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The meaning of service, going digital, and the regulatory horizon: Day 3 at Connections 2023

The final day of Connections 2023 kicked off with Webb Estes, president and COO of Estes Express Lines, sharing insights from his career as a leader in the LTL market. Estes Express Lines is the largest family-owned trucking company in the United States and the fifth-largest LTL carrier with $4.4 billion in revenue. 

The disruption brought by the pandemic made delivering excellent customer service a priority for all carriers, and Estes described how his company reframed its view of service to deliver exceptional quality to its customers.

“This is going to sound weird,” he recalled telling his employees, “But I want us to fall in love with freight… How can we embrace freight and fall in love with it? And to fall in love with it means when you see freight stacked on other freight—that’s a no-no, right?” 

He noted that the favorable conditions of the last five years, spurred in part by the full enforcement of ELD logs in 2018 and a boom year for LTL, had made some trucking companies complacent.

“We’re obviously in a different time now, where customers have options,” he added. “When we started this year, I challenged all of our managers to spend at least one day a week actually seeing the customers and shaking their hands.” 

Getting the customers on board, however, is another story. Estes described the value of educating the customer on the importance of trucking and adding differentiators to his business, such as sustainability. 

“My dad came along during deregulation, and that was the right time for him,” Estes said.

“And I think I am stepping in at a time when technology and sustainability are key elements to the next five to ten years. And so, we are starting to pitch that story to our team members.” 

The next panel focused on the roadmap to the digital bill of lading. The Digital LTL Council convened in 2019 to help the LTL industry make this transition, developing APIs to support it. Currently, there is no standard digital bill of lading—a unique API must be created each time. 

“Focusing on the word ‘standard’ is probably the biggest opportunity out there,” said Geoffrey Muessig, EVP and CMO for Pitt Ohio.  

Paul Dugent, the executive director of the Digital LTL Council, listed some of its accomplishments to date, including an upcoming release of version 2.02 of the electronic bill of lading (eBOL) that will be backward-compatible. 87 carriers, 3PLs, and technology providers have pledged to implement eBOL by July 20. But this is a smaller margin of adoption than what the Council hopes for. For instance, the carriers who have pledged represent only 37 percent of that industry’s revenue.

Muessig noted that developing the APIs to support an eBOL, though significant, is not the hardest part of making the transition. That lies in each company prioritizing their adoption of the project. 

“If we can’t get to 75 or 80 percent adoption of the e-bill of lading, then the other six APIs are worthless,” said Muessig. (Learn more about the benefits of eBOL here.)

The last session of the day explored the regulatory issues, both new and old, that are predicted to have a significant effect on freight transportation through 2024. For example, there is a patchwork of regulatory regimes covering autonomous vehicles across the United States, but in each case, trucks are treated differently from cars, and there is generally a greater regulatory impulse to restrict their degree of autonomy. There is no existing federal standard governing autonomous trucking. 

“The FMCSA is not going to step in and create an overarching regulatory regime without Congress telling them to do it … just not going to happen,” said Wiley Deck, VP of government affairs and public policy for Plus. 

Panelists also noticed increased attention from D.C. policymakers on fixing supply chain issues that have emerged in the public eye. One positive outcome of this attention may be the establishment of a U.S. Freight Office within USDOT. 

“I am very optimistic that this industry may finally have an agency that has freight as its number one priority,” said Jason Craig, director of government affairs for CH Robinson. 

SMC3’s Connections is an annual three-day conference dedicated to sharing knowledge among supply and logistics professionals. It is the premier summer conference for carriers, shippers, logistics service, and technology providers – by providing an optimal environment for meaningful networking within the industry, as well as a learning site for industry insights from top-tier professionals. Save the date for Jump Start 2024 June 22-24 in Atlanta, GA and sign up here <<>> to make sure you never miss an update.

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Categories: 3PL, API, Carrier Relations, Data, Education, Freight, Logistics, Logistics Service Providers, LTL, Product, Supply Chain, Technology, Transportation, Truckload, Uncategorized