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Intermodal Marketing Companies (IMCs) play an essential role in today’s supply chains – helping shippers access the cost-cutting, carbon-reducing benefits of rail transportation. But one of the purported strengths of IMCs is also their Achilles heel – control of the first and last mile of intermodal shipments.

Let’s dig into this question of IMC value.

Shippers can access rail capacity, directly or indirectly, through thousands of different brokers and asset- and non-asset-based IMCs. So, it’s hard to differentiate based on access to capacity. And once shipments are on the rails, performance and visibility are in the hands of the rail carrier. Therefore, an IMC’s value centers more around overall coordination, and particularly controlling that first and last mile – the most important parts of any shipment.

With this control comes an expectation from intermodal shippers: “Monitor my shipments and let me know immediately if milestones are missed or threatened.”

But IMCs struggle to deliver on what is really their core promise: real-time oversight and communication.

The dirty little secret in intermodal freight is the low-tech and highly inefficient methods IMCs use to accomplish this so-called “control” of intermodal drayage moves. Specifically, when shippers want to know “where’s my container?” most IMCs reach for the telephone to get an update from the carrier. That begins a game of telephone tag between IMC, carrier and driver that (at some point) results in an answer to the shipper’s question – but the accuracy of that answer is suspect and it’s certainly not real time.

Current ways of tracking intermodal drayage moves don’t work, and here’s why

1) They don’t give shippers what they want.

Shippers want to know when the container hits the yard, when it leaves, and when it will arrive at their facility. And if there’s a glitch that threatens their supply lines, they want to know immediately so they can trigger potential fixes. The manual nature of tracking that IMCs use today makes it near impossible to meet this expectation. Consequently, it often happens that shippers call the IMC wondering why their container was late or didn’t show up at all.

Yes, they know before the IMC! This completely undermines the IMC’s promised value of real time oversight and communication.

2) Shippers are being conditioned to expect more.

These days you wouldn’t call your bank to learn your account balance. So why would you rely on phone calls and emails to check shipment status in an era when technology can do that for you?  When it comes to intermodal freight, there’s no good answer, other than “it’s the way we’ve always done it.” But as shippers experience the benefits of real-time tracking with their OTR shipments, they are becoming less patient with the old-school ways of working that, up until now, have been accepted in intermodal freight.

3) IMCs can’t afford it.

For front-line brokers, a good part of their week is spent chasing carriers for updates and shipping documents. That’s not exactly value-added work, but IMCs are paying for it just the same. The more time it takes an IMC to manage a single shipment, the fewer loads (and revenue) the business can manage without hiring more people and driving up overhead. Technology exists that allows IMCs to drastically improve productivity and profit, but it requires changing processes that have decades of inertia behind them.

Technology offers a solution

Venture funds are pouring billions of dollars into FreightTech startups, but little of it has been aimed at the intermodal freight industry, where it’s arguably needed most.

The exception is DrayNow’s real-time marketplace connecting intermodal freight with reliable carriers.  Most loads posted to the marketplace are accepted by carriers within 7 minutes, and 99 percent are accepted within 15 minutes.

While many of the new, venture capital-funded freight marketplaces threaten to disintermediate middlemen in the freight management process, DrayNow seeks to enable, not displace, IMCs by giving them a more efficient management platform for intermodal freight.

Rather than having to build or buy visibility tools, IMC’s can tap into an existing platform to deliver on their value proposition to shippers of real-time oversight and communication.

The fast-growing DrayNow carrier base is up to 2,500. Once drivers download the DrayNow app to their phones, their locations are tracked and traced through the app and they are required to log milestones and complete all relevant paperwork along the way. All data and documents are immediately visible on the platform for IMCs to see.

Want to know exactly where the truck is? IMCs logged into DrayNow on their desktop can pinpoint the exact location on a map.

Perhaps an IMC prefers more of an “exception management” approach that, at a glance, shows shipments that are on time, need checking, or are in danger of missing a milestone. On the right is a demonstration of what they would see on the platform.

The future of intermodal marketing companies

Intermodal marketing companies are vital to the efficient operation of intermodal supply chains. Rail carriers will continue to rely on intermediaries to directly manage contracts with rail shippers.

But among IMCs, there will be winners and losers.

The winners will be tech-enabled IMCs who truly deliver on the core IMC value proposition of real-time oversight and communication.That’s just not possible for those who continue to cling to the low-tech ways of working that characterize today’s intermodal freight industry.

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