Leads Online

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“When I started here 14 years ago,” says Rosemary Terek, “it was all about phones. We spent all day calling truckers. Later, we used to broadcast more than 100 faxes every night — and spend the whole next day on the phones talking to people who had received the faxes. Now, with the Internet, everything’s so much easier.”

Terek, operations manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based transportation broker TRUX International (www.truxint.com), is talking about online load-matching. By using the power of a PC and the reach of the Internet, she posts available shipments and gets fast responses from carriers who can take the freight.

It’s a concept that’s been around a long time, but one that’s evolving rapidly in the way information about available loads and truck capacity is relayed. The major players in this business are changing, too. They’re becoming more sophisticated, using information they have about loads and lanes to develop a portfolio of products that range from mileage and fuel tax calculators to dispatch management tools and equipment tracking.

For Terek, the process starts with a desktop computer and a simple network connection. Her primary tool is software from Link Logistics (www.linklogi.com). The predominant load-matching company in Canada, Link Logistics lists around 40,000 available loads each day, which Terek can search via a Web connection or using Windows-based software running on your PC. She likes the desktop software — Terek says it’s faster to dial into the Link Logistics network, download what she needs, and then sift through what’s available on her desktop. She uses the Web-access version mostly as a backup in the event the TRUX network is down or being upgraded.

Like her early days working the phones, Terek drops a lot of lines in the water when she’s fishing around for freight and available capacity.

“We use Link Logistics primarily for Canadian loads,” she explains, “and the Internet Truckstop (www.truckstop.com) for posting inter-U.S. loads. We use other Web-accessed services — from Direct Freight Services (www.directfreight.com), GetLoaded (www.getloaded.com), ProLoader (www.proloader.com), and MoreFreight (www.morefreight.com) — for difficult-to-place loads or for specific jurisdictions.”

Link Logistics and the Internet Truckstop are time-tested sources for load information in a market that has seen scores of players bubble up and evaporate quickly. Based in Mississauga, Ont., Link Logistics started 10 years ago and over the years has used various means to deliver information to customers — faxes, private networks, and the Internet. Subscribers get unlimited access to the company’s database of loads and trucks, plus opportunities to review information about operating authorities, insurance, and credit histories. Last year, the company was sold to The TransCore Commercial Services Group of Beaverton, Ore., which also owns DAT Services, in Portland, Ore., the largest freight-matching network in the United States.

In contrast, the Internet Truckstop started in 1995 by offering load matching exclusively on the Internet. It’s a simple bulletin board, really, where people post available loads and capacity for free. Access costs $35 US a month. In the ensuing years, dozens of Internet-based services have come and gone, but this one has endured in large part because it’s simple and affordable to use, and because its information is reasonably fresh.

And freshness is critical. Anyone who has fought in the backhaul wars knows the most desirable loads disappear fast. They often go to the carriers who first see them posted. Using sites that update their listings only a few times a day often results in dead listings and wasted phone calls.

The better subscription services offer fresh information not only about loads but about the people who post them. Loads from shippers or brokers with good credit histories are highlighted, color-coded, or otherwise marked.

It’s the kind of service load-matching companies are using to distinguish themselves, says Rick Court, president of Link Logistics. “Our online version has built-in mileage reporting,” he says. “Users can do real-time credit checks via Dun & Bradstreet, TransCredit, and Equifax. New load alerts appear via onscreen popups, as soon as they’re posted.”

Court claims that Link Logistics is now the only load-matching service in Canada or the United States to offer both software and Web-access versions. But his company is encouraging customers to move to Web-only access. Within three years, he says, it will be the only option the company plans to offer.

The transition is being promoted by the addition of increased functionality in the Web-access version. By the end of this year, Court says, the online product will be a full-featured suite, encompassing operations management, load management, tracking, and communications capabilities. The ability to make payments online will come later.

How important is online load-matching to those who use it? “If our system were to go down for even 10 minutes, the phones would start to smoke,” says Court. For that reason, Link Logistics maintains a complete backup system, in case of a system crash. “We understand our customers’ needs,” he adds. “Link Logistics is like a utility for them.”

Like many other utilities these days, online load-matching will soon become even more advanced. According to Court, many Link Logistics customers in rural areas rely on slow dial-up connections, as high-speed access isn’t available. They can’t get information as fast as competitors using the same service, and therefore sometimes miss out on contracts. That problem may soon disappear.

“We’re currently talking with a supplier about high-speed, satellite-based Internet access,” says Court. “When I asked our customers about this, their response was ‘I don’t care what it costs, I want it.’ It’s an obvious business asset. After all, even if they’re paying a couple of hundred dollars a month for that access, if it gets them four or five loads they wouldn’t have had otherwise, it’s worth it to them.”

Load-matching technology is definitely in place. But it may not meet the needs of those who want or need a process which is less open. The Internet, it must be remembered, is a distributed network, with less-than-perfect security. Some companies may also prefer a process they see as being more neutral than one managed by someone else.

For that reason, and because online load-matching services vary regarding the amount and type of information about the load and the shipper, buyers should be aware that doing the necessary due diligence is in order.

That’s the reason online services are offering checks of credit, insurance, and operating authorities as options, or are offering guaranteed payment services.

TRUX International’s Rosemary Terek feels the online load-matching environment is neutral. “It’s standard in this business for everyone to check everyone else, anyway,” she says.

But she acknowledges that the “buyer beware” adage holds in all business dealings. In the late 1970s, load-matching meant drivers looking for loads by making telephone calls and tacking notes on the bulletin board, and brokers trying to find drivers by putting flyers under windshield wipers.

Things have come a long, long way since then.

SIDEBAR: Going Siteseeing

Most load-finding sites are simple enough to use: all you need is a computer, a modem, browser software, and an Internet service provider. Most sites explain the rules and how-to’s on the opening page.

Some free services allow anyone to browse their listings of available freight and trailer capacity. To access larger subscription sites, you must establish an account. Most offer free trials — periods of limited enrollment during which you have access to posted loads. Some free trials require a phone call to the service provider. Others can be easily arranged online and used immediately.

Some sites aren’t in the subscription business at all and allow only pre-approved carriers to peruse the listings. For example, Schneider Brokerage of Green Bay, Wisc., provides access to some 3000 prescreened carriers. According to Mark Mullen, director of Schneider’s brokerage services, the site helps trucking giant Schneider National balance its traffic lanes. In the process, of course, it might help you balance yours.

Better sites have clear instructions and intuitive search tools to help you sift through thousands of available loads. Some services offer active agents that seek loads for you. That means if a suitable load is not available, you can request to be notified as soon one is listed. That notification might be an e-mail, a fax, or even an audible alarm, which can be a valuable head start in securing the load before someone else does.

Less sophisticated sites, typically the free ones, will simply provide a list of loads sorted by location. But if you find a suitable backhaul on that list, it was worth the look.

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