Even if all my fingers were amputated, I could count on one hand the number of positive remarks I’ve heard from owner-operators about brokers. I don’t doubt your horror stories of lies. Late payments. Ridiculously low payments. No payments.
Nevertheless, I was curious about brokers’ side of the story, and Transportation & Logistical Services owner Jason King was open to letting me hang out at his office in suburban Birmingham, Alabama. TLS has eight brokers, dealing mostly with fleets of 10 or fewer trucks. Thirty percent of their revenue comes from the U.S. Department of Defense. Eighty percent of the loads are open-deck.
Some of these brokers, having worked at far bigger operations, were quick to tell me the advantages of a smaller shop, including rates. King admits TLS may get a higher rate for providing a higher level of service, but in turn pays their carrier partners better rates than some other brokers. So TLS might not be your typical brokerage. (In a Birmingham Business Journal contest, TLS came in second as the best place to work, perhaps a good indicator of how they treat owner-operators and others, too.)
Here are some observations about TLS, as well as brokers’ accounts of what they do. Comment below as to how this compares to your experience with brokers:
BROKERS ARE SALESPEOPLE FIRST, LOGISTICS TECHNICIANS SECOND. When hiring, King looks not so much for transportation experience but for someone with “personality, drive, ambition” and “who can talk to a brick wall,” he says. Some big brokerages, he adds, use individuals with the strongest people skills for getting new business and let others handle the dispatching and trouble-shooting.
BROKERS DO NOT HOARD PROFITS ON EVERY LOAD. Negotiating rates is standard. Like its competitors, TLS expects most loads to yield about a 15 percent profit margin, or less on high-mileage runs. TLS gets the rare large margin on some loads, but that’s offset by other loads where, to keep a large customer happy, they fulfill an order with little or no profit. Sometimes they take a loss of a few hundred dollars because truck capacity isn’t there or because they made a bad estimate of what the load should pay. TLS pays its haulers in 30 days, but except for the DOD business, TLS gets paid in a 60-day window. “I’m having to cover that spread,” King says.
THE HIGHEST DEMAND FOR TRUCKS COMES AT THE END OF EACH MONTH. Because some shippers move aggressively to boost monthly sales figures, the most freight is available late in the month and the first weekdays in the new month. At TLS, truck demand is often high on Tuesdays and Thursdays, low after lunch time on Fridays until Monday morning.
RELATIONSHIP IS KEY. It’s in brokers’ self-interest to treat you right, not screw you. “We don’t have the luxury of burning all these carriers like the bigger brokerages can,” says broker Jake Sullivan. Like a good carrier, a broker looks to build trust so that each party’s reliability smooths the way for a long, mutually profitable relationship. It’s a lot easier for a broker to make a quick match with a trusted owner-operator or fleet, which is how TLS places the vast majority of its loads, than to have to post the load and start from scratch, with all the accompanying risk.
COMMUNICATION HELPS BUILD RELATIONSHIPS. Staying in touch from pickup to delivery annoys some owner-operators, but it’s crucial to the other involved parties. Once an owner-operator is known to be dependable and truthful, the intense monitoring lightens up. It goes without saying that honesty is essential, too, and it takes time for each side to trust the other. At first, “They always assume that we’re lying,” says broker Jennifer Nolan. “We always assume they’re lying.”
A BROKER CAN HELP WITH DETENTION. TLS will warn drivers if they know a load has a chance of unpaid detention, and is willing to help drivers get detention pay. Again, communication helps: If TLS gets a call as soon as two hours at the dock have passed, they’ll make calls about getting detention. But, notes King, “a lot of these guys won’t call till they’ve been there six hours.” Nolan says in her prior job with a large brokerage, the company would not even request detention pay unless it was already in the contract.