Feature WriterWe have all relied on courier companies to send anything from a last minute Christmas gift to a sister in the UK to important documents to office headquarters in Paris.

But have you ever given a thought to what happens behind the scenes or how they get your gift or papers across thousands of miles — sometimes on the same day, overnight or in a few days' time?

Before we get to that, here are some figures that will help you understand how many packages apart from yours are moved annually across the region and internationally. David Wild, Area Commercial Director, DHL Express, Middle East, says that more than 100 million kg are transported by road and more than 200 million kg by air annually in the Middle East.

According to Girish Kumar Nair, Vice-President, Skycom Express, the company carries around half a million packages around the region every year. TNT Express delivers more than 2.6 million items in the Gulf countries by air and road annually, while UPS delivered a record 3.97 billion packages globally, an average of 15.8 million per day, in 2007. John Tansey, Country Manager, United Parcel Service (UAE) LLC, says that during the peak holiday shipping season, deliveries exceeded 20 million packages on five consecutive days and 22 million packages on two days.

A wide range of services

All of these numbers have been achieved through a range of services that these companies offer. DHL, for instance, provides a wide portfolio of door-to-door services, including time definite delivery by 9am, noon and end-of-day to major business centres across the Middle East, the US, Asia Pacific and Europe.

TNT Express also offers 9am, 10am, noon and express deliveries for the next day in addition to a domestic express for overnight delivery anywhere in the UAE as well as an economy express service, which is a cost effective delivery service to more than 200 countries. Skycom offers express courier services, express land transport in the the GCC sector and domestic services within the UAE in addition to domestic bullet services for urgent shipments.

United Parcel Service, (UAE) LLC offers domestic and international express services. Once you decide on a service provider, there are several stages that lead to the delivery of your parcel to its destination.

Wild says that they include the collection of the item by the courier, delivery to the local service centre and forwarding to the company's central hub or gateway for the country.
"Subsequent steps include us getting clearance from local customs, uplifting the parcel by our aircraft or commercial carrier, arrival in the destination airport and receipt by local DHL operations.

This is followed with an import clearance by the company (most often in advance of the arrival of the package in the country), distribution to relevant local service centre and delivery by courier.

We also track each document or parcel via its unique air way bill number, which both staff and customers can use to track the progress of the shipment." ansey from UPS explains the logistics behind domestic express deliveries. He says that once a customer requests the collection of their package, dispatch passes the message through sms to the service provider in the area with the particulars of the pick up.

"The service provider collects the packages and brings them to our operations department in Al Quoz. Employees assigned to sort packages organise them according to the area (for example, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman) the delivery is destined for," he says.

Packages going to Abu Dhabi or Al Ain are then moved out of Al Quoz operations to be preloaded at the required site by UPS feeder vehicles. This takes place between 1 and 7am.
Packages are then sorted and loaded into the company's delivery trucks according to delivery status and route order for service providers.

Tansey says service providers leave the operations department to make their deliveries after a pre-work communication meeting (PCM) conducted everyday at 7.30am.

Huge role for IT

While human effort and transportation are key elements in helping parcels reach their destination, advances in technology have also made courier companies function more efficiently.

Wild says that Information Technology supports the entire cycle of a shipment in their network. "We use various items of technology software and hardware to support our 24/7 operation, including handheld and portable readers/scanners, wireless and cellular technologies, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) systems, sensor technology and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to name just a few.

Our customers are able to use a variety of e-commerce tools to make shipment bookings, manage and track their shipments, and review their accounts with us."
The use of new technology has also helped TNT enhance its operations.

Bryan Moulds, Country General Manager, TNT Express, says that the introduction of a digital imaging system has allowed the company to store document copies for all shipments and recall them instantly at any of its locations.

The introduction of 'mobile worker' systems for each of the company's couriers have also helped. "This mobile device allows a live data upload of shipment information directly into our systems via GPRS technology.

Our new automatic call distributor (ACD) system essentially provides live information on call centre accessibility that allows better analytical management of how our response to call volumes is coordinated," he says.

Tracking packages

IT and wireless technology have also brought in benefits for customers who want to track their packages.

For instance, courier companies offer a wide range of tracking options that can be accessed through the web and sms .

"In the UAE, our customers use UPS WorldShip and UPS Quantum View technology to track and trace packages online - quickly and efficiently - from origin to destination.

We also have a variety of easy-to-use online service options that enable customers to integrate our functionality into their own businesses, not only to conveniently send, manage and track their shipments, but also to provide their customers with better information services.

Customers can choose from a portfolio of tracking options — online, SMS, email and reference. Today, UPS.com receives 15 million online tracking requests daily," says Tansey.

While technology has helped ease the operations of courier companies, there are some challenges that are part of the territory. Wild from DHL says that the visibility of shipment movement, particularly of multi-piece shipments, is an ongoing challenge, and that the company uses RFID technology and other solutions to better identify and follow individual pieces.

Challenges that lie ahead

Tansey says that the Middle East region is expanding and is experiencing an extraordinary rate of growth. "Today's challenges include having the appropriate mix of transport — including air, sea and ground, addressing environmental issues, and managing problems such as traffic in emerging markets.

Technology is a key factor that enables us to plan and address these challenges." According to Nair, the problem they face in the region is the pressure on service due to traffic congestion.

"Inflation in the region, which has been growing at unprecedented rates, has affected costing, retention and availability of manpower. Continuous changes in the customs and government formalities in the region due to the changing in the dynamics in the region also make the smooth movement of the shipments and documentation difficult."

However, these issues are not stopping courier companies from offering their customers top- end services. They are also driving courier companies to set up new initiatives.

In 2007, TNT created a new centralised department called Customer Experience to ensure that it continued to put its customers at the centre of everything the company does and offer them the highest levels of service.

The company also measures customer satisfaction levels through an annual survey, the results of which are analysed and worked upon.

To fulfill its customer needs, UPS constantly upgrades its technology and services.

The company introduced UPS Expedited in the Middle East in January. UPS Expedited is the service the company provides for their customers' lesser urgent shipments to major destinations by balancing speed and economy at a lower price than its express services.

Tansey says that UPS also invests $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) per year globally in research and development for new technology to meet customers' needs.

Innovative solutions

Wild says that DHL has put significant investment into the DHL Innovation Center, which was opened in March 2007 in Germany.

It acts as a research centre where scientists and engineers work together with their customers and business units, on solutions to the everyday challenges they face — typically involving the use of information technology.

These initiatives are a part of the entire process that goes into ensuring that packages, including your sibling's Christmas gift, reach their destination on time without any damage.

Stringent quality processes and checks are now common across the express services sector.

Customer service has also become the driving force behind the success of the courier. Companies have a single goal, and that is to get your parcel to any destination you may want in the quickest possible time.