business activities. Tasks such as quoting, scheduling and tracking shipments, securing proof of delivery, generating and collecting invoices, closing out loads and more, are often handled by teams of people executing repetitive, yet finely detailed operations. As automation technologies become more commonplace with providers, we can expect significantly greater accuracy and speed in communications and handling.
Less human intervention in scheduling and tracking = more efficient operations
Software robots can be programmed to collect a range of scheduling information, including pickup and drop-off points, shipment distance and desired delivery timeframe. Upon receipt of a new tender, robots can use these parameters to pick an appropriate delivery slot. If the robot is unable to secure an appointment, it extracts all the pertinent information and sends it to a human operator, who can establish a new set of parameters and instruct the robot to re-attempt delivery scheduling.
Transportation operator Crete Carrier provides effective shipment tracking, harnessing RPA to enhance visibility into freight as it moves across the country. In stark contrast to earlier days (when drivers might have had to physically go to a facility to determine a vehicle’s availability), RPA automatically confirms the location and load status of individual vehicles. Crete estimates that its RPA platform schedules 40-50 percent of its appointments without human intervention, in a completely automated process that increases convenience for all of its customers.
By capitalizing on automation, transportation and logistics organizations not only make processes run more efficiently, but also enable their business groups to monitor processes over time and learn where further improvements can be made.
RPA is just the beginning
Smarter automation can also help free humans from spending time making routine decisions.
Next-generation RPA includes or is integrated with process orchestration, cognitive document automation, advanced analytics, and mobility and engagement technologies—this is what the industry is increasingly referring to as intelligent automation. It’s about providing business insights that support high-level decision-making and add value; for example, reading physical documents, analyzing text for sentiment and tone, and combining information from various sources.
An intelligent automation platform should enhance the degree that automation supports people with routine work via innate capabilities. This is the digital workforce of the future: “smart robots” and an AI-based toolset that uses intelligence to make sense of semi-structured documents (like invoices) or unstructured documents (like emails or texts). The information is processed using a collection of tools such as machine learning, natural language processing and cognitive document automation. As a result, a digital workforce can be capable of much more than routine tasks or simple decisions.
Consider the following: Let’s say a logistics firm uses AI tools such as natural language processing and machine learning with RPA to optimize routine processes like simple levels of judgment and decision-making. In this example, the T&L provider processes free text in real-time and applies machine learning algorithms to make a judgment that directs the robot on a particular course of action. Again, this is all positioned to extend which “digital capacity” supports an organization’s staff in doing more—not replacing people with automation.
So what are T&L providers waiting for?
According to PwC’s 2017 Digital IQ Survey, 54% of T&L executives said they are already making investments in AI and 63% are planning further investments in the next 3 years. The time is now to embrace what RPA and a platform of AI-enabled technologies could do for your customers, your employees—and your bottom line.
Ready to learn more?
Hear how Redwood Logistics transformed operations to boost performance and capacity by watching this webinar: Smart RPA Puts Logistics Company on the Road to Long-Term Expansion.