Sending your shipment with a forwarder involves an element of trust. We have compiled a shortlist of things to look for in a freight forwarder.

What are Freight Forwarders?

Freight forwarders are an individual or company that dispatches shipments via air, sea or road and books or otherwise arranges space for those shipments. Common carrier types could include waterborne vessels, airplanes, trucks or railways.

Freight forwarding typically involves cargo movement to an international destination. This could involve shipping freight by road within Europe or sea / air freight to other global destinations. In these cases the `forwarding’ company takes on prime responsibility for the entire transport operation, specified in each contract, for a charge or fee which covers the total transport operation and, in turn, pays the actual carriers for the transport services rendered to it. Also referred to as international freight forwarders, they have the expertise that allows them to prepare and process the documentation and perform related activities pertaining to international shipments. Some of the typical information reviewed by a freight forwarder is the commercial invoice, shipper’s export declaration, and other documents required by the carrier or country of export, import, or trans-shipment. Much of this information is now processed in a paperless environment. As an analogy, freight forwarders have been called travel agents for freight.

Ten things to look for in a freight forwarder

1) Friendly service

People work with people they like. Freight forwarding is a service industry and as such the freight forwarder you chose should be pleasant to deal with, knowledgable and a good communicator. Depending on the complexity of the regulations in the country you are trading, with you will be relying on your international freight forwarding company for a lot of information. So choosing someone who is easy to speak to will make the experience a lot more pleasurable.

2) Worldwide network of overseas partners.

A good freight forwarder will have a carefully chosen network of similarly minded freight forwarders they work with as a partner or on an agency basis. This allows your freight forwarder the expertise and the best local knowledge to help you through the maze of customs formalities in foreign countries. You or your overseas customer may be able to obtain relief from import duties if the correct forms are completed and submitted to the local customs office and a good freight forwarding company will know this.

3) Value for money

When we say “value for money” we don’t mean the cheapest. Like most things in life with an international freight forwarding firm you get what you pay for – cheapest isn’t necessarily best! With sea and airfreight shipping there are a lot of elements that make up the final quote. A good freight forwarder will advise you of ALL costs. You should question any quotation you might receive that is substantially cheaper as there may be limited availability or elements of the costs may have been omitted. With a most shipments, the price normally indicates the speed of service, the quicker you require the goods the more expensive the freight cost will be.

4) Responsive

There isn’t much point in a freight forwarder being friendly and having the potential to give good quotes if they take ages to reply or worse still don’t reply. Often shipments are urgent or quick decisions are needed to avoid waiting time and / or demurrage so the freight forwarder you chose should have a positive “can do” attitude and an appreciation for urgency. Too much emphasis is put on email communication nowadays, unfortunately emails can get lost, deleted and mis-interpreted. A good freight forwarder will use the telephone as much as email and will be able to recognize their customers by the sound of their voice as opposed to them being just a name on a screen.

5) Status

The UK freight industry in the UK is unregulated, this means that it is open to infiltration by “cowboy” freight forwarders. A good guide to the status of a shipping forwarder is whether they are a Limited company. (this can be checked at Companies House for free) There are other things that could give away rogue traders such as operating from a PO Box address, having no website and operating from free email addresses such as Hotmail or Yahoo. A committed professional freight forwarder will be working from a business address and be happy to visit you or have you visit them at their offices.

Many international freight forwarding companies are members of BIFA (British International Freight Association). Membership of BIFA requires liability insurance (which many forwarders do not have).

6) Direct control

You shouldn’t expect a a freight forwarding company to use their own ships or airplanes and the majority of UK haulage will too be sub-contracted. However sometimes shipments can be sub-contracted 3-5 times before you would reach the person in control of the delivery or vehicle. Check that your freight forwarder is in direct control of your shipments, this avoids lengthy lines of communication if there is a problem or a query on a shipment.

7) Experience

There is no substitute for experience. A good freight forwarder will have at least five years experience in the industry. This experience will help the customer avoid any potential pitfalls with regards to customs clearance and documentation. A good freight forwarder will have a general knowledge of all forms of transport and will be able to draw from personal experience as opposed to just relaying information.

8) Recommended

A good freight forwarder will obviously have a portfolio of happy regular clients who would provide testimonials. Ask your freight forwarder to supply you with the names and telephone numbers of some customers who use their services and give them a call. There is nothing more powerful than a positive recommendation.

9) Size of company

As a general rule small to medium sized freight companies give a good all round service. They have lower overheads and therefore require lower profit margins. Smaller companies are also more flexible and don’t suffer from big company politics. At larger companies the staff can be less motivated and you may have to talk to a multitude or people about one shipment.

10) Professionalism

There any many factors that can effect all types of shipping like weather, Government bodies (like Port Health & HM Customs), human error, language and technical problems. A good freight forwarder will have systems in place to track shipments and will inform the customer of any delays or problems. It is an impossibility to guarantee all transit times but the difference between a good international freight forwarding company and a bad one can make an existing problem much worse. We can all take bad news as long as we are informed of the situation and offered a next best solution. A good freight forwarder will keep their customers informed at all times including weekends and evenings. If handled correctly the way a freight forwarder deals with a potentially disastrous situation can cement the forwarder / client relationship.