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Finding your Niche as a 3PL: A Sit-Down with Samantha Jones of Meet Me for Coffee

Tune into an insightful discussion between EASE’s CEO, Peter Coratola, Jr., and logistics maven Samantha Jones, as they dissect the pivotal aspects of identifying and thriving in a niche within the third-party logistics (3PL) domain, emphasizing customer-centric strategies and industry foresight.

Meet the Experts

Meet Me for Coffee podcast host Samantha Jones

Samantha Jones: An Inspiration for Women in the Logistics Community

Renowned for her astute observations on logistics trends, Samantha offers profound insights into the industry’s nuances through her engaging podcast, Meet Me for Coffee.

Peter Coratola standing in front of EASE location

Peter Coratola, Jr.: Steering EASE to New Heights

Peter’s visionary approach at EASE Logistics demonstrates how aligning service offerings with customer needs and industry dynamics fosters a robust 3PL model.

Watch the full video from Manifest Vegas or catch the highlights of their interview below.

Interview Transcript:

Samantha Jones: Hi, everyone. I’m excited to be coming to you from Manifest, the Future of Logistics in Las Vegas this week. Thanks for meeting us for coffee. I’m here with Peter. 

Peter, would you mind introducing yourself?

Peter Coratola, Jr.: Hello, everybody. I’m Peter Coratola, CEO of EASE Logistics. EASE is a solution and service-focused 3PL with strategic warehouse and fleet assets based in Columbus, Ohio.

Manifest Panel Discussion Insights: Customer Expectations and Transportation Strategies

SJ: Awesome. I love Columbus. It’s a great city. I’ve been there quite a few times. You just got done speaking on a panel recently. What was that panel about?

PC: The panel today was about how customer expectations are shaping the strategy of transportation providers.

SJ: I’d like for you to unpack that a little bit for me.. How are you guys [EASE] listening to what we’re hearing from both prospects and your current customers? And how do those expectations shape what you guys are doing, the strategies you’re implementing?

PC: Yeah, it’s hard. I mean, we often say innovation is the definition of scope creep. You have to make sure that you stay focused on what’s good feedback and what also aligns with business roles, business needs.

How we approach customer feedback and let it shape our internal strategy is we listen to the demands that are most consistent, but that’s still aligned to our core principles. 

But also, what’s the value-add of a 3PL? You have to deliver, you have to have service, and you also have to be at a competitive price point. If you take those three core principles, you find what it does for EASE. When customers demand and say, “we want assets,” it pushed EASE to go and increase our own internal fleet from 20 trailers to 400 trailers. When customer demand said we want smart warehouses to optimize pull distribution in the Midwest, we launched three smart warehouses. 

Now, what’s the difference between listening to customer feedback that’s not so asset-heavy? 

The other feedback on the tech side is customers just want to have connectivity, but they are getting app fatigue. They’re hesitant to go and download new apps or go to portals and manage different logins and all that. Customers are really trending towards connectivity to their systems, giving them complete visibility, complete communication, and transparency. 

So as we see that, the focus is, don’t reinvent or overinvest in technology. We look to optimize highly redundant, less thought-critical tasks. But the main focus is connectivity to our customer systems. From a strategic side, we’ve really made more robust decisions on increasing our assets based on customer demand.

Balancing Cost, Service, and Value in Logistics

SJ: One of the things that you said is you called out price as something that you have to have as a broker. I hate to overemphasize price. As the cheapest isn’t always the best. That’s true in almost every industry that you’re in. We have relationships with our shippers, but even those relationships still have budgets and things that are passed down to them. And so I think where we’re at right now in the transportation space as an industry is trying to figure out how price is going to react to different initiatives like visibility, sustainability, any type of ESG initiative, all of these different things. We’re trying to navigate balancing the costs with what we actually have to do to accomplish those goals.

So I think that’s where listening to your customers comes in, right? Because you have to know what they’re saying these things, but how important is it? 

And then maybe coming alongside and also being that partner and being willing to give some thought into that, here’s what happens if we do this, and that cost trade-off, is that something you guys have experienced?

PC: So we’ve seen the elevation of logistics companies being more looked at as business partners and having a seat at the proverbial table and looking at logistics not as just a conduit to deliver goods, but also to make decisions. And when you look at the question, “how does price become a factor when a customer is assessing it,” you have to also be understanding of what is the network that you have. Does it have the capabilities to actually deliver to the customer’s service level agreements? And I think that’s a challenge in the industry where you see companies like Isometric that are coming out and giving service providers like EASE the ability to show compliance in execution of SLAs. That, again, it’s not supposed to drive and give this illusion that because we do this, it should cost more just to understand what companies out there possess the capabilities that align with the SLAs of the shipper. And is it feasible to execute based on price or the goal price point. 

So, I think adjusting that and listening to the customer feedback, but also having a collaboration with customers, there’s always a way to figure things out.

I think that this industry is evolving in the right way of holding execution and compliance in full transparency, letting shippers look under the hood of logistics companies, really seeing how they operate. That’s going to be a huge step in the direction of where we’re getting over these hurdles of bad data, not good visibility in the industry. As we continue to pace towards that direction, I think that everybody will be elevated to how we operate. I’m confident, price will follow. The more people that we get efficiently operating, the more people that are comfortable with being fully transparent with how they operate, the more that becomes a standard. And once it’s a standard, then price will follow. Price in a good way, right? More competitive pricing with a network that has the ability to deliver on SLA.

SJ: When you’re talking about being business partners, now more than ever, the decision makers at these shippers are getting more thrown at them than they ever have before. Because it’s not just transportation. As long as we’re hitting a certain budget, now it’s, hey, are you guys considering ESG? Are you considering all these different things that we’re still as a company, the C-suite is still trying to figure that out, and they’re testing it out to the different departments. 

And so they have a lot that they’re trying to manage on a quarterly basis and a yearly basis to figure out. 

Does this fit in supply chain? Does this fit in transportation? 

And then you also have so much getting thrown at us now, like AI, robotics, automation, autonomous trucking, smart warehousing, all of these things, like electric vehicles. And they’re just trying to take all of this in and figure out, does it have a place within our organization? And I think one of the cool things that you brought up is that your partners can help you answer those questions. They’re going to be able to come alongside and think through that with you. 

A lot of times, I think that especially 3PL partners sometimes know that business better than the shipper understands it themselves because they’re seeing how it’s executing on the back-end, and they know all those nuances of what would it look like to add asset trailers here? What would it look like to do autonomous something or to try a different method of warehousing or robotics?

PC: That’s the biggest thing as a service provider, learning how customers look at sustainability, DE&I efforts and bringing solutions to the table. It’s either the customer or the shipper can coach us or they can align. 

A lot of times there’s metrics out there saying we need to be more sustainable, but they don’t have the metric to measure what that looks like, “We want to invest in automation, but what does that look like?” Or, “We want to build out a DE&I network, but what’s the first step?” 

Great partners are bringing those solutions to customers and letting those be value-add parts that are not correlated to the price point of delivering as 3PL, but gives these value-adds to become a more well-rounded network, more well-rounded provider. The benefits pass over to the shipper. So they can have sustainability practices. They can have DE&I efforts. They can say that they’ve been investing in automation. So good providers know how to align and either know how to coach or know how to say, “All right, maybe it doesn’t work there, so we’ll just deliver it on the transportation.”

SJ: Yeah, and you know what? Sometimes the answer needs to be no, right?

PC: Right. I always say no gives as much traction as yes. Sometimes it’s that open-ended answer that says, “Well, that leads to a lot of extra work,” a lot of non-revenue-generating actions where a no is just as powerful as a yes.

SJ: Partnering with a 3PL can sometimes be challenging, especially if they try to be all things to all people. While 3PLs are inherently flexible and can adapt to many situations, they need to recognize their strengths and focus on what they do best. They should also prioritize honesty in their consultancy, openly sharing their insights with shipping partners about the most effective strategies and solutions.

PC: The question that needs to be asked if you’re a 3PL is, “What services do you provide and what are your measures of success?” 

Because every company might look at different things, status duration, issue resolution, GPS compliance. Selling that to the shipper, they’re going to have their own KPIs. But there are certain components of service providers that the customer might not know that’s a value-add. Being clear with the intent of what you do as a provider and how you measure success. 

Again, those questions are becoming more and more direct. Going in and saying – we’ll do it all – I think that’s very intimidating to say because we have the ability to quickly fact check. 

I also think people are understanding that there is value in inches, and there’s value in compliance and execution, and you really gotta believe what you’re selling. The days of being able to say we can do everything and hand it off to a team and then just go through the same motion, unfortunately, I think those days are numbered. There’s a lot of lineage of how logistics, especially brokerages, started. Not discounting the grit because the grit is very powerful. But I think being more direct in the intent of how you make an impact is something that this industry is gravitating towards.  

SJ: I’m a big fan of shippers asking very direct questions and asking more of them. I’ve been in the 3PL space for a long time and it’s getting better, but it used to be a lot of, “Well tell me about yourself.” 

Man I would love for a shipper to just come in and grill me: This is our expectation and this is what we do, and how do you support that? 

When it’s the right fit you’re going to know and you’re going to be able to say, “Oh that’s awesome, you know exactly what you’re looking for, here’s exactly what we do and how we do that well and how we accomplish that.” And then vice versa, as a broker, to come in confidently,  and say, “This is what we do, and this is what we do well, and this is how it benefits our clients.” 

And then if those two answers match up, that’s perfect, that’s going to be a really fruitful partnership, and I think that this is such a big industry, that people need to be comfortable knowing where they fit and what they do really well, and how they’re going to actually be able to create that partnership instead of one of those “Oh, let’s hope this works,” and pass it off to someone.

PC: I always tell the team, “If you’ve been talking to a potential customer for five minutes and you’re still explaining what EASE does, then we’ve already missed the mark.” Theory of relativity took 30 seconds to deliver. You don’t need five minutes to give the elevator pitch of what EASE does, and then it needs to be jumping right into the ‘grilling’ aspect of answering the hard questions and figuring out – are we the right provider?” 

I think logistics companies are also getting better at assessing that they don’t need to work with everybody. And being ok with saying no, or – hey, that doesn’t work, or – we’ll just take this part of the business. I think there’s this fear as a logistics 3PL that if we say no, we might lose everything. What I have found is that customers react very well to that, they love the transparency. They love the vulnerability from the extent of knowing your strengths but knowing how to partner with other providers. 

There’s a little bit of hesitation especially coming off 2023 and such a challenging climate where customers are motivated to have a more diverse network of suppliers and they don’t want to have all their eggs in one basket, and we can’t fault them for it. 

Unfortunately we’ve seen industry leaders challenged to the hardest extent. It’s never great to see that. But I think it does put a very real understanding of the importance of a diverse supplier network, and like you said, working in collaboration. There’s enough out there. People are always going to need things, things are always gonna move. Finding your niche and how you make an impact is really how this industry continues to move forward.

SJ: It all works together. Talking about how if everyone is really honest about what they do and what they do really well, and then the shippers match up with that and then they’re receptive to that, at the end of the day your network will start to look more diverse and a little bit more spread out across suppliers because you’re recognizing strengths and putting them in the niches were they fit as opposed to this older mindset of – we only need three or four partners, they’re all going to do everything, they can backfill each other, and now what I love is that we have companies who are focusing on what they do well and so now we’re getting a little bit more niche even in the brokerage and 3PL space, and I think that’s long overdue, and carriers have been doing that for a long time, and now we’re starting to see more brokers lean into that as well.

PC: And I think it’s understanding what you’re good at, what you’re focused on, where have you invested to be better, to deliver a solution that makes an impact, are your teams aligned, it’s hard to be a jack of all trades. 

When you really hone in on what you’re good at, EASE really aligns with enterprise customers that are industry leaders in their space, food and beverage customers on the B2B distribution side, that have a huge focus on service, have a huge focus on compliance and KPIs, that’s where we thrive, because our operations are built to service those modes. 

SJ: That’s a great callout there. I have to say that, because when you start to grow in a niche, and do something really well, your operations become geared around high levels of performance in that, and you become a lot more likely to be just as successful with other organizations that are similar to your current footprint. You really do start to stand out from other people who don’t have that existing footprint, and you become a stronger partner to keep growing in that space.

PC: You do potential shippers a disservice by trying to align with them when you know the application doesn’t exist there. As a business owner, the business hat of me, it’s very hard to want to say no to revenue, but aligning with the right customers, that allow for collaboration, allow for opportunity, focusing on that rather than just trying to focus on the masses of top line revenue, I think is a lot more impactful and it really helps companies grow like EASE in a more controlled manner but a more secure manner. I love this push forward of this industry getting more specific on niches, but this entire elevation of are you doing what you say, are you compliant, and letting all the data do the talking, that’s very important.

*Note: some questions and answers were modified for grammar and clarity.