What sets your business apart?

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“I still remember after all the time back and forth with the guy at the SBA [Small Business Administration] in Charlotte — building three business plans, including a backup and another backup – he leaned back in his seat and propped his feet up on his desk and asked, ‘Why is anybody going to use you to ship their material?’ I hesitated about half a second, and he said, ‘I don’t want to hear your answer. If it’s not on the tip of your tongue, you’re not ready.'”

The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, whether it’s a hot time of year for you or if you’re getting ready for a period of downtime and retrenchment for the new year, can prompt no small amount of soul searching about goals and plans for the coming year. If many of the folks I’m talking to lately are correct, there’s never been a better time for the independents and small fleet owners among you to put energy into building relationships with shippers for long-term contract freight. As reps from the NASSTRAC group, representing shippers’ transportation departments, and more than one economic analyst put it recently, cementing and/or enhancing such relationships now will pay dividends when things get tight for freight down the road.

The quote above, meanwhile, comes from a recollection proffered this morning by Henry Albert, today one of the Freightliner Team Run Smart pros and a past Overdrive Trucker of the Year — he garnered the distinction back in 2007, when his was a two-truck business hauling direct-shipper freight on both ends between the Southeast and where few wanted then to go, as he puts it: the Northeast.

The Freightliner Team Run Smart van trailer Albert pulls, pictured in 2014 at the Great American Trucking Show event in Dallas.The Freightliner Team Run Smart van trailer Albert pulls, pictured in 2014 at the Great American Trucking Show event in Dallas.

That fact became one among his answers to the question he hestitated on above, and he paraphrased it for me after a question that prompted recollections of just how he built his business after deciding to transition to running with his authority from work in warehousing and as a driver now decades ago. It’s a question “you have to be able to answer before you do any of it – why you?” Albert says. “When you’re going in to call on XYZ customer – why in the world would they entrust their freight to you? Somebody’s already doing it today. The fact that you’re ‘reliable and professional’ is all well and good, but who cares? That’s what everybody says.”

Ask yourself, “What sets you apart? That served me probably more so than anything” in the long run of securing direct customers, Albert adds. “Before you even wonder about how you’re going to find them. When you get inside that door, whether it’s by dumb luck or you actively called on them,” make sure you have an answer to that question.

Depending on the situation, in the end, the answer could be different. Maybe you have a piece of equipment — one specialized trailer or another, for instance — that makes you unique in your area for a customer’s particular piece of freight.

It could be you’re adept at dealing with problem consignees, the shipper’s customer.

When a carrier was looking at using Albert Transport, he says, one of the things he might say was “give us the account that complains every time you send them anything. We’d do a few things that would lead to them calling back to the shipper and saying, ‘You need to send them all the time.’ It wasn’t typically that difficult. You went in identifying there was a problem and figuring out a way to identify how to make that problem an opportunity for yourself.”

He paraphrases a quote he attributes to automotive designer Carroll Shelby to illustrate his approach to building the business over those years: “Owning a business is all about solving someone else’s problems,” simply put.

If you’ve had similar successes, what’s worked for you?

Those interested can take a tour back through Overdrive’s 2007 cover feature about Albert and his wife, Karen, the “Dream Team,” via this link.