How AI is transforming customs brokerages for the digital age: 5 takeaways from the NCBFAA 50th annual conference

We’re in the midst of an AI revolution, with massive implications for every type of industry, including customs brokerage and freight forwarding.

Donna-Marie Bohan

All too often, the narrative around AI centers on risks associated with the technology or how it could endanger certain job roles now and in the future. But this paints an overly simplistic picture and doesn’t confront a more positive and interesting reality: AI is enhancing the lives of workers and helping to drive better service levels, business results, and team satisfaction. 

This was a topic explored during a panel discussion at the 50th NCBFAA annual conference in New Orleans, April 23-26. The panel, “Your Business Beyond Brokerage and Forwarding” explored how the freight forwarding and customs brokerage industry can better leverage artificial intelligence and other modern technology, people and business management, and social media tools to further business goals. 

One of the most enlightening topics discussed by Raft CTO and Co-Founder Nisarg Mehta related to how AI is transforming customs brokerages, in particular:

  • How AI is solving customs’ biggest challenges
  • The implications of AI for customs brokerage teams 
  • And developments we’ll see play out in customs brokerages as a result of new AI models

Here are 5 things we learned...

1. Data entry is a good starting point for customs brokers to implement AI, achieve quick wins, and make customer service a differentiator.

AI technology is rapidly transforming the customs brokerage and freight forwarding industry, with many companies seeing the biggest impact in the area of data entry. The laborious task of manually inputting information from commercial invoices, packing lists, and bills of lading, while crucial to getting the job done, is a painful process but it can be streamlined and automated through AI. This not only frees up time for employees to focus on higher-value tasks, but also allows for improved customer service as customs brokers are able to devote more attention to clients. By starting with data entry automation, companies can gradually introduce more advanced AI technologies and revolutionize their operations, ultimately leading to greater efficiency and success in the industry.

2. AI is making the work of customs brokers more efficient, interesting, and rewarding.

With enhanced automation taking care of repetitive manual tasks, customs brokers can focus on more meaningful work. The basis on which they are paid and rewarded shouldn’t be about how fast they type but should be about how they can add more value to their businesses and provide an exceptional customer experience. By digitizing and automating underlying data, customs brokers can build better customer relationships, ensuring that they can provide the high-quality service that their customers demand. AI is not replacing their efforts, but rather enhancing them, making the work of customs brokers more efficient, interesting, and ultimately rewarding.

3. AI is helping customs brokers drive better compliance.  

Customs is all about compliance. As Raft CTO and Co-Founder Nisarg Mehata explained, the software that you use will make sure that you're compliant, but it relies on data being put into it correctly and all the data from an underlying declaration being in the system in the first place. The only way that compliance and governance can be truly enforced is if the underlying data is in a format that business systems can use to run checks and balances rather than having to look over all of it manually. To use the systems well, you want the data to be in a digitally consumable format so that you can drive compliance automatically and not miss something due to human error.  In this sense, customs brokers can use AI to achieve greater accuracy and drive better compliance.

4. AI working in tandem with human expertise is the key to customs brokerage success.

AI and humans working together is essential within customs. There is a common misconception that AI is replacing the work that customs brokers do or that they’ll lack control if they leave the machines to automate repetitive tasks and workflows. However, as Nisarg explains, AI needs people as part of the process to work in tandem and verify what the AI is suggesting. It's not about switching the AI on and watching the magic happen. With AI-powered tools, the focus should be on maintaining a workflow that allows for visibility, governance, and audit trails, while also enhancing human expertise. 

Customs brokers have built up a wealth of knowledge and experience in consulting for their customers, and understanding how to navigate the complexities of moving goods across borders. AI can play a role in learning best practices across brokerage teams and their customer base. Beyond data entry automation, AI therefore can play a powerful role in acting as a trusted co-pilot for customs brokers, applying the best of in-house expertise and ensuring brokers deliver a superior customer experience.

The risk only occurs when the human aspect is forgotten, and the compliance or governance aspects are not monitored. Therefore, it is crucial to have a human-in-the-loop platform, which learns from a user’s inputs and where data and feedback remain with the organization. This approach provides the best of both worlds – automation and human expertise – resulting in happier and more effective people and better business outcomes. 

5. When implementing AI, consider starting small but have ambitious plans.

While AI isn’t going to replace everything that customs brokers and forwarders do – it can’t because freight forwarding and customs brokerage are human-first businesses – it can allow people to focus on what is truly important rather than the mountains of low-value tasks they might currently be doing. The important thing is to recognize that AI is a powerful tool that can make customs brokers and freight forwarders more effective. 

As such, it's important to involve people from the start and show them what the technology can do for them, delivering it in a sensible platform with a user experience that fits with the systems they already use. By starting small and building on early successes, customs brokers can create a roadmap to achieve ambitious plans for using AI to enhance their operations.

So, there you have it – 5 ways in which AI is transforming the customs brokerage industry. In the near future, we believe every single customs brokerage and freight forwarding business will use some form of AI and machine learning. At Raft, we’re revolutionizing customs with our intelligent logistics platform built for efficiency, transparency, and control. We’ve seen some of our clients gain the ability to automate 70% of customs entries and achieve a 2x increase in their capacity as a result of adopting our technology. 

So why not get started and be part of the revolution? Schedule a personalized demo and see our intelligent logistics platform in action for yourself! 

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