U.S./Mexico Shipping Series Part 6: How to Improve Your Customs Broker Relationship

As I wrap up this series, I realize just how much information we’ve already covered about shipping freight across U.S./Mexico borders. We’ve looked at operating on both sides of the border, redefined transportation success, and even asked the tough questions for choosing a customs broker. The final point I want to drive home is what to do after you choose a great customs broker: Build a strong, mutually beneficial relationship that will last for years.

In my last post, I explained how to choose the right customs broker. Today, I’ll discuss the next steps—after all, choosing the provider is only the first step of many. If you chose correctly, both companies will be working together toward a common goal (compliance).

Involve your customs broker

You chose your customs broker because you think they’re great. Now you need to trust them to do what you’ve hired them to do. So ask them questions, share information with them, and involve them in your planning—even before you think you should.

An open dialogue (not a dictate), will allow your customs broker to provide their own unique perspective, one that’s vastly different from yours. That’s why it’s important to bring your customs broker in at the ground floor of discussions.

A properly informed and involved customs broker will be able to connect experiences with other clients with your current situation. Remember, your customs broker is a valuable resource that can contribute to the design of your process rather than just participate in it. And keep in mind that your “normal” isn’t always the industry standard. Your broker should challenge the status quo.

Manage costs, but do so wisely

While it’s certainly important to keep a watchful eye on your customs costs, it may not be in your best long-term interest to demand unreasonable rate reductions, extended payment terms, or free expansions of the broker’s responsibilities. Remember, similar to a doctor or lawyer, decisions regarding your customs broker shouldn’t be made solely on price. There’s a lot of value in the quality service you can expect from a great customs broker.

Conduct in-person visits

An in-person visit to your customs broker’s office will quickly make it apparent if they’re investing in infrastructure, security, technology, and development of their people. Neglected facilities, out of date technology, and high employee turnover are all red flags that you can best evaluate in person.

Seeing your broker’s business in person helps reveal their future business trajectory. Ask yourself these questions before, during, and after a visit:

  • Is your customs broker in in growth, maintenance, or sun setting mode?
  • Do you feel good about your broker’s future over the next few years?
  • Are you equally confident in second level leadership?

Because most brokers are small proprietorships, there may be a big gap between the broker/owner and the next level. You’ll need to be sure that their future aligns with your goals.

Remember, most U.S. customs brokers never physically see the goods they import or export. Having them visit one of your warehouses or production facilities is a great way to help them understand even more about your company and your products.

Improve the process, enhance the relationship

Leverage your broker’s experience and define success together. Establish a continuous improvement plan for your business’s customs strategy. Agree on key performance indicators and use them to assess compliance and performance of both parties; that’s right, some of the onus is on you.

In the first post of this series, I recommended bundling multiple services (e.g., U.S. and Mexico brokerage, bridge drayage, warehousing, and transportation) together under a single provider. If your organization isn’t following that model, your process will be even more complex because you have to help these potentially competing entities play nice together.

If you’re working with multiple providers to handle border crossings, you may consider adding periodic meetings with all involved parties. These types of meetings can help facilitate a shared responsibility for the overall success—not just each company’s individual role in your supply chain. When expectations are clearly laid out from the beginning, it’s easier to expect all companies to stay accountable.

Customs brokerage isn’t a commodity

Customs brokerage is ultimately a service that needs people, two-way communication, and a bit of imagination. A brokerage firm with history, depth of practice, and has been educated about your company and business, will be able to help you develop the creative, cost saving solutions your business needs. So remember to wisely select a customs broker you trust and leverage them to take your customs strategy to the next level.

Alex Garza
General Manager II | Consolidation
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