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How To Find The Right Freight Forwarding Agent

This is the third article in the series: How To Get Great Freight Service And Price.

Maybe you know everything about your business, the best tools, even the latest in consumer shopping habits. But chances are, you get blindsided by freight. There’s a lot of that going around. You need a trusted ally in the freight industry, an agent working on your behalf.

Whether you know them as freight forwarders, clearing and forwarding agents or just simply as forwarding agents, there are too many to count (probably over 100,000 currently in the world). That seems like being spoiled for choice. However, that’s often not the case for an industry often described as being opaque, meaning customers get little visibility into pricing and service levels.

This article sets out how to go about selecting a forwarding agent.

  • First, consider whether your shipments have special requirements.
  • Then weigh how much your shipping might narrow down agent selection.
  • What to look out for if you are driven by price.
  • What to look out for if service is more important to you than price.
  • And finally, how to search for both great service and a good price.

Consider Whether Your Shipments Need Specialized Support

There are some commodities which many forwarders don’t deal with, such as vehicles, household removals, and bulk commodities like wheat. Not all forwarders deal with oversized shipments, either, so you’ll definitely need a large or specialized forwarder if you want to ship a full subway train. A more common group of exceptions that many smaller forwarders won’t deal with is hazardous cargo. Don’t be fooled by the name, as it includes some seemingly tame products, like toys with batteries.

Another important consideration is geographic coverage. Not all forwarders ship to all parts of the world. Smaller freight forwarding companies often have a quite limited network of forwarding companies in other countries that can act as agents for local delivery or pickup and customs clearance. They’re bound to cover your country’s most common trading partners, but if you import, say, from Bhutan as well as China, you should clear this first with a prospective new forwarder.

Consider The Size Of Business You Are Offering The Forwarding Agent

Working with name-brand global forwarders has its advantages. They have the muscle to secure good rates and preferential treatment from the big air and ocean carriers. But being popular means that the larger forwarders have to make choices. Their larger customers bring in more business, and it’s only natural that in busy periods, larger customers will get preferential treatment to the detriment of smaller customers. Here’s the type of service, smaller businesses can expect. Only 35% of large forwarders responded to a small business’s quote request in a recent mystery shopping survey.

Let’s face it, you need to be able to rely on contacting your forwarding agent when necessary. If your primary point of contact is going to be a 1-800 number, that’s an indication of how valued your business is to them.

Of course, the reverse is also true. Although local forwarders can usually give their small customers more width and are faster to respond, they may not be as competitive on price. This is something to consider should your strategy be to go for the cheapest price.

Are You Looking First And Foremost For A Great Price?

Most forwarders will claim to provide superior service, but they are all aware that winning a new customer generally comes down to price.

However, making a decision on price alone can be deceiving. For instance, some forwarders discount the first shipment to win the sale but make up for it with on subsequent shipments. Also, some forwarders hide charges in the terms and conditions to make their quote price look more attractive than those from more honest competitors.

There are of course forwarders who lead on price. That almost certainly means a reduction in service. Depending on the services they cut out – for instance, some forwarders specialize in only one trade lane or only in air freight – that may not affect your business. But, be aware, some forwarders cut back on general customer service levels. Many things can and do go wrong in international shipments. That cheap price may come back to bite you. If you get a quote that is significantly cheaper than other requested quotes, see if you can find out how they were able to undercut their competitors.

Or Is The Forwarding Agent’s Service More Important?

Your shipment is worth more than the shipment value, it’s needed to grow your business, so you want someone you can trust to handle your valued goods.

The stories you’ve heard about the number of containers lost at sea are urban myths. In fact, only a very small percentage of containers go missing each year. Much more commonly, shipments do get lost, stolen, damaged and delayed. If this seems to happen frequently with your shipments, it’s time to start looking for a more reliable forwarder.

Many larger forwarders are also 3PLs (third party logistics providers) who specialize in providing broader support (contract logistics) for their customers. They can provide useful services for importers, like superior shipment tracking and warehousing. The tradeoff, of course, is likely to be on price.

But service isn’t just about breath it’s also about quality. Good old-fashioned customer service. Freight forwarding takes a lot of coordinating. Airlines, ocean carriers and especially customs agents aren’t forgiving of incorrect, incomplete or late paperwork. If your forwarder isn’t on top of your shipment, it risks being delayed and incurring unnecessary additional charges.

As a logistics service provider, your forwarder should communicate regularly and transparently with you. If you wait a week to get a freight quote before shipping, that might be a good indication that you could be waiting to get status updates on delayed cargo. A good forwarder will provide status updates, quickly alert you of any problem, and just as quickly work to resolve them, for instance, if a glitch occurs at customs or the warehouse, or when a shipment is behind schedule. If this isn’t happening, then it’s time to start looking for a new forwarding agent.

Good communication is important with freight charges as well. Freight quotes shouldn’t require deciphering. They should not have hidden charges or include unfair terms and conditions that get the forwarding agent off the hook.


A great partnership requires each partner knowing what is required of the other. Soon after selecting a new forwarder, meet up with them to discuss what you both expect in the way of communication and. Your forwarder needs you to quickly be on top of any documentation they send your way. You’ll probably want to know more about the process, the key documents required, at what points along the shipment you will get updates. You’ll want to agree on what point you wish to be notified of potential problems. This way, you can ensure you get better freight service.

The digital forwarder is a new breed worth considering. They compete for smaller importers by providing a better service. They can do this because process automation enables them to run a leaner business, it reduces errors and speeds up internal processes. The integrated customer interfaces deliver a superior user experience. There are few of them still, and they are still building capability. In particular, not everything is automated yet, and they are still building up their geographic coverage.

Can You Get Both – Great Service And Price?

Until now, freight forwarding has largely been offline.

Getting prices from forwarders generally takes days. You’re not going to get a schedule of rates, only a response to a specific quote request. Understanding how competitive a forwarder is on service is also difficult. It’s generally come down to experience because there hasn’t been anything in the way of online forwarder ratings. With importers having little visibility into pricing or service, it’s not surprising that many of them are paying through the nose for an inferior service.

But this is changing. The Freightos Marketplace, which supplies instant online quoting from a wide range of forwarders, also provides price and service comparison. That is, it is now possible to sort and select quotes by price, transit time, or service rating. The last article in this goes into the process of selecting a forwarder and quote in more detail.

This is what it boils down to when looking for the right forwarder for your business. First, consider whether you have any unusual shipping needs. That will weed out some of the smaller forwarders. Then consider how important your business may be to the forwarding agent. What you consider next depends whether you are driven most by price or service. Finally, there is now an option that lets you go for both service and price.

This article is part of the series: HOW TO GET GREAT FREIGHT SERVICE AND PRICE.
1 Freight Forwarders: International, Air, Ocean & More, on why you need to use a forwarder.
2 Step-by-Step Guide To Requesting A Quote, on what to prepare before requesting quotes.
3 How To Find The Right Forwarding Agent, on what makes for a great forwarder.
4 Selecting Forwarders & Freight Quotes, on making the big decision.

The easiest way to find great freight forwarders and instantly compare freight quotes is the Freightos Marketplace. Enter your business email to see live rates.