DAT's guide to working broker relationships for better rates

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Updated Apr 9, 2023

With the freight market bottoming out, and rates from many brokers on popular load boards like DAT looking increasingly unpleasant to owner-operators, it's never been more important to work relationships with brokers, impress upon them your reliable service, and ultimately secure better rates. 

That was the topic of a DAT seminar at the Mid-America Trucking Show on Friday, where DAT Product Manager Robert Rouse and Echo Global Logistics VP of Operations Jeff Starr offered tips on how to best use the load board to develop long-term, profitable broker relationships.

Right now, with the national average dry van rate sitting at just $2.14/mile according to DAT's latest report, and reefer and flatbed rates not all that much better, it's a good time to work on marketing your trucking business to brokers. 

[Related: Holding the line: Owner-op's playbook to push back on cheap freight]

A look at the best performing owner-operators of late shows that by and large just chasing rates via load boards is increasingly a losing game. If you're like most and just not interested in hauling cheap freight, cultivate stronger relationships with customers. There's more to the spot market than pressing "book now" on a load board, Rouse contended. "It's a bit of a misnomer that with all the new digital tech that’s out there, bidding and booking and communication is going to go away," he said. "It's just going to get stronger, and relationships are going to be even bigger" when it comes to overall business success.

By providing steady, flawless service with close brokers they know well, Starr said owner-ops can find better rates for themselves. The goal? The next time the broker has a carrier fall off a load "at the last possible minute, and there's a carrier [the broker] knows that has capacity, they're typically going to pay a premium rate to service that load."

You want to be the first person the broker calls.

[Related: Speak your broker's language through data, business confidence, market knowledge]  

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Get comfortable communicating. "Especially when first staring out with a company that you haven’t worked for, building a relationship is key," Starr said. "If you don't know the person booking, it's really hard to build trust.

Pick up the phone and "explain how you're approaching that load," he added. "One thing I really want carriers to understand" is that brokers want to know you have a plan to successfully service the load, and taking the initiative with a phone call makes a big impression. 

Starr said Echo wants "to be the easiest to do business with," so of course texts or emails work as well. But when it comes to first creating the relationship, nothing beats a phone call. Studies consistently show millennials and younger people aren't exactly fond of talking on the phone. It could be a good way to set yourself apart from the start. 

Starr admitted that any load's "rate is king right now" for most brokers evaluating just who will move the freight, and "unfortunately now they're going a little thinner on rates," he said, once you get past that do what it takes to detail your plan for the move.  

Say a load is picking up in Hunts Point in New York City bound for Seattle, Washington. A carrier might call and say, "I know exactly what roads I’m going to take,' or 'I know the Hunts Point area really well,'" Starr suggested. "You're going to settle that broker's mind. 'Yeah, they're going to take care of my shipper and going to make me look good because I just sent a great carrier.'"

Ultimately, the goal is to build a relationship and a great reputation to get a on a phone-call and first-name basis with a shipper or broker, and not have to fight other carriers for freight on the boards. 

[Related: The 'co-opetition' code for small fleets: Balance cooperation and competition]

Rouse said DAT One recently introduced a "private" tab within the app, which allows brokers to post loads to a preferred list of shippers they already have a relationship with. A broker can then solicit carriers and allow them to book or even bid on a load. Hence it's important to promote yourself as a carrier within the network, Rouse noted. DAT One allows carriers to post their truck and advertise their profile, which can include preferred rates and "specific info about why you'd be the trucking company to call now," he said. 

Both Rouse and Starr stressed the helpfulness of some of DAT One's features -- like the ability to post your truck with a rate attached, announced at the 2022 Mid-America Trucking Show, which they said could lead to fewer brokers calling you and asking you to haul well outside your preferred range. 

But even in the best relationships and with the best owner-operators, weather, accidents, breakdowns happen. Starr spoke about these episodes as opportunities to cement your rep with the broker you're working with. "When things go bump in the night," he said, use that to establish yourself as "someone who is going to be helpful" versus "someone who is going to hide it."

Rouse and Starr were also realistic about the fact that, often enough, shippers have unrealistic expectations. In a world where you can track Amazon shipments and pizza deliveries down to the minute, some shippers are wanting a tracking update every 15 minutes. "Whether or not that’s realistic, it’s an expectation that’s out there and everyone is trying to meet that," said Starr. "A driver's least favorite thing is getting a phone call about tracking the load, saying 'hey, where are you?' [That] can be very, very annoying."

The DAT One app, among others out there, has a built-in tool that can leverage ELD or cellphone GPS data to provide those kinds of updates. 

"Once a carrier books a load from the app and the broker/shipper has requested tracking through DAT, the carrier will get a prompt for them to accept the tracked shipment and allow that broker/shipper to see their locations," said Rouse.

In the interest of driver privacy, the feature "won't start providing location updates until a maximum of three hours prior to the pickup appointment the broker/shipper provided," he added, and the operator will see exactly what the shipper sees in terms of the app's updates. 

It's another tool in the arsenal to make meeting a customer's expectations, inflated as they may be when it comes to tracking, that much less of a headache. 

[Related: Covering your tracks: The brave new world of 'freight visibility']