Phil Todd looks at what can be done to prevent disputes between consignors and carriers.

Disputes between consignors and carriers are not a new issue. Back in 2010, the UK Marine and Coastguard Agency published a suggested process to use when the two parties could not agree on something. The Hazardous Cargo Bulletin report of the Nautical Institute conference suggested that differences in opinion remain.

One of the key factors that help to avoid disputes is clear communication. Unfortunately, this does not always happen.

In this article, I’ll use a few recent experiences to make some suggestions that I believe would go some way towards avoiding disputes. If you are expecting a solution that will magically prevent all disputes overnight, then you will be disappointed. Equally, if you are expecting a diatribe against carriers, then you will also be disappointed: there is no such thing as a person who doesn’t make mistakes.

All companies and industries have some form of specialist language or jargon, which, in its way, can form part of efficient communications. However, when used in the wrong place, it can really confuse people. Within my own company, I often see long complicated chemical names reduced to a few letters. I frequently see the name of our sites reduced to an abbreviation. The problem is, sometimes this jargon is not unique —the same three letter abbreviation can refer to one of our products but also a former research site.

Usually, the context tells me how I should understand the abbreviation, but not always. To someone who doesn’t work for my company, this abbreviation is probably incomprehensible. I have noticed that it is increasingly common for logistics discussions, particularly at an operational level, to be carried out in a language that looks a bit like “text speak”. This might be acceptable if the two parties in a conversation speak this language, but when a dispute arises, related emails are forwarded to other people in the organisation who may not understand this language, and this can cause a problem. This brings me to my first suggestion: if a communication is likely to be needed to be understood by someone else, no matter what language you are using, write it using words that can be found in a dictionary. I know that it might take a few more seconds to spell out a long name, but if this means that the recipient understands the message, isn’t this few extra seconds a good investment?

My next suggestion might seem a little bit basic: when talking about a matter in which you are not an expert, don’t be afraid to get the experts involved. For example, shippers who ship by sea should hopefully be familiar with the requirement to list a segregation group on a dangerous goods note if it has been classified using an N.O.S. entry and a segregation group is appropriate (if not, refer to paragraph 5.4.1.5.11.1 of the IMDG code). This is not a particularly new requirement so we were surprised when a shipping line suddenly started asking for a segregation code to be listed on our document for apparently every shipment that we sent through them. After answering the first few times with “these goods don’t fall into any of the segregation groups and therefore, a segregation group is not required on the shipping documents”, the novelty started to wear thin. Even after explaining that when the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) asked for optional information, it did not require you to confirm whether or not the option applied however, this did not seem to help — the shipping line continued to insist that listing a segregation group was mandatory.

After working our way ever higher in the management structure of the shipping line, we eventually worked out that none of the people we were speaking to really understood the IMDG Code. It was only once we were in contact with their Dangerous Goods office that everything became clear: the shipping line’s computer system contained a field for segregation group which had to be completed for every booking. However, one of the values that could be selected for this field was “not applicable”. Something had gone slightly wrong with the training process because the booking staff believed that they could only select “not applicable” if this was listed on the shipping documents. There is a supplementary suggestion as well: if you believe that the person you are communicating with does not understand the subject, don’t be reticent in asking to talk directly to their in-house dangerous goods expert: when it comes to technical matters, such as the dangerous goods regulations, working through the commercial people really isn’t efficient.

My final suggestion is one that I had thought was obvious; however a recent incident convinced me otherwise. My suggestion is simple: be honest when communicating with another company. Let me illustrate with an example that surprised me, but which some of my colleagues suggested was nothing new. One of our offices received an email from a shipping line that we use entitled “New Regulation for Hazardous shipments”. A professional looking attachment explained that in order to harmonise with the requirements of the IMDG Code, all shippers were required to include the packaging code in their shippers’ declaration, eg not just describe a fibreboard box as a “fibreboard box” but as a “4G fibreboard box” . We promptly pointed out to the shipping line concerned that the IMDG did not require the packaging code in documentation. To their credit, this time the shipping line acknowledged that this “new regulation” was in fact a company rule. Interestingly, after calling their bluff, nothing further has been heard about this requirement.

As a supplement, if a carrier does have special requirements, wouldn’t it be great to be told about them when the carrier is quoting for your business. Better still, there would be an explanation about why the carrier had these requirements. That way, you can see the full picture when deciding who to give your business to. It seems to me that too often, special requirements only become visible after you’ve accepted a quote and made a booking.

To sum up: from a consignor’s perspective, I understand that things will go wrong from time to time. However, I believe that there are some very basic steps that all parties can take to minimise the number of times that this happens.

  1. Avoid the use of in-house jargon, unless you are confident that everyone understands it. This will reduce the chances of a misunderstanding and looks more professional.

  2. If you are not really sure about the subject, don’t be afraid to call in an expert. Equally, if you suspect that the other party to a conversation appears to be out of their depth don’t be afraid to ask to speak to their expert.

  3. Be honest, transparent and upfront. If your company has some special requirements, make sure that your customer knows about these and, better still, understands why you have these special requirements. Above all, don’t try and blame someone else for them.

Last reviewed 9 January 2014