Your bill of lading (BOL) is the most important part of your freight shipping. This applies to Less-Than-Truckload (LTL) or full truckload shipping. It applies to intermodal shipping or volume shipping quotes. It’s everything. It’s all of it. It’s really important to get it right, so let’s talk about your bill of lading.
A bill of lading is a document given by the shipper to the carrier at the time of pickup. It includes all the relevant information of the shipment, including but not limited to: pickup and delivery addresses, contact information, total weight, piece count, freight class, NMFC code, additional services, special instructions, commodity description, freight dimensions, billing party information, shipping/purchase order numbers, and much more.
See? It’s a lot of stuff. Now, let’s break it down a bit.
What MUST be on the BOL?
There are a few things that must be on the BOL. First, the delivery address. How else is the carrier going to know where to take the freight? Next, the total weight and count of the shipment. You also must include the commodity a.k.a. what exactly are you shipping? Finally, you’ll need the billing party information a.k.a. who’s paying for this shipment once it’s delivered? These are hardly the only things that should be on a bill of lading, but at the absolute minimum, these things must be notated on the BOL or else the freight probably won’t be picked up, and you could get charged a dry run by the carrier. If your shipment is LTL, then you’ll also need the freight class of the shipment. Here at FreightPros, we provide our LTL customers with their own customized BOLs using our transportation management system. When moving full truckload freight it’s more common for the shipper to provide their own bill of lading, but our team can always supply one if necessary. Additionally, a truckload BOL will also require pallet counts and signatures. Check out our Freight Paper, The Importance of Using the Correct BOL, for more information on the bill of lading, and read our Beginner’s Guide to Freight Shipping while you’re at it. It will get you set up with your shipping.
Over the past year I’ve met with multiple Presidents of other freight brokerages and have had heard the same theme ringing through regarding freight services as a whole. That the services we provide for people’s freight are essentially a commodity. One President told me something along the lines of, “We’ve accepted that LTL freight shipping is a commodity and we treat it as such. We just give the lowest pricing possible to our customers and let them handle the service side of things.” I couldn’t disagree more with this viewpoint, however I do think many shipping customers in the marketplace may view freight shipping, and particularly the LTL side of things as a commodity because they’ve not yet worked with a broker that has provided services and delivered soft-cost savings that they didn’t realize were even an option. Let’s grab a definition of a commodity (pulling from Wikipedia here, which I’m sure was pulled from somewhere else), “It is used to describe a class of goods for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market. A commodity has full or partial fungibility; that is, the market treats its instances as equivalent or nearly so with no regard to who produced them.” Tackling the first part of the definition, we know there is huge demand for freight services, literally hundreds of billions of dollars of domestic US transactions each year. The crux of the commodity argument is that these services are being supplied without qualitative differentiation across the market. From an outsider’s perspective or from a shipping customer that hasn’t worked with a service oriented broker or carrier this may be the case. Its logical to think that a truck is going to move your goods from point A to point B, and in a relatively standard amount of time. In fact this is usually the case. However, there are so many working parts that go into each freight transaction, that we as brokers are given the opportunity to shine and add extreme value to the customer who’s goods are moving in that transaction, that the commodity argument starts to fall flat on its face. And only at a point in time where all brokers and carriers are going above and beyond and delivering the maximum amount of soft-cost savings, will the commodity argument truly fly. Logan, from our account management team, is a few days away from releasing a series of blog posts on what services a quality broker should be supplying to its customers, so I won’t go into extreme detail on each of these, but if you are moving your goods and not receiving the following services from your carrier or broker, you are in fact choosing an inferior level of service and if your freight decisions are based purely on price, then you might be making the mistake of treating freight as a commodity:
Delivery Tracking and Delay Notifications and Resolutions
Consultative Freight Optimization Services
Engaged Sales/Support/Account Management Team
Touching on the last bullet, I think its so important that the broker or carrier servicing your freight absolutely does not view a freight shipment as a commodity. An engaged team that is constantly trying to refine your shipping processes, create efficiencies, or unlock areas of potential savings for a shipping company is critical to the successful relationships of the two parties, otherwise you run into a potential situation where the customer is actually viewed as a commodity. If a team is viewing a company’s critical freight shipment as just another shipment moving from point A to B, then service will suffer in the long run. In part two of this post, I will talk about fungibility and how not all carrier’s are created equal.
You’ve heard of Christopher Columbus. You’ve heard of Marco Polo. You’ve heard of Magellan. BUT….Did you know that Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer/captain/possible snack for Filipino tribal folks, was also an LTL shipper! Sort of. Kinda. Maybe if you REALLY stretch the definition of LTL. Listen, he might not have used Central Freight, but he did use a bill of lading. Subsequently, he did not check his BOLs for accuracy and guess what? It screwed him. I do imagine if Magellan had one lasting thing to say to all you movers of freight out there, it would be this….Make sure your BOLs are correct or else you might run out of EVERYTHING, crash your ships, try to take over some tribes, make it 3/4 of the way across the world before dying a pretty awful death, and eventually after you’re long gone, your freight will show up ninety percent missing and you’ll have to start all over again. What a loss of time! What a loss of money! What a loss of life! That last one probably won’t apply to your LTL shipping experience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from ol’ Ferdinand’s mistakes. The story goes as such…In the aftermath of Columbus in the late 15th century, the old world was in a tizzy about spices and India and newly discovered continents. Like an Austinite loves tacos, they all wanted a piece. Say hello to Ferdinand Magellan, who in true explorer fashion couldn’t get the backing of his own nation (they all knew he was crazy) to fund a new trade route to the Spice Islands. Undeterred, Ferdinand goes to Spain and from Madrid he gets 5 ships and approximately 240 men. Needless to say, they didn’t get a parade on their return. Now, it’s been talked about and talked about, but the best way to avoid issues in a complicated freight business is to make sure you have things in order BEFORE shipping. Like studying for a test or Christmas shopping, freight is infinitely easier when planned and tackled early. Unfortunately for Magellan, he didn’t have this shipping blog to warn him of the dangers of freight. Magellan arrived in The Canary Islands to re-stock supplies for a few days, and it’s there he learned that the king of Portugal had dispatched multiple fleets to arrest him and transport him back to Portugal. Of course, Magellan knew if he was caught he would be chained and ultimately executed. Obviously, this would put a bit of dent in his circumnavigation plans. Blame it on the fear of impending torture, but Magellan was swindled by the merchants of the Canary Islands. These merchants were experienced in deception, falsifying their BOLs and delivering far less than was promised. Now, if Magellan and his sailors would have paid more attention, counted their pieces, and checked their bills of lading, they quickly would have discovered the ruse. Alas, Magellan and his crew, in an effort to keep plenty of ocean between himself and the Portuguese hunting party, departed The Canaries in a hurry, well short on supplies. These supplies, especially the food, were incredibly important for obvious reasons to the health and well-being of the crew and captain, and these shortages were not only dishonest but also incredibly dangerous. The lack of supplies would come back to haunt the Portuguese explorer – his crew ran low on food and supplies, eventually losing full ships and hundreds of crewman. When it was all said and done for Ferdinand Magellan, contrary to popular history, he wasn’t the first to circumnavigate the globe (though his party was). Instead, Magellan was killed in a battle in the Philippine Islands in a turn of true old world imperialism. Now, we can’t go and blame his death and the destruction of his fleet on the lack of bill of ladings, but the fact remains that in the shipping world, whether it be 2013 or 1513, an attention to BOL accuracy is of paramount importance to a smooth shipping game. Shippers – confirm your BOLs match up with your freight and make sure you use the designated and correct BOL when handing your freight over to your driver. Consignees – on delivery, always remember to check your shipment for missing or damaged pieces. Do as Magellan should have done, read before you sign!!!
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