Less-than-truckload (LTL) transportation provides a unique challenge for shipper and carrier alike. Giving customers an accurate, end-to-end window into the multitude of handoffs, exchanges and disparate data sources each load goes through can be a tricky proposition for even the most advanced providers. Some companies, however, make it look easy.
I recently sat down with Geoff Muessig, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at PITT OHIO, one of the country’s premier providers of LTL shipping services. During our discussion, we dove into the many ins and outs of this important transportation mode, and talked about how companies like PITT OHIO are leveraging cutting-edge technology to truly stand out from the competition and bring their operations into the future.
Below are the highlights from our conversation.
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Tell us about PITT OHIO. Who do you serve, what do you specialize in and where do you operate?
PITT OHIO is headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA. We have an asset-based and a non-asset-based business unit, but we’re best known for our legacy LTL business unit, which operates from Chicago across to New Jersey — from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic — and from New Jersey south to Virginia. But we’re also a member of the PITT OHIO Transportation Group, which is comprised of three other LTL companies: Ross Express in New England, US Special Delivery in the Midwest and Doern Transfer out there, as well. So that gives us coverage far into the Midwest and all the way through the Northeast.
We specialize in less than truckload services. We do have a truckload division — ACM Transport — as well. And we’ve most recently gotten into warehousing, where we’re able to provide adjacent warehouses to our terminal buildings and give customers the ability to pick orders late in the day and get them delivered the following day as well.
A very adaptable organization. It seems like there are a lot of moving parts, and a lot of opportunities to meet customers wherever they need your services.
That’s absolutely true, and with that complexity comes a great need for really good communication, to be able to do things well and efficiently.
So from your perspective, what are some of the unique challenges with visibility that LTL carriers face?
PITT OHIO’s worked on this problem a lot, because we work with our sister LTL companies to provide a seamless service from pickup in Pittsburgh to delivery in Boston, with our sister company Ross Express. And one of the things that typically happens is the interchange point between carriers. Your carrier may say they don’t inter-line, but typically they will be using a cartage agent in certain points of the country. It could be a dense metropolitan area like New York City, or it could be a more rural area like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There is no LTL company that services every point in the United States.
So, oftentimes what happens is that carriers build their system, and when they hand that shipment off to the final-mile carrier — the carrier who will perform the last leg of that delivery, they show that as delivered in their system. So that’s a real problem, because the shipper gets information back saying “Delivered”, but ultimately the consignee has not received the freight yet. That only happens a day or two later when the cartage company finally performs the delivery.
At PITT OHIO we’ve worked hard to make sure that the companies we work with provide us with that information, not only that they perform the service reliably, but also have a very reliable digital transmission of the shipment status information that we can then in turn pass back to our shippers.
What are customers asking of PITT OHIO from a visibility standpoint? How has that evolved in recent years?
The topics of shipment visibility and supply chain visibility have been prominent the last five years. But I think the pandemic really amplified the issue. Because now, customers oftentimes are working remotely from their homes, and while they may have had access to the information systems, they were distant from their colleagues, their place of work, and maybe even the physical location where the goods are. And being able to understand where the product is at all times became very apparent. And if you lay on that either a precipitous decline in demand, or a precipitous increase in demand, now that shipper has to pivot and pull product through their supply chain from places where they may not normally look. The first question they have to ask themselves is, “Where do I have the product that’s in such demand? And then how can I access it?”
I’ve found that in the last 12 months I’m getting a lot more questions about both the availability of shipment information, and the accuracy of that information. That is probably the key piece, but I’m also starting to see those shippers who have got their arms around shipment visibility now starting to ask their providers “What can you tell me proactively so that I can better manage my customers’ expectations?” And that, I think, is the next frontier in terms of managing information and sharing it between partners.
“I’ve found that in the last 12 months I’m getting a lot more questions about both the availability of shipment information, and the accuracy of that information.”
– Geoff Muessig, EVP/Chief Marketing Officer, PITT OHIO
How does better visibility create time and cost savings for both the carrier and customer?
In transportation, execution is all about planning. If you know the work that you need to do, then you can plan the appropriate resources, and bring those to bear in order to execute against that and provide an on-time delivery experience. PITT OHIO’s Vice President of Operations tells me all the time that the 80% of shipments where we get visibility on the front end about what we will be picking up today are the efficient business that we handle. The 20% of shipments that we pick up where we have no visibility — those are the most expensive shipments that we pick up every day, because we’re essentially reacting on the fly to changing quantities in different lanes, and we can only allocate the driver resources at the last moment.
In our world at PITT OHIO, we’re moving shipments up to 550 miles on a next-day basis, and we’ll typically set up our line-haul board for our drivers who will be running intercity that night at 4pm. So to find out at five o’clock in the evening that you’re going to have an extra trailer in that lane, well now you’re pulling a driver off of one run to put them on another run, and now you’re scrambling to cover the initial run. And that just cascades throughout the entire network.
Improved visibility allows for better planning, which in turn allows for the efficient movement of goods. And that’s how the carrier benefits. What we do at PITT OHIO is we gain share that savings back with the customers who can provide us the shipment visibility or bill of lading visibility on the front end. We do that by offering them better pricing.
“Improved visibility allows for better planning, which in turn allows for the efficient movement of goods.”
– Geoff Muessig, EVP/Chief Marketing Officer, PITT OHIO
Where else does PITT OHIO see an opportunity to deliver on the need for more real-time information within the broader LTL shipment lifecycle?
Historically, shippers have been very interested in getting shipment status information. It’s the information the carrier can provide back to the shipper so they can manage their customers’ expectations. I think what we’re starting to see now is carriers saying that it can’t just be a one-way street. It needs to be a two-way street.
It’s pretty obvious in 2021 that if the information exists digitally in the shipper’s ERP, then it should be able to be transmitted over the carrier’s ERP with a stroke of the key. And doing that early and accurately is probably the biggest area of opportunity that’s out there.
Looking at other places, I think that the other frontier is this idea around managing exceptions. I like to talk about freight claims, shortages and damages. Typically in the LTL industry today, carriers don’t notify shippers when a damage occurs. They leave it to the consignee to call up the shipper’s customer service department and notify them that the shipment was short or damaged. And in that instance, then, the shipper is challenged to decide whether to re-ship the order or file a claim and move it all along. It’s only then that the carrier gets involved, when the claim is filed.
At PITT OHIO, our thought is that we need to be proactive here. When a shortage occurs, when a damage occurs, we need to send it over in real time if the shipper wants it. We find that typically they want us to gather that information once a day and send it over in a batch format, so that they can then better manage their customers’ expectations and ensure their satisfaction. So I think that the areas of proactive notification and the bill of lading that are probably the two greatest areas out there for improvement.