The art of partnership. By Louise Cole

Pallet networks brought cost-effective and timely service to small consignments of palletised goods and have proved a boon to importers, manufacturers and retailers. As with all logistics decisions, however, you need to pick the right partner to ensure customer satisfaction and retention.

The very first caveat has to be about price – not least because most logistics tendering processes put a disproportionately high emphasis on it. The pallet network model offers good value compared to other forms of delivery, but fierce, local competition can lead to price wars.

TPN – THE Pallet Network – discourages its members from participating in games of volume over margin for one simple reason – it leads to poor service. TPN members say that customers who leave for a cheaper supplier invariably return within months because it damages their customer experience.

That’s not to say that freight owners shouldn’t demand excellent value. For most, much of that value comes in the form of customer satisfaction rates but it also shows itself in contract KPIs and the lack of penalties at RDCs for missed delivery windows.

Customers should ask pallet network members to demonstrate their quality. TPN members are not only rigorously audited to ISO:9001 every year for their network operations, but they can also show their KPIs for all their pallets, weekly or monthly. TPN’s audit team keeps a very close eye on all key performance indicators and immediately steps in to help members if they fall slightly below excellence on any marker. Hence at TPN’s Annual Awards, it always has several members celebrated for achieving over 99 per cent KPIs on every single aspect of their operation across the entire year. In short, look for a network where service excellence isn’t a buzzword, but a reality.

That said, the best transport supplier can be affected by congestion, road closures, or adverse weather. The key here is communication. Network IT systems and members should support clear, timely communication between depots, and with the freight owner and their customer.

The biggest threat to service levels in a network is unmanaged volume growth. The market has long since abandoned its traditional peaks and troughs and has settled into a steady and relentless double-digit growth rate.

This means that unprepared networks or members find their assets are too thin on the ground to cope with managing so many pallets. The Hubs are too small, or their processes overwhelmed, or their members run ragged over too large an area with too few trucks for the numbers of deliveries they are being asked to make.

It’s worth investigating, therefore, what scalability is built into a pallet network’s model in order to ensure excellent service levels regardless of volumes.

TPN was recently handling 85,000 pallets a week, over a five-night operation. So how does it do this without service levels suffering? The first element is proper infrastructure with a 367,500 sq ft Minworth-based Hub which can load or unload 40 trailers simultaneously for fast turnaround times. It also has two regional Hubs in Northampton and Preston, which take freight originating in and destined for those regions.

The second key element is postcode coverage. The larger a delivery area a member must cover, the more stretched their resources. For this reason, TPN has developed the best postcode coverage in the UK, with 106 members, and 125 depot locations, which means delivery areas are smaller and ensure resilient service levels.

Finally, scalability comes down to the quality of the IT offered. TPN Connect is an in-house developed system that is constantly improved to meet customer needs. It’s free to members and customers and it is designed to make pallet deliveries as efficient as possible. That efficiency starts with the customer, who can input jobs quickly, with repeat customers remembered by the system; they can print their own labels, reducing duplicated effort or errors; and their TPN partner can see how many consignments they are entering in real-time, so work with them for rapid or early collection.

Freight owners – or their customers – can also see their pallets in real time throughout their journey, right up to the point of the customer’s electronic signature. This cuts admin time and customer queries. Customers can even track pallets on their mobile phones.

But what happens if you want to input from several geographical locations? Or your logistics needs are complex and small pallet consignments only one part of your needs? This is where TPN’s seamless collaborative model comes into play. Not only do TPN members – who are all top regional hauliers in their own right – collaborate with one another on geographically dispersed contracts, but the network is also backed by the prodigious resource of Eddie Stobart Logistics, a national specialist in road and rail movements.

So regardless of the diversity of logistics requirement, in terms of skills, mode, geography or resource, TPN members can seamlessly draw on their own and their partners’ assets and skillsets to offer a complete logistics solution.

Finally, the most overlooked aspect of pallet network performance is – you. Choose a network partner which can help your team to improve their customer and freight management. Pallet delivery, especially by tail-lift, often depends on the quality of information provided about the destination. Find out if it’s a residential address; if there are access restrictions; if the intended delivery area is suitable for a tail-lift vehicle or a pump truck, eg not grass, cobbles or gravel and not on a hill.

If necessary, your local TPN member will teach your team to package pallets correctly for stability and protection. Make sure the pallet is the correct weight and dimensions. These factors are essential to ensuring a successful delivery.

When choosing a pallet network, focus on quality, service, value, and the level of partnership and collaboration your transport provider can offer to ensure a robust and responsive delivery performance.

Louise Cole is an award-winning logistics journalist and director of editorial services agency White Rose Media. TPN is the UK’s leading pallet network. In 2018, it delivered 4.1m pallets, with excellent KPIs. It offers sector-leading IT and the best postcode coverage in the UK.