What we’ve learned about (Customs) outsourcing during lockdown……and how our customers are benefitting

TNETS started self-isolating from its customers more than ten years ago….

…….and we are determined to continue doing so.

What? You must be kidding!

Isn’t this counter to everything we’ve been told about customer service?

Of course, it is. What we mean is this…..

Oh wait….. Who is TNETS?

We are South East Asia’s largest customs service business, and since 2004 we have been pioneering enhancements in the way businesses across the region and from around the world deal with their customs clearance and trade compliance activity.

Customs activity has evolved from being a fully paper-based process, which had always required the face-to-face interaction of customs broker and customs officer, lots of data entry, and the duplication of data from one system to another, to one where structured data is exchanged in both directions.

Taxes and duties are now debited automatically in many cases, approval to proceed is delivered to ports and airports automatically, and only in the case of major exceptions is a face-to-face or even telephone interaction required.

We can talk knowledgeably about the customs industry with reference to these changes because we have been pioneering many of them, but anecdotally a number of industries have been on the same journey; the airline, insurance, and banking industries, and more recently, healthcare and F&B.

In fact, you could probably read this entire article and ignore the word customs, and the principles and lessons would still apply!

So what exactly have we learned during this period of self-isolation?

Lesson number 1. LOCATION

The first thing we learned is that moving the customs processing activity and the customs processing personnel away from the customer’s premises was 100% the correct approach

During lockdown, this approach has proven to be an invaluable one.

While many customers have been locked out of their premises, our business, as an essential service provider in most of the jurisdictions in which we operate, has been able to continue running, and this has been a lifeline for manufacturers, importers and exporters who rely on the smooth customs clearance of goods.

While initially, when we started moving customs processes off customer sites, we lost the convenience of face-to-face referrals to clients, both our customers and our own teams quickly got used to working remotely from one another.

And there are major spin-off benefits such as:

  • improved quality through pooling work across larger processing teams.
  • enhanced data security as we control all of the hardware we use and the technology deployed on it
  • the faster speed at which we can now work
  • and the major financial savings through load-balancing
  • and all of these are locked in for our customers for perpetuity.

Lesson number 2. PROCESS

Intelligently outsourcing customs processing is a very effective business continuity plan.

We already had multiple teams working at multiple locations around the region, but crucially all on the same system and all following broadly the same process, and have therefore been able to manage the increased workload through load-balancing, and process specialisation.

Many customers who had been considering outsourcing customs declaration activity to us have suddenly found a renewed sense of urgency to work with a specialist customs service provider such as TNETS during lockdown.

Why is this?

Customers have been forced to find solutions to questions they had never had to answer before:

  • How can I continue declaring customs if my business goes into lockdown?
  • What happens if my vendors go into lockdown?
  • How do I manage my costs if my business volume drops suddenly or becomes more volatile?

Thankfully TNETS was already answering these questions long before customers hit by lockdowns needed to ask them.

We already had in place robust onboarding methodologies and work processes, which were tried and tested, and have therefore been highly durable.

Lesson Number 3. TECHNOLOGY

Having our own customs processing application has been critical to adapting, surviving and thriving during lockdown.

We have had many requests from customers during lockdown for custom technology solutions to suit the way they are now having to work, and will work in the future.

In some jurisdictions, the customers’ logistics teams are working remotely. In other jurisdictions, they can be on-site but have to justify why they need to be present.

So what’s this got to do with TNETS having it’s own customs processing application?

Bear with me…..

When we started our business more than fifteen years ago we were reliant on third-party software which, frankly, the developers had lost interest in enhancing.

We would periodically suggest enhancements but the answer was always either:

  1. “No.”
  2. “Pay us $50,000 and we’ll look into it.”

With that attitude, we (and by extension our customers) would almost certainly have been left high and dry by such developers during lockdown.

But the important aspect during lockdown is that we have been able to make tweaks, add enhancements and help customers adapt firstly to lockdown, and then to the ‘new normal’.

More broadly in relation to having our own system, the number of enhancements to our application we release each quarter is more than we saw our previous software vendors deliver in five years!

Most of the changes are imperceptible, incremental and easy to do.

Just occasionally we will launch a major upgrade based on the feedback of our users and our own teams.

Always free, and always workflow-enhancing.

But most important, we are and therefore our customers, are in the driving seat when it comes to technology.

If they need it, we will do it.

Lesson number 4. PEOPLE

Without well-trained, well-motivated, well-disciplined and proactive people, our business would have floundered during lockdown

I’ve left this topic to last because it is the aspect that brings life to all of the lessons above.

Have there been challenges?

Of course. Many! And many lessons learned here and there. Mostly around how we communicate and how best to harness the available technology resources.

But thanks to the positive attitude of our people working across sites, across borders, some sitting at home, some in the office, and some on customer sites, we have not missed a single declaration, nor a single reporting deadline, for our customers.

The foundations for this were laid many years ago, when we determined that our people would be the best paid, and most professional in their sector.

This change came about when we found that we were spending a lot of time and effort to train customs professionals only for them to leave for better paying and better structured roles elsewhere.

We developed our own in-house professional standards, gave our people a structured career path in customs, and restructured remuneration resulting in average pay rises for our customs processing personnel of around 30%.

The professionalism of our people has been the single largest critical success factor during lockdown.

So in summary, what we have learned during lockdown is that:

  1. Location – Separating the location of the outsourced customs process and personnel from the customer premises is not only very much doable but, in many cases, a necessity as part of a Business Continuity Plan
  2. Process – We have ready-made outsourced customs processing solutions for customers who are now having problems they have never had to think about, much less deal with.
  3. Technology – Having complete control over own core customs processing technology has been a game-changer for ourselves and our clients in operating seamlessly, and in deploying specific customer solutions.
  4. People – Our well-trained, well-motivated people have been the glue which has held the processes together, on the technology and in the locations we work.

No question that lockdown has been a big test of our teams, and our technology.

The overarching lesson is that (customs) outsourcing done the right way with the right people, process and technology is a durable, cost-effective and secure.


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