If youre in need of a parcel consolidator, the first and last thing you probably look at is price. Thats understandable, especially during tight economic times. However, you might be doing yourself a disservice if you judge a carrier on price alone (especially during tight economic times). What are you getting in exchange for the rates you would pay? How does each consolidators package best meet your particular package needs? Minimally, rates should include consistent time in transit, outstanding customer service and dependable package care.      


Consistent Time-in-Transit

When working with consolidators, youre not going to expect overnight delivery service, and the carriers rates reflect that. However, you should expect a satisfactory window of time for deliveries, likely in the neighborhood of two to seven days. There are no fewer than four telltale signs of whether or not a consolidator will be able to provide consistent delivery times: volume, facilities, technology/automation and transportation.

A carrier that has substantial volume day in and day out is able to ship packages deep into the postal system to processing centers and even neighborhood post offices, a practice known as zone skipping. Zone skipping allows packages to bypass a number of postal processing facilities, thus accelerating home delivery. Carriers that lack volume simply cant afford to dispatch half-empty trucks.


Also, you cant afford to have your packages on the road for too long. Regional distribution centers that are located near major highways and highly populated metropolitan areas (i.e., the majority of your customer base) play a significant role in a carriers time-in-transit capabilities. Similarly, a carrier whose facilities are near your distribution center or a third partys fulfillment center is able to reduce the amount of time it takes to induct your packages and get them to your customers.


Technology often helps drive speedy deliveries and consistent transit times. Automated sorting equipment eliminates the time associated with manual sorting, enabling the carrier to move hundreds of thousands of packages each day. Automation also helps a shipper sort packages based on their destination ZIP Codes, a prerequisite for zone skipping.


Transportation flexibility is another important piece in the time-in-transit equation. For example, some consolidators offer custom-tailored pickup schedules. They can station a trailer at a clients distribution center for the client to load its packages throughout the day at its convenience, which means the carrier gets the packages to its distribution center for same-day sorting and expeditious home delivery.


Outstanding Customer Service

A proactive and responsive account manager dedicated to you and your needs ( a single go-to person ) can make all the difference in the world. Your account manager, or CSR, should work with you to identify your unique characteristics and needs. He also should be searching for better ways to integrate your preferred workflow with his companys, and vice versa. And, of course, your CSR must know the whereabouts of your packages 24/7 and be able to predict and identify any problems.


One of the most underrated qualities of a good CSR is his ability to act promptly, whether in moments of crisis or peacetime. Is he empowered to make decisions on the fly as he sees fit, or is he simply one link in a chain of bureaucracy? You need the former.


While you want your CSR to be autonomous and all knowing, he needs his own support network. He should have good relationships with key people within his organization and have access to them, from the package processor on the night shift all the way up to the president.


However, foresight and problem-solving skills alone do not make a good CSR. He also must be knowledgeable about your business (How can he help you if he doesnt know you?) and the postal system. He needs to be well versed in the Postal Services proce-dures, nuances and quirks and be willing and able to communicate that knowledge to you for your benefit.


Finally, technology isnt just for faster package sorting and delivery. Innovative shippers are rolling out online tools that empower their clients with data and information they can use on their own computers to run their businesses more effectively and efficiently. These same tools free your CSR from the role of package clerk so that he can focus his time and skills where they belong: on you.


Dependable Package Care

What good is prompt delivery if your customers purchases arrive at their doorsteps damaged? Which shipper would you rather use: the one that handles your packages like a bull in a china shop or the one that treats your goods like your grandmothers heirlooms? This comparison might be a slight exaggeration, but not every parcel shipper is as conscientious as you might like. Not because it doesnt want to be, but rather because it isnt capable.


Carriers that employ automated induction and sorting equipment not only accelerate package processing, but they also decrease the number of times human hands touch each package, which reduces the potential for damage.


In certain instances (e.g., for large daily loads), bed loading further minimizes the likelihood for damage. Bed loading allows packages to bypass the palletization stage and go into trucks the same way they arrived at the facility, going virtually untouched from induction to delivery.


Now, taking these and other factors into consideration, go ahead and look at price again. Just make sure you know what youre buying.


Gavin Tierney is corporate pricing manager for New Berlin, Wisconsin-based Parcel/Direct. For more information, visit www.parceldirect.com.