Andrew Mourant finds out how movers have embraced the change and how we can expect digitisation to alter the industry in the near future
Digital technology had made its mark within the moving industry before the COVID pandemic, but rarely a transformative one. Lockdown and its aftermath changed all that as demand for remote digital surveys, which had only just gained a toehold, exploded.
Many in the moving industry now consider them a big part of a more digital future. For Ido Barner, Vice-President of operations at AGS Mobilitas Group, they’re more cost efficient, environmentally friendly and offer flexibility. And yet it’s clear they’re not yet for everyone.
‘For customers who prefer the virtual survey, it’s often linked to sanitary protection – not wanting someone to physically visit their home,’ he says. ‘However, many clients would still rather have a personal meeting – to ask questions and make sure everything’s been covered. It is very dependent on generation and geography.’
Iain Adams, Managing Director at Gosselin UK, agrees. He spent two and a half years with Gosselin in Belgium where the company had already gone ‘completely paperless’ pre-pandemic. He found digital surveys were mainstream in Western Europe, where good connectivity can be taken for granted. ‘But this isn’t necessarily so in Eastern Europe,’ he told FIDI Focus. ‘You can’t underestimate the impact of cultural differences. It’s prompted us to think about how we engage with technology.’
Cultural issues aside, Barner has experienced other problems. ‘The main disadvantage we noticed is that the margin for error is higher compared with physical surveys,’ he says. ‘The video lacks depth and there’s a handicap in some markets/homes where clients have spotty Wi-Fi coverage. Many industry tools don’t cater for this.’
But, says Adams, the personal touch in sizing up a removal only gives a more complete picture if a surveyor is skilled enough to ask the right questions. ‘Overflows and overestimates always happen,’ he points out. ‘If we accept that it (the digital survey) is an imperfect science from the outset, it makes it easier to get your head around the process.’
Gosselin has a tool whereby a surveyor can ask the customer to point out where things are; also one for a survey that can be done solo using artificial intelligence to calculate initial volumes. That’s then reviewed in-house and is ‘a lot more accurate than someone who’s completed an inventory or done a telephone survey’.
Shankar Ram, Regional Head of relocations at Delight International Movers, tells FIDI Focus that the COVID-induced dash to virtual surveys receded after a couple of months, even though the technology has ‘vastly improved’. ‘We went back to physical surveys and it never changed except for a small percentage of customers,’ he said. The personal touch remains in demand especially for commercial and bigger moves where Delight clients want a full picture. ‘Sometimes, my surveyor takes clients sample packing materials so they can get the feel of them.’
AI provider Yembo, which sells tech to several movers on an annual subscription basis, is on a mission to exploit the bottom-line potential of virtual surveys. Company consultant Georgia Angell claims most movers still regard investment in technology as cost, not as a means of driving their business.
‘With artificial intelligence capturing 80 per cent of the information, people can do more because it’s quicker,’ she says. ‘You’re booking faster; booking more. Staff time saved, she adds, can be spent on looking at new ways to grow business.’
Meanwhile, the move towards digital marketing seems inexorable. And yet, as with virtual surveys,
it’s far from a one-size-fits-all solution. Barner says that for Mobilitas, things have mainly been driven by customers browsing the web to look for movers. Over the past 15 years, his firm has developed interactive tools (such as shipment tracking), websites and much else.
‘However, it does depend on culture, generation, and nationality, so we tailor our approach,’ he says. ‘One
still needs to mix between digital and traditional networking. Strong relationships with corporate clients or partners require the human element that digital can never give you.
‘We’re still in the middle of a change in mindset. We need to take into account the generational and cultural gap between the technology averse, who require a more old-school approach, and the more advanced clients. But digital can make us more effective in reaching people at an individual level.’
Refreshing websites and brochures may be easy but too many channels can create a babble. ‘With social media, clients have less and less time to read, and messages are quickly lost under an avalanche of information,’ Barner points out. ‘Capturing attention isn’t easy unless you have a plan. You must communicate consistently over time.’
Digital has changed the way Mobilitas’ marketing department runs internally. ‘We have grown our marketing team – we need to communicate quickly, and more frequently. Often, the young are the best at this, and we’ve learnt to give them more space creatively.
‘We’ve also become more collaborative because there are multiple skill sets that need to weigh in on every project – analytics, copywriters, design, and so on. Exchanging ideas encourages creativity. We also place much more importance on data to measure success and drive decision-making.
‘Digital marketing is growing and evolving all the time. We should explore developments and apply them if they add value.’
Ram has been an industry pioneer in the move towards becoming paperless – seeking quotes; shipment tracking – though admits that, for some people, the switch was never easy. ‘Digital marketing is cost-effective for our business because we can continually evaluate how, and if, it’s working. We can re-work strategies and put resources into the right projects.
‘But we still hand out brochures – we understand that market hasn’t totally vanished. However digital is always cost-effective and you have better control. The current market demands new ideas; constant changes and updates and for that, it’s definitely a boon. We started self-storage services based purely on a successfully run digital platform.’
Delight now has an in-house digital team that meets monthly to pre-plan and discuss what kind of posts, ads, target audience to focus on. Outcomes are monitored daily, and changes made to match targets.
Adams says that making things easy for customers online is ‘absolutely paramount’ in running a good digital operation. ‘We have a chat facility where you can ask questions and receive real-time answers from a team ready to respond,’ he says. Gosselin can also sift approaches technologically, so the right person gets back to the customer. Like Barner, he’s seen digital, with all its flexibility, ‘drive creative content’ in the marketing department.
Online reviews are now an inextricable part of this world. But they’re a mixed blessing – sometimes it seems that for every enthusiast there’s a troll. And for anyone in business, they need careful handling.
Ram says that not only do they have the power to influence clients’ decisions but can also strengthen a company’s credibility. ‘They’re another way of customer interaction but there are definite cons – we see a small percentage of people who abuse their power.’
In Adams’s experience, the person most likely to spring to the keyboard is an unhappy customer. ‘You have to be responsive when there’s negative feedback,’ he says. For Barner, online reviews are ‘very complex’ territory. ‘On one hand, people look at them, but on the other we don’t always know how the reviews end up on the website.
‘The process lacks transparency. We also find that, once we’ve got to the bottom of things, there’s been some exaggeration. We monitor and respond to each comment, try to establish the facts, and give real-time feedback.’
The moving industry is widely seen as ripe for further digital innovations, for instance in shipping. Raphaël Baptista, founder of easyGroupage, is using technology as a means of getting movers to band together and cut sea freight costs. ‘Since the beginning of the pandemic, many movers have had difficulties selling and passing these on to customers,’ says Baptista. ‘And the size of moves is shrinking.’
Groupage companies assemble small shipments of goods from a specific locality and heading for more or less the same destination. The idea is to create a consolidated load that’s more manageable. ‘The whole idea behind easyGroupage is to get mover competitors cooperating, rather than having to send half-full containers,’ Baptista explains. ‘We started at the end of last year, testing the French markets to see if movers were happy to collaborate. And it’s working.’
Baptista homes in on companies with empty space in containers they can sell to movers. ‘We handle the logistics and act as a sole point of contact for moving companies.’ Groupage is, he says, ‘a common sense solution’ that only needed a third party and canny use of technology to make exchanging information easy for everybody.
‘You can place inquiries easily. Those are sent out to all movers on the platform so they can see in real time what’s available, and, if they’re interested, they can bid. So it’s very easy to get quotes.’ His firm’s platform will also enable movers to upload all customs documents and paperwork to be approved digitally – ‘we coordinate the whole operation’. (See p81 for more on easyGroupage.)
Meanwhile Shyft Moving, which launched in 2015 as a virtual survey tech business, has expanded its remit, aiming to match clients with moving service providers. ‘We’re trying to partner with RMCs and independent movers.’ says Bill Brill, Senior Vice-President of operations.
Shyft is keen to stretch the possibilities of technology. ‘Our original core product, virtual surveys, is just a piece of the entire digital move process,’ he says. ‘We can take in a lot of customer leads, accurately assess their needs and match them with the right suppliers at a competitive price.
‘We put our approved suppliers on board our platform. They can zoom in geographically on regions they have a strength in, see everything happening in those areas… and bid for the business. We usually get all the bids we need in 24 hours. We try to provide multiple options to clients based on the service levels requested.
‘We’re trying to ease the work that consumers historically had to do. Rather than having to go and find three or four options and understand the differences, we’ll do that for you.’
In essence, Shyft is about creating digital ways of making moves easier – ‘taking the mystery out of buying, the pain out of payment and trying to keep trucks full or staff busy 12 months a year.’ It’s also offering FinTech products such as insurance; a payments platform; AR (accounts receivable) financing, so people can get paid faster; and fixed asset financing targeted at movers perhaps planning to expand their fleet or buy a new office.
‘We want to build a platform that can guide the customer from their smartphone and do it from anywhere 24/7,’ says Brill. ‘I think the industry has been slow in building tech-based solutions because of fragmentation. There are thousands of moving companies all on different platforms and the technologies don’t currently talk to each other.’
What is digitisation for movers?
By Max Kreynin, Voxme
Digitisation for movers today means two things. First, replacing all paper-based data-collection processes with appropriate apps and technology. This mainly refers to pre-move surveys (traditionally done on paper cube sheets), packing lists (handwritten by crews) and paper-based bingo sheets for inventory check-off on delivery and in the warehouse.
Second, thanks to the industry’s largest buyer – the US Government and military – the push towards the digital inventory and ISO-based data exchange has started. During COVID, the reality of doing everything remotely and electronically helped the industry come to grips with the need to make the switch. The new generation of workers in the industry has been conducive to the mental switch needed – as this generation has grown up with computers and smartphones and are used to having an app for everything.
Right now, everybody is looking for a practical solution that meets their specific needs, processes and budgets. Moving is a traditional industry and, when it faces a need to embrace new technology, the natural inclination is to find an off-the-shelf solution that can be rolled out with minimum customisation, effort and expenditure.