Railway Age, March 1994

Would You Buy From You?

At a meeting Norfolk Southern held recently for its short line partners, one of the themes was "The Other Guy's Shoes."

NS Short Line Marketing Manager Bob Gentzel demonstrated an unexpected flair for the theatrical when he put together several skits about the "Norfolk Stubborn" and its escapades with its connecting short line, "The Pinch Penny & Eastern." But the real beauty of Bob's concept was that he cast short-liners Jim Benz and Murphy Evans as Norfolk Stubborn's unresponsive middle managers, and NS managers Mike Sherrill and Walt Trollinger as the Pinch Penny & Eastern's myopic and miserly counterparts.

In other words, these entertaining and educational vignettes into Class I/short line interactions also gave performers and audience a chance to try on the other guy's shoes. I think I speak for just about all of us who were there when I say the experience was an eye-opener.

All of this brings us to another set of "other guy's shoes" we short-liners need to walk in: our shippers'. Or better yet, let's put on our shippers' bifocals, take a look at ourselves, and see if we like the view. (Class I readers may benefit from thinking of their short line partners as 10,000-car shippers and doing the same exercise.) These questions will help bring the issues into focus:

1. Are you easy to reach? When your shipper needs you, how hard is it to get through to you? Is your phone answered promptly -- on the second or third ring? And when someone answers the phone, is he or she committed to seeing that the shipper's questions are answered promptly and accurately -- or just to taking a message?

Gene Dorminey, Director of Norfolk Southern's customer service center in Atlanta, wants a live voice on the phone within two or three rings -- no recordings, no voice mail. It costs a bit more, he says, but it's better than having customers hang up while waiting, and then going elsewhere with their business.

2. How quickly do you get answers to your shippers' questions? Can you get back to them quickly with a rate quote? Or do you keep them in suspense (or worse yet, send them into the arms of a waiting trucker) for days? What about when they need a car? Or have to track a shipment? Are you there with the answers, often before they even ask the question? No one likes to wait for answers -- especially when the information is crucial for decision-making or planning.

3. Are you an ally or an adversary? Rightly or wrongly, railroads have the reputation of being hard to do business with. This problem is compounded when railroad staffers act as though it's the shipper's responsibility to adapt his way of working to meet the requirements of the railroad. On the other hand, a transportation supplier who looks for ways to create solutions to logistical situations that meet everyone's needs is a welcome partner in a shipper's business. Make sure you look like (and act like) your shippers' partners.

4. Are you there when they need you? Our shippers' business life depends on our being there when we say we will -- with cars full of raw materials to keep their processes running, with empties ready for loading when their shipments are ready. Do you deliver as promised? And do you keep track of cars and car supply so that, if you can't make your delivery commitments, your shipper gets as much lead time as possible to minimize the impact?

5. Do you take care of their product? Are the cars you supply fit for loading? Or are they cars you wouldn't want to load your competitor's product into? Have you worked with your shipper to make sure he knows the best way to load a boxcar to minimize loss and damage enroute? And if loss or damage should occur, are you right in there as your shipper's advocate to help bring about prompt claims settlement?

One short line discovered they were delivering a lot of damaged brick that came from an off-line, multi-plant brick supplier. The short line called the originating Class Is to have their loss and damage people visit each plant, check loading procedures, and make appropriate recommendations. Damaged shipments dropped, carloadings went up, and brickmaker, customers, Class I and short line are all delighted.

6. Do you make sure there are no unpleasant surprises on their bills? Are the rates right? How about the number of cars? And did they run up a whopping demurrage bill without being warned the clock was running? There's nothing like an inaccurate invoice to strain an already troubled business relationship -- or to cast a shadow over an otherwise good one. Here's a billing story with an unhappy ending: one shipper's bill from the Class I didn't look like the rate quote he got. The short line manager and Class I counterpart set it up to win the business. The business moved and the bill was $200 too high. During the months that it took to get the billing straightened out, the business moved back to the trucks.

Now that you've looked at yourself through the smudged bifocals of a harried, overburdened and perplexed shipper, ask yourself one last question: would you buy from you? And even if the answer is no, the exercise of asking these questions will also serve as a guideline on how to get your shippers seeing you through a rosier set of glasses.

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Created July 31, 1995. Send comments to lblanchard@aol.com