Freight Insights Logistics Technology

Top Trends in Freight Forwarder Digitization

IBM’s rescue from the brink of collapse in the early 1990s to global technology leader today is generally credited to its leadership’s ability to pivot and make major changes to its established businesses – primarily from a focus on hardware to software, cloud computing and services. 

But technology is surprisingly not the only driver in IBM’s renaissance.

Often overlooked in this metamorphosis from incumbent trailer to leader was then-CEO Lou Gerstner’s identification of the need for a cultural change: leveraging IBM’s organizational and technological talents towards exceptional customer experience (CX).  

IBM’s three keys to delivering great CX were:

  1. Understanding what customers want 
  2. Making the business customer-centric, and 
  3. Using digital tools to help deliver great customer experience.  

What does the oldest company on the top ten global technology companies have to do with freight?

Here’s What This Has To Do With Freight

The transformation of a tech giant and the freight industry’s current process of digitization share some key principles: whether selling AI tools and consulting or freight, the ability to adopt new technologies by listening to what customers want can be key to any transformation.

The digitization of the freight industry is about improving speed and efficiency. 

But at its core it is providing a simplified, frictionless and transparent experience to shippers. 

This trend moved forward in exciting ways in 2019. For example:

    1. CH Robinson launched Freightquote – This platform takes aim at SMBs enabling simple online search and e-booking across multiple US trucking carriers.
    2. DB Schenker rolled out Connect 4.0 – allowing customers online multimodal search, and even booking and tracking across land, air and ocean.
    3. Among carriers, Hapag-Lloyd added Navigator, a real-time tracking and alerts platform to complement its QuickQuotes offering.




DB Schenker, Hapag-Lloyd and C. H. Robinson all rolled out new digital tools in 2019.

All of these are steps to improve the customer experience of shipping freight, and remove the legacy frictions that could slow down the process in the past. Critically, these are all offered by legacy incumbents intent on offering a phenomenal customer experience. Sound familiar?

But how extensive have these steps to digitize been across the 3PL industry, and how much has the shipping customer experience changed as a result? 

This year’s Freightos mystery shopper study looked to answer these questions. 



Keep reading for the highlights OR

Download the full report here

For previous years’ reports: 2015, 2017, 2018

About the Research

In the study we looked to online spot quoting as a proxy for the overall digitization of the industry as it’s often a shipper’s first encounter with forwarders. Also, the ability to get key information quickly, easily and reliably is a pillar of 21st century digitization and may say a lot, not only about what tools have now become available, but how they’re being leveraged to deliver a truly digital customer experience. 

We mystery shopped the twenty largest freight forwarders for FCL, LCL and air online quotes. We also surveyed eight digital freight forwarders and the five largest ocean carriers for FCL quotes to get a sense of the growing competition that forwarders are facing and how these compare in their digitization efforts. 

Online Requests for Quotes (RFQs)

For small and midsize importers, the customer journey almost always starts with a freight quote. So the first thing we wanted to see was how easily an RFQ could be submitted online. 

The results show progress over previous years, with nearly all forwarders providing an online form (90% compared to 70% in 2015). Most were easy to find, and some forms, like those provided by DB Schenker, CEVA, and Kuehne+ Nagel, featured search and filter options that let shippers sort by price or duration and get very exact for their quote request. 

But What Happens After the RFQ?

Next we looked at how forwarders responded to these requests. Here there was also progress, but still significant room for improvement.

There was a much higher rate of forwarders providing instant quotes (15% compared to none in 2015 and 5% in 2017) – a true mark of digitized pricing and processes. 

Forwarders also sent more responses within 24 hours than in the past, pointing to digitized rate management being used internally. But 18% of all requests were provided with quotes manually, taking an average of 122 hours and as much as 19 days – definitely slower than most shippers’ desired pace of business! 

But perhaps worse was the majority (60%) of requests that were just ignored, leaving hot leads and interested customers to go elsewhere and indicating that the importance of customer experience in digital channels is not yet appreciated.

Threat from Carriers and Digital Freight Forwarders?

In the mid-’90s, IBM wasn’t living in a bubble. Neither are freight forwarders. 

When we looked at carriers, we found that the top carriers are getting serious about digitization. Several are rolling out new shipper-facing products and doing somewhat better in taking steps to reach shippers directly with 40% of carriers offering instant quotes, compared with only 15% of freight forwarders quotes. 

Digital forwarders are likewise seeking to be customer-centric and doing somewhat better than traditional forwarders with 25% offering instant quotes. Both of these groups are showing progress and seeking to pose a threat to traditional freight forwarding, but likewise still have a way to go. 

Customer Experience Matters for B2B. More than You Think.

A recent Salesforce study found that B2B buyers: consider customer experience very important (even more so than consumers); can be won by great service; and expect technology and innovation to play a key role in delivering it.

The advances in digitization of the past year are encouraging, but suggest that the industry doesn’t fully appreciate the importance of customer experience and how digitization can help deliver it. 

As in the example of IBM, the difference will be which players are able to listen to what customers want, pivot to deliver, and leverage the available tools to provide a smooth, reliable, and transparent customer experience.  

To see in-depth where all this is going and in what ways digitization will enable customer-centric freight download the full report here.