For customs brokers, the future of documentation is digital

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Customs brokers work at critical junctures in every international supply chain, assisting importers and exporters as they navigate complex regulatory procedures including cargo classification, admissibility requirements, rates of duty and import fees. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) found that almost half the export customs work hours, 44 percent, are taken up by the onerous demands of drafting and processing paper-based documentation to meet the clearance specifications put forward by national customs agencies. 

In the Asia-Pacific region, digitizing these workflows could reduce export costs by 31 percent, creating an estimated USD 257 billion in value from increased exports. Similar results would be likely elsewhere. The European Union imports and exports nearly EUR 5,400 billion, much of it hampered by these same issues, as highlighted in a recent TradeLens use case, of declaration workflow and document visibility for both customs brokers and their authorized shipping and consignment partners.

The variability in IT systems and processes used by each of a broker’s logistics customers has greatly limited document visibility across supply chains. These preexisting technologies, often treated as sunk costs, have hindered attempts to get ahead of the issue proactively, highlighting the need for new and more secure systems capable of sharing digital shipping documents with data structured in reliable but nimble formats.

TradeLens offers dynamic structured document data that can simplify declaration workflows with upstream visibility, making shipping documents available to the appropriate authorized parties for every consignment. These structured documentation tools can provide customs brokers with the opportunity to confidently expedite filing and processing for their customers’ shipments — either as subscribers to the TradeLens platform themselves or as valued partners given access to TradeLens via subscribers among their pool of logistics and shipping clients.

This value is not theoretical. During a recent pilot program, a 3rd Party Logistics (3PL) provider using TradeLens reported that the platform saved them approximately 33 minutes of emails, phone calls and manual data entry per shipment, including fielding customer support calls like, “Did the vessel leave yet?” The platform not only allowed them to respond to customer and partner inquiries more rapidly and more accurately, but also freed up staff for higher value customer engagement.

Structured documents: No more re-keying critical data

Frequently, a shipper will scan and email physical commercial invoices to their customs broker, who is then responsible for manually reentering pertinent information into their customs clearance filing system. The room for error in this process is substantial: a poor-quality scan can be difficult to comprehend, or simple data entry errors could introduce conflicting information as the brokerage completes clearance documents, or compares information from a low-resolution commercial list with the bill of lading and packing list.

This is where structured documents can help. After a container has been packed, a shipper can upload the final packing list and commercial invoice onto TradeLens where the broker’s system can access that data via TradeLens APIs. Information about key documents is published to a blockchain providing a powerful layer of immutably, traceability and auditability for involved parties. Once the vessel has departed, the customs broker can then redeploy the structured data from these documents — using APIs available on TradeLens instead of brute-force data entry — to complete customs declarations, including supplemental forms and filings, for an accelerated and more efficient clearance process.

It’s common that a recipient consignee could demand clarification or restitution for shipments with conflicting packing list and commercial invoice quantities, straining the customs broker’s relationships both upstream and downstream from the port of entry. Structured documentation not only mitigates the risk of this common scenario, but maintains a thorough chain of documentation for audits.

Reduce the risk of handling forged or fraudulent documentation

TradeLens structured documents rely on an advanced permissions model, strictly delineating which members of the process have access to edit, publish, or subscribe to each unique category of data for a given consignment.

With the system, customs brokers can securely collaborate and share documents with their supply chain partners, safe in the knowledge that each new edit or upload has created an authenticated and catalogued version on the TradeLens platform. This robust documentary record on the platform helps to reduce the risk that the customs broker might find itself handling, and passing along to authorities, forged or fraudulent paperwork. It also effortlessly produces a strict regime for data and document management, aiding all partners in the supply chain during customer and compliance audits.

Yet, despite this complexity, the system is still managed in near real-time. At any moment, authorized parties to a shipment can monitor when shipping data has been amended, and by whom, across transnational routes, with the option to make fast document edits and updates in response to real-world changes.

Timely updates and maximum visibility for clients

TradeLens provides users with the ability to input and parse highly differentiated and precise updates, employing more than 120 unique shipment event types, including changes to pre-existing documents as well as notifications for planned, estimated and actual transport milestones. This information, highly secured, authenticated, and traceable to the relevant logistics partner, gives brokerage customers timely updates on their consignment that they can trust and act upon.

Container shipping experts know that valuable data is frequently locked in paper or unstructured documents, while clients and partners demand live, detailed updates on the precise whereabouts of their consignment, or other pertinent details.

Ultimately, TradeLens is providing vendors, like customs brokers or the client-partners who provide them with access to the platform, a way to better support their customers with secure, authenticated information. The goal is confidence and trust, not just between trade partners but with respect to cargo owners and the data shared.

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