Are you searching for a simple solution to automate quoting, building loads, tracking shipments and even managing accounting with your most trusted logistics providers?
Look into application programming interface (or API) integration — it’s as close to a magic bullet as there is in supply chain management.
What is API integration?
API is a commonly used technology across industries for real-time data sharing — when an online retailer charges your credit card, for instance, their payment platform uses API to verify your information instantly with your bank.
It’s a direct connection between your existing in-house technology — typically a transportation management system (TMS) but also sometimes a warehouse management system (WMS), enterprise resource planning (ERP) software or accounting software — to a carrier or 3PL’s API.
For some more established shippers, API is the spiritual successor to electronic data interchange (EDI), a communication technology that predates the internet and has historically been used by businesses to share documents with one another.
API integration allows shippers and providers to share much more complex and dynamic data than EDI integration. Once your systems are set up to communicate with each other via API, they can instantaneously share:
- Shipment data to build loads (i.e., facility information, appointments, commodity requirements, etc.).
- Live freight quotes based on real-time market rates.
- Bills of Lading and other paperwork.
- Billing, invoices and payment information.
- Real-time tracking updates.
Integration is a 2-way street: What’s in It for you and for your provider?
Why should you want to share this data directly to your provider’s system, and why would they want you to do so?
API integration benefits both shippers and carriers by streamlining processes, improving efficiency and accuracy, and building a more durable relationship between providers and customers.
Shippers benefit from API integration with providers in the following ways:
- Cutting down on errors. There are fewer opportunities to make mistakes when you have less data to enter by hand.
- Faster time from requesting a quote to shipping. If your provider’s system automatically generates accurate rates, you can avoid a lag time waiting for your rep to get back to you with a quote.
- Fewer platforms for your team to learn. Avoid onboarding new software by integrating freight management with your providers into your existing TMS or other software.
- Consistent tracking updates. Your provider’s API can pass on to your TMS any updates that your carrier provides for your shipments, as soon as they enter them into their own system.
What about carriers and 3PLs? They’re happy to offer integration for free because it’s a good facilitator of your continued business. If shipping is frictionless and pain-free when you use a provider’s API, you’re more likely to ship with them again in the future.
When Is the right time to get integrated?
If you want to enjoy any of the benefits outlined above, now is a great time to ask your provider about integrating.
That said, you can also take a look at your own operations to see if there might be some ongoing issues that integration could solve. Ask your provider about their API offering if you’re experiencing any of the following pain points:
- Getting quotes is unnecessarily time-consuming.
- Billing discrepancies require lengthy email back-and-forths with your provider.
- Your team often enters data manually into multiple platforms.
- You frequently call or email your rep for tracking updates.
- You often need to get a quote at hours when reps are not available.
Getting integrated: How to connect to your provider’s API
Because they know it will likely encourage you to bring them more of your freight, providers are often the first party to suggest integration to shippers. However, they also love it when shippers are proactive about seeking out integration as a sign that their providing excellent, reliable service.
Regardless of who starts the conversation, the first thing you should find out is whether your provider offers a native integration with your current software. If you use a major TMS, they may already have built out the technical back-end to integrate with your system; if this is the case, completing the process could be as simple as adding a single code string.
If you use a TMS or other platform for which your provider doesn’t offer an out-of-the-box integration, it’s still very possible to connect to their API. It will just require some additional development work — plan for at least another full day to complete this, either by your in-house dev team if you have one or by outsourcing to a third party.
3 tips for making API integration work for you
Your work isn’t finished once integration is complete. If you want the resources you put into connecting with your provider’s API to pay off, you should adopt the following best practices as a thoughtful, attentive shipper.
1. Keep up with changes in the freight market.
Don’t treat API integration as a “set it and forget it” solution. Even though the rates you’ll see from your provider’s API should be up to date and accurate, you could find yourself overspending if you pay attention to how spot rates are tracking against contract rates in the wider market.
If you notice you’re paying more per load than you think you should be, consider reaching out to one or more of your providers about contract capacity going forward.
2. Make accurate inputs.
API integration might cut down on opportunities for human errors, but it doesn’t completely eliminate them.
The accuracy of the quotes you get still depends on the accuracy of information you enter into your own system for sharing with your provider. Pay especially close attention if you move LTL freight — you want to make sure those freight classes and accessorial requirements are all correct.
3. Track which carriers are winning freight if you’re integrated with a 3PL.
When you ship via a broker’s API, your integration will allow you to collect data on which carriers are consistently providing the best quotes and service.
If certain carriers are underperforming your expectations, you may want to contact them directly about their capacity in your lanes to ensure they’re still good options to keep in the mix.
API integration is a powerful tool for both shippers and providers that lets all parties streamline and improve their supply chain operations by consolidating the technologies they use.
If you put a little effort into getting connected with reliable providers, you can ultimately reduce the time and money you spend managing multiple shipping platforms and free up your employees time for that tasks that add additional value.