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3PL Outsourcing

The Best 3PLs Should Be Invisible

Alex Stark | January 26, 2017

Logistics service providers are increasingly prone to trumpeting their awards, achievements and high-profile customers. In a desire to be seen, to be recognized, this beauty contest approach seems as reasonable path as any. But the best 3PLs worry less about awards and more about providing service so efficient, anticipatory and seamless – so noise-free – they’re just about invisible.

best 3PLMany of the things we humans simply can’t do without are, for all intents and purposes, invisible to us: electricity, cellphone signals, gravity, and oxygen, to name a few.

Not only are they things you can’t physically see; people don’t even think about them most of the time. We assume that our computers will spring to life, our phone calls will reach the other side of the country, and we’ll be able to breathe. All of these things, however, become highly “visible” when they start to be a problem – power outages, lost connections, asthma.

Logistics services are also something that barely warrant a thought when all is fine, but become an urgent matter of concern when there’s even a small hiccup. The aim of the best 3PLs should be to avoid those hiccups and remain as close to invisible for as much of the time as possible.

With so many companies jostling for a finite amount of business, there are more and more 3PLs thumping their chests. But that mentality goes against the ideal mindset of a good 3PL, which should be a desire to work behind the scenes, away from the spotlight. 

We 3PLs are not the show. The show, when it goes off without a hitch, is the ultimate compliment to us as logistics outsourcing providers, and sophisticated partners know that.

Shippers need and want invisible 3PLs

We’re absolutely certain that invisibility, in this context, is what shippers desire. When they outsource logistics they want a partner that serves as an invisible extension of their organization.

A super-reliable 3PL aims to provide that critical, invisible link between a customer’s factory and the retail shelf. They provide great service behind the scenes so that the outsourcing company knows the 3PL is there, but their customers – the final customers – don’t. The right kind of 3PL works as a seamless extension of their customer’s team, keeping the “noise levels” down with great service.  

If all the world’s a stage, the best 3PLs are behind the scenes doing the stuff that makes the star look good. They don’t crave the spotlight, so they don’t seek the spotlight.

Just like expert stagehands in the theatre, if you notice what 3PLs are doing, it probably means there’s a glitch backstage – the actor’s prop isn’t to hand, the music is miscued, a piece of equipment audibly malfunctions…

It’s one heck of a job, putting on a Broadway show or ensuring a major consumer goods manufacturer hits tight fulfilment deadlines and criteria set by a big-box retailer. There are dazzlingly large numbers of moving parts to marshal and monitor. A moment’s slip and, suddenly, all the attention is where it shouldn’t be – backstage or at the loading dock.

Anyone who got involved in the high school drama club knows that there are two types of kid interested in that kind of activity – the young men and women who want to tread the boards in front of an audience, and their counterparts who want to work behind the scenes and make the magic happen.

The choice of one versus the other goes to the DNA of that person.

Companies and organizations have a kind of DNA too – a range of attitudes and practices that sit right at the root of all they do, instructing everything from global strategy to how a single pallet of potato chips gets loaded on a rainy Thursday. Shippers would be well-advised to choose their 3Ls by looking for a service provider who has the “stagehand” type of DNA – one who wants to remain out of sight, making the supply chain magic happen.

What does invisible look like?

What kinds of attitudes and practices define a 3PL whose goal is invisibility?

First of all, let’s be clear. The most important aspect of being invisible is that a 3PL should stay out of sight to their customer’s customer (our direct customer should see the fruits of our work daily). If a 3PL is executing the business properly, then they are really an extension of their customer – their distribution arm.

A 3PL stays invisible ONLY when its customer’s customer is satisfied with the service delivered. 

The foundation of invisible service is operational excellence. When you do not deliver on that expectation, you are no longer invisible; you are expendable. 

Think of how you, as a consumer, react if you board a plane and discover, mid-flight, that there are no snacks or drinks available. You blame the airline, not the 3rd party provider of snacks and drinks who failed to deliver the order before the plane took off. Complaints are logged, future sales are lost and suddenly, those nameless in-flight catering people who sneak on and off the plane during flight changeovers are in the crosshairs of a frustrated air carrier.

The Best 3PL: Rules of Invisibility

  • Invisible 3PLs aim, first and foremost, for perfect operational execution. Any variation from that becomes an “exception,” and exceptions invite attention.  
  • Invisible 3PLs speak in the collective “we,” where the we represents the 3PL together with its customer. Rather than a customer/vendor relationship, it’s one team working toward a common set of objectives.
  • Invisible 3PLs deal with problems behind the scenes, informing but not involving the customer. With many carriers, if something happens on the road, they throw that back at the customer as a problem to solve (“Hey, there was traffic jam and I can’t make the delivery, what do you want me to do now?”). The best 3PLs take proactive action to avoid disappointing the end customer. There is no question of blame, just doing the right thing. That requires empowerment. Advanced shippers grant it; invisible 3PLs should demand it.
  • Invisible 3PLs act like part of their customer’s family, working to understand their business, their goals, and their overall philosophy on serving the final customer. It's a 3PL culture that aims to be an indistinguishable part of the customer’s team.

All in all, being invisible is about trust.

When a 3PL knows the customer trusts them to always act in the customer’s best interest, it creates an environment in which the 3PL can make the most of its experience, expertise and insight to seamlessly deliver the best service possible.

Some time ago, a director at one of our largest consumer goods customers told us he sleeps better at night knowing we are running his logistics business.

That is the ultimate compliment.

There’s no glamour in being invisible; but there is glory.