As the general manager of a logistics company, I run across shipping problems every day. Our team routinely solves problems related to missed pick-ups, late shipments, routing issues, carrier issues, paperwork and a host of other issues.

About once per year, we have a nightmare shipment, where everything goes wrong.

The Nightmare Begins

My nightmare shipment began about six months prior to the actual shipment pick up. I met with a local businessman, Marty who was importing goods from Asia. We had similar backgrounds in automotive and we really hit it off. He had the right attitude and the right type of business to become a great client. Marty didn’t have a lot of shipping yet, but if everything went right, he was going to do lots of shipping.

We didn’t do any shipping for him at first, but I kept in touch hoping to eventually get a sale.

Finally a six months after our initial meeting, I got a call from Marty asking us to help him with a shipment from Taiwan. We wouldn’t be responsible for the sea freight or clearing customs, but we would pick up two pallets from a warehouse in California and deliver them to Chicago.

I was really pumped! After the new client euphoria wore off, my natural paranoia kicked in. I’ve learned that Murphy’s law is a constant threat when you get a new shipping client. So I assigned one of my best account managers, Jim to the project and told him to babysit the shipment. Everything had to be perfect.

Over the next day or so, we collected all the new account information along with all the shipment details.  We selected a really top notch, reputable carrier for this shipment. Meanwhile, I asked Jim for an embarrassing amount of status updates. We were killing it!

On the day, we were supposed to pick up the shipment; Jim informed me that the shipments hadn’t cleared customs as planned. Now, the time sensitive goods were going to be a little tight timing wise.  We discussed the problem with the client and assured them that we would stay on top of it.

The next day, our very reliable carrier picked up the shipment and moved it to their terminal. In the morning, the pallets would begin their cross country trip to Chicago. The client had to have a great first impression of us.

First thing the next morning, Jim informs me that the precious two pallets did not get loaded on the East bound truck as planned. Apparently, the pallets were lost – couldn’t be found at the carrier terminal. I smiled and laughed a nervous laugh because I knew he was kidding.  He wasn’t kidding.

Once a shipment is lost, all you can do is call for updates, wait and pray. Unless you are a logistics company, then you have the added misery of telling the client the bad news. We assured Marty and his team that their pallets would surely be found soon. From our experience, shipments are seldom misplaced for long. We were confident that the pallets would be found safe and sound and we would hire an expeditor to move it cross country.

Expeditors are expensive, but our policy is to pay for expediting when it is our fault or the fault of our carrier. So we were going to lose money on this shipment, but hopefully we could still get this shipment delivered on the promised date.

The client wouldn’t be happy with the drama, but hopefully they would be impressed with our expediting policy and our super responsive team.

Unfortunately, the carrier didn’t find the pallets on the first day. We kept in constant communication with the carrier and our now angry client. On the second day, they found one of the pallets and we immediately had the pallet moved by air freight so it could be in Chicago overnight.

The other pallet was never found, which is very unusual. My client had to buy and import new goods from Taiwan and this time they sent it air freight to satisfy their client’s timing. We of course, gladly took care of all the details.

The routine, easy shipment that should have cost $300-$400 and 3 or 4 days had now stretched to over a week and a cost near $5000. Fortunately, we were able to get the freight claim filed and paid pretty quickly.  We had lost money and upset a brand new client.  So much for good first impressions!

I spoke to Marty before, during and after the fiasco. He was very understanding and professional. We never did another shipment for Marty’s company. Even though he recognized that this shipment was an outlier, he probably didn’t want to risk it.

From my shipping nightmare, I learned the following lessons.

Ship Happens

The first lesson learned from this nightmare is sometimes things gone wrong despite your best efforts. My team and I paid exceptionally close attention to this shipment because we know from experience that shipments for new clients are often problematic. We review and discuss all bad shipments internally and in this case, we followed our processes. Our documentation and communication were solid.  Sometimes it is just your turn for a screwed up shipment.

Account Familiarity Matters

There is no substitute for knowing your client well and that takes time. Understanding the people, processes and products makes it easier to solve problems when they arise. Our partner carriers also become more effective and efficient after they have experience with the client. Had our carrier picked up shipments from that client on a regular basis, they might have known what the lost pallets looked like, which could have helped find them sooner.

Good Communication

Good written and verbal communication is key in the logistics business. During this whole ordeal, we maintained an open dialogue with our partner carrier and our client. For a client, a lost shipment is bad enough; you shouldn’t have to chase after your logistics company for status updates. Our client made it easy to communicate with them throughout the whole process by being objective and professional. We knew they were unhappy, but by keeping their cool, they made it easier for us give updates on progress.

Bottom Line

If you do a lot of shipping, you will run into an occasional bad shipment. To get the shipment back on track, focus on options rather than your disappointment. Service providers will be more likely to help solve the problem if you are calm and focused on solutions.