When it comes to international transport choosing a freight forwarder should be a similar process to any other key service supplier for your business such as your accountant.
You are likely to be looking for ongoing business relationship with a company you trust in an industry that constantly changes as key suppliers such as airlines and shipping lines change their routings and service levels, then add to that the ever changing and increasing regulations imposed by governments across the globe.
Here are some key considerations in no particular order:
Check how long they have been trading for. A reputable company will have plenty of trading history and so they should have a settled team of staff.
All reputable freight forwarders are members of BIFA (British International Freight Association). BIFA membership ensures a level of industry knowledge and most importantly all members have the appropriate level of liability insurance as a condition of membership. Note that BIFA are unable to offer recommendations, though they will confirm a company is a current member or not.
Freight Requirement Matching
Make sure the services offer by the freight forwarder match your needs. Ask what their main markets or specialisms are. There is no point in using a company who’s main strength is European road freight when you are contemplating importing by ship from China. If a freight forwarder tries to tell you their strengths are all parts of the world and all modes of transport they are not being honest, which is not a great start and you may discover you have chosen the wrong one the hard way.
A good forwarder will take responsibility for the movement of your goods from the moment they are ready with your supplier through to when they are delivered to you. They should not need you to be involved, aside from providing the relevant documents when requested and they should be keeping you up to date, not the other way around.
Ask about in transit / marine insurance. Some freight forwarders know far less than they should on this important subject. You may get told that they are fully insured, which could be considered as being economical with the facts. A forwarder will have liability cover as required by the industry’s trade association BIFA (assuming they are a member).
This only insures them any errors they make and does not provide in transit cover. A good quality forwarder will be able to offer in transit cover for a modest premium as they will have a bulk deal with a reputable underwriter. They should also advise you are free to arrange your own cover should you wish. If you really want to test a forwarder’s insurance knowledge ask them to explain the term ‘general average’. Do make sure your google it yourself first though! You may be surprised.
Finally if you haven’t already done so, give them a call! See if the person you are talking to sounds like they know what they are talking about and gives you a feeling of confidence. Ask them about their IT systems. Serious international freight
companies are now automated and update their customers by track/trace or automated updates. If they don’t offer these facilities they are old fashioned, small or both. Sometimes forwarders subcontract out some, or all of their work, which then means they are subcontracting their core skills and experience. How would you ever find out? A customs entry for example always shows who actually submitted it, and in the UK should be one of the core roles of a forwarder, though often it is subcontracted as it requires technical staff knowledge and software that needs to be kept up to date. What may concentrate your mind is that as an importer or exporter you are legally responsible for the forwarder’s declarations to customs so if
they, or a company they subcontract to make a mistake and customs spot it you will be responsible for the error and worse still you will have to pay any fines levied.