Companies turned to collaboration to get through COVID disruptions, UMSL researchers find
The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the supply chain, causing shipping delays, higher material costs and other challenges for companies across the St. Louis region and globally.
New research from the University of Missouri-St. Louis examines the main strategies used to manage these disruptions.
“We wanted to understand what companies did to solve the problems, to give future recommendations on how challenges may be addressed,” said Matias Enz, a supply chain and analytics professor at UMSL.
The pandemic introduced a lot of uncertainty and volatility on both sides of supply and demand for various companies, he said. Enz, along with colleagues in the university’s Supply Chain Risk and Resilience Research Institute, distributed a survey to various companies in the region.
Respondents primarily were in the transportation, warehousing and manufacturing sectors, and a majority held senior management positions. One of the main strategies their survey responses highlighted was collaboration both within companies and with suppliers and customers, Enz said.
“That was something that surprised us,” he said. “There’s a lot of literature that talks about new, different and specific strategies, for example nearshoring or forward-buying supplies in advance.”
But the research revealed collaboration, a fundamental of supply chain management, was most essential during COVID, Enz said. It was also the easiest for most companies to implement, he added.
“Apparently that doesn’t happen on a normal basis as much as it should,” Enz said. “Companies needed a trigger like COVID to really appreciate the value of that.”
He explained that collaboration applies across the board, within and between companies or customers. It can be innovating and sharing new information, or in the case of the pandemic, communicating closely on planning and coordinating where a firm could ship or source a specific material from, Enz said.
Strong communication was a key to how UniGroup managed the pandemic-induced disruptions, said senior director of sales Laura Roth. Her company is the parent of United Van Lines and Mayflower transit, providing moving services for large companies and individuals.
“The COVID pandemic disrupted the volume trends we’re used to, not knowing when that pent-up demand was going to return,” Roth said. “Ultimately when it did, having to manage that insane influx of volume in a way where we didn’t disappoint our customers and have service failures.”
It started with properly managing the number of moves the company would even take on, she said.
“So that we know we are letting in a volume of leads that we have a high potential to be able to service successfully,” Roth said. “We do a pretty good job in collaboration between the marketing department and the sales department of watching market conditions.”
Other important strategies included communicating clear expectations for service with customers up front, she added. Moving forward, they continue to use some of the strategies first implemented in 2020, like digital communication, Roth said.
“Texting and online chat and those things as primary means of communication have allowed us to reach the customer faster and communicate more,” she said.
Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.