Dossier

Customs brokers and the COVID-19 crisis

By Hélène Kerjean, AKANEA

Early 2020 saw the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic to almost every country on the planet. Healthcare workers, road hauliers, logistics specialists, international freight forwarders, agrifood cooperatives… much has been said and written in the media about the problems faced by these groups of professionals as a result of the crisis. Are Customs brokers facing the same challenges? AKANEA – publisher of a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution for Customs declarations – decided to find out by carrying out a survey among Customs brokers based in France.

A sector-wide downturn

Although it is difficult to make sweeping statements about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all Customs brokers based in France, it is safe to say that most of them have experienced a downturn in business.

As a provider of subscription-based software for managing Customs declarations, AKANEA has an insider’s insight into the impact of the crisis on this sector; according to its observations, the volumes handled by French companies in calendar week 13 were down by 42% in comparison to the same period in 2019.

In certain cases, the slump in activity has been limited to a specific region. In late March 2020, Francis Tournebize, Director of the Customs brokerage company Tournebize, reported that trade flows with China had started to tail off, but that “It’s business as usual as far as the Maghreb region is concerned.” In early April 2020, Cyril Mac Ginley, Customs Manager at the transport and logistics company EPSP, also reported a downturn, stating that “We’ve definitely felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as regards the volume of orders and Customs transactions.”

New working practices

As in many other sectors, it has been necessary for Customs brokers to switch to remote working in order to continue operating throughout the crisis – a process made easier for AKANEA’s customers by the fact that the company’s SaaS tools can be accessed from any location.

Yet, remote working as a blanket solution is not always viable, as Francis Tournebize explains: “Almost all of our staff are now working remotely, but I’m still going into the office along with two of my employees, mainly because we need access to the originals of documents for Customs declarations. The fact that our IT tools are SaaS solutions meant that the switch to remote working was painless.”

Although remote working is a widespread solution that has allowed many employees to keep doing their jobs, and many companies to stay in business, other support measures have also been introduced to place companies in the best possible position to weather this unprecedented storm.

All childcare facilities and schools in France have been closed temporarily on government orders, but parents have been able to take a leave of absence covered by their health insurance policies in order to care for their children at home. At Cyril Mac Ginley’s company, 40% of staff have taken up this offer: “Since so many of our staff are now on leave, we’ve not had to introduce short-time working hours as a result of the pandemic. EPSP is still operating on the basis of its Business Continuity Plan.”

Developments at AKANEA

For several years, the company has been following a strategy of investing in new technologies, and subscribing to SaaS solutions for the full range of tools used by its teams; as a result, it has been possible for all of the members of these teams to work from home instead.

Nevertheless, it has still been necessary to modify a number of AKANEA’s previous practices to accommodate remote working, particularly in the case of teams that used to spend most of their time out of the office. These modifications have included the following:

  • sales teams are now offering remote product demonstrations in the form of webinars;
  • consultant/trainer teams are making the most of the lull in activity being experienced by some of their customers by offering remote training sessions.

The impact on other teams has been minimal, with the customer support team being a good example; the team members have remote access to the tools that they would normally use in the office, and are able to follow their customary procedures to handle tickets opened by customers.

Team-building at a distance

A more pressing problem faced by company directors and other managerial staff has been that of fostering teamwork, and a culture of mutual assistance within the company itself. According to Sabine Gayton, Customer Support Manager at AKANEA, “All of us are using a collaborative workspace that allows us to make calls, share screens, work in pairs, and exchange IMs. We’ve really made this tool work for us, so that we can all catch up with the latest developments, work better remotely, and find solutions to new technical or organizational challenges.”

Yet, although Francis Tournebize believes that remote-working solutions have proven their worth, and allowed companies to continue operating, “[…] they still can’t compete with the dynamics and healthy rivalry of a group meeting, where everyone has the opportunity to progress and improve.”

Staying positive despite the challenges

Broadly speaking, the mood among our clients as regards the health crisis and its impact remains optimistic. In the words of Francis Tournebize, “It’s important to stay positive, and to remember that these testing times are forcing us to gain a better understanding of the challenges we face, and to identify areas where we need to move forward – because standing still simply isn’t an option.”

Cyril Mac Ginley is also optimistic despite the crisis, thanks to a strategy adopted several years ago that has allowed his company to continue operating: “Around five years ago, we made a conscious decision to diversify and branch out into new markets, and new products, firstly to secure existing customers’ loyalty, and secondly to engage with new customers. This strategy has definitely paid off and helped us to navigate this challenging period.”

 

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