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Pinpointing the role of communication – the case of customs brokers in New Zealand

Denise Bewsell and Tracy Payne

1 AgResearch Ltd, East Street, Private Bag 3123, Hamilton, New Zealand. Email,


New Zealand's agricultural, horticultural and arable industries are threatened by a range of pests. The probability of incursions is increasing due to escalating global trade and visitor numbers, new trading routes, and climate change. In today’s climate biosecurity is a major concern, however traditional extension approaches, for example, targeting an industry likely to be effected, may not prove to be the most affective role for communication.

Customs brokers are one set of players within biosecurity. Customs brokers are skilled in representing importers when clearing their goods through customs and quarantine. Clearing goods through quarantine requires knowledge of tariff classifications, risk goods and charges related to inspection of goods. Customs brokers advise their clients on these matters as well as ensuring that shipments have appropriate documentation. Delays can occur because shipments need to be checked for quarantine risks.

To understand the interactions between customs brokers and the government quarantine service, qualitative interviews were undertaken with a range of customs brokers across New Zealand. These interviews were designed to elicit information on customs brokers’ perceptions of biosecurity and quarantine and their interactions with the government quarantine service.

Results suggest that customs brokers have a key role in providing information to clients on biosecurity. This paper addresses the possibilities of building trust and proactive communication when dealing with custom brokers, as findings from this research suggest that improving communication with this group could prove to be an effective means of improving national biosecurity. The quarantine service is actively working to implement ideas from this and other projects to ensure that New Zealand is protected from pest incursions.

Three key learnings: (1) There were some differing communication needs depending on custom broker type. (2) Relationship building with customs brokers was critical to establishing effective communication. (3) Proactive communication was preferable to reactive communication.

Key Words

Biosecurity, communication, customs brokers


The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Quarantine Service (MAFQS), colloquially referred to as MAF, is part of New Zealand’s biosecurity programme. One aspect of MAFQS job is to work with people importing goods into the country. Typically this involves customs brokers. Customs brokers are skilled in representing importers when clearing their goods through customs and quarantine. Clearing goods through quarantine requires knowledge of tariff classifications, risk goods and charges related to inspection of goods. Customs brokers advise their clients on these matters as well as ensuring that shipments have appropriate documentation, for example, an application for a Biosecurity Authority/Clearance Certificate (BACC) is required for all risk goods. Customs brokers act on behalf of clients to ensure that there are few or no delays when clearing goods. Delays can occur because the documentation required has not been completed or because shipments need to be checked for quarantine risks.

Information provision in this environment can be critical. MAFQS have identified communication as an area for improvement, particularly with customs brokers. MAFQS has been actively seeking information on these and other issues to address some of these areas. This project was part of this effort and was specifically designed to elicit information on customs brokers’ perceptions of biosecurity and quarantine and their interactions with MAFQS. MAFQS has made considerable progress leading up to and since this work and will continue efforts to improve communication.


Using contacts supplied by MAFQS, we interviewed 21 customs brokers from across New Zealand (see Table 1 for details). Each broker was interviewed once. We used a convergent interviewing process to explore the reasoning underlying the decisions and actions of the interviewee (Grunert and Grunert 1995; Dick 1998). Convergent interviewing is unstructured in terms of content. Questions are broad, with the aim of ensuring that the interviewee is kept talking (Dick 1998). This ensures that the information given is determined by the interviewee, and not by the questions asked, minimising interviewer bias. The process of convergent interviewing is however very structured and the information is analysed systematically in order to determine common themes (Dick 1998). Dick (1998) provides details on this process. The power of this interview process lies in identifying common and complementary patterns of reasoning among interviewees.

The aim of the interviews was to determine whether differences amongst customs brokers influenced their information needs. Differences amongst customs brokers were defined as interviews progressed and when common themes were identified. We were seeking customs brokers’ perceptions of the issues and so while the results help aid our understanding we note that MAFQS often had quite a different perspective on some of the issues that customs brokers raised.

Data from interviews was used to develop a typology of brokers. Brokers were separated into broad types based on their location and if they had an Approved Transitional Facility (ATF). These physical elements could have been ascertained without interviews however the typology had not been decided upon prior to the interviews. In addition collection of data on customs brokers’ experiences with biosecurity and MAFQS was critical. As the typology developed, the data was analysed for themes in terms of responses to issues. Common themes were pursued in subsequent interviews with other customs brokers. This was specifically to test whether similar types of brokers had similar needs, particularly in terms of information.

Extensive notes were taken during the interviews. Interviews were also recorded so that notes could be checked for accuracy. Where direct quotes have been used, the interview number has been identified.

Table 1: Number and location of interviews
















Interviews with customs brokers revealed there were some specific communication needs, depending on the type of broker. Customs brokers were classified into different categories, depending on their location and the presence of an ATF. The functions they undertook (broker, freight forwarder (FF) were also noted. The characteristics for these categories are outlined in Table 2. A breakdown of interview number by type appears in Table 3. Some brokers we spoke to were the small regional office of a larger company. These customs brokers have been classified as individual companies, as they tend to work independently, even though they have access to resources through the company. The groups are as follows:

Type A

Customs brokers in this group were based in Auckland and tended to be large firms. They offered broker services, freight forwarding services and had an ATF. These brokers dealt with a range of cargo, including personal effects.

Type B

Customs brokers in the second group were also based in Auckland. However these firms tended to be smaller and while they did offer freight forwarding services they did not have an ATF.

Type C

Members of this group were located outside of Auckland. They offered freight forwarding services and had an ATF. However some of the brokers in this group were reconsidering having their own ATF as they used it rarely.

Type D

Customs brokers in the fourth group were located outside of Auckland. They did not offer freight forwarding services and did not have an ATF.

Table 2: Types of customs brokers





















Broker only





Avoid using ATF





Table 3: Breakdown of interviewees into broker ‘types’

Type A

Type B

Type C

Type D

Interview 1, Auckland

Interview 3, Auckland

Interview 8, Tauranga

Interview 4, Hamilton

Interview 2, Auckland

Interview 15, Auckland

Interview 9, Tauranga

Interview 5, Hamilton

Interview 6, Auckland

Interview 16, Auckland

Interview 11, Christchurch

Interview 13, Wellington

Interview 7, Auckland

Interview 21, Auckland

Interview 12, Christchurch


Interview 10, Auckland


Interview 14, Wellington


Interview 17, Auckland


Interview 18, Auckland


Interview 19, Auckland


Interview 20, Auckland


Relationship with MAFQS/MAF

Interviews with customs brokers from across the different types revealed there was a considerable difference in brokers’ relationship with MAFQS. Many of the type A and B brokers, located in Auckland, felt frustrated with their dealings with MAFQS, as they found it hard to obtain information or a consistent answer from MAFQS officers. For example:

“ You get some real goods ones [i.e. MAF officers] that will help you out, go the little bit extra and then you’ve got some where you’re like not even going to say hello to them today, just going to leave them alone but it’s getting to know them, as much as them getting to know us as well so we work real hard to try and get to know them cos at the end of the day we have to get things done we appreciate what MAF are trying to do but it depends on who you get so it’s not … straightforward with 24 officers you can guarantee there will be at least 10 different ways of doing the same thing” (Interview 6, Auckland). Note: MAFQS is colloquially referred to as MAF.

This customs broker summed up with “getting to the right people is hard ” (Interview 6, Auckland).

Another customs broker expressed similar frustration:

“[It] comes down to the inconsistency of MAF [it] depends who you get, what day you get them on ” (Interview 17, Auckland).

We note that many of these issues stem from high workloads for Auckland MAFQS staff. It is hard to balance the sheer number of requests that come through the Auckland office with the available staff. The ratio of staff to customs brokers in Auckland is quite low in comparison to other parts of the country.

In contrast types C and D, located in other parts of New Zealand, felt they had an excellent working relationship with their local MAFQS office and officers. They were easily able to obtain information, and could communicate with the same person or people over time. One broker in Hamilton commented:

“[it’s] easier to notify MAF we have a very, very good relationship with MAF, particularly Hamilton we’re professional. It’s not a job you can step into without knowing a few of the tricks but we have to work closely with the likes of the Ministry of Agriculture anything that might be slightly dodgy, it’s just as easy to notify MAF and let them know and get the right documentation back” (Interview 4, Hamilton).

Interestingly, nearly all the customs brokers we spoke to said that they felt that MAFQS was doing well under difficult circumstances at times. They were keen to point out that although they were highlighting issues that needed to be addressed by the organisation they felt that individual MAFQS staff usually did a good job. Two brokers commented;

“ [MAFQS are] generally OK!” (Interview 11, Christchurch).

“ good to be asked [about where improvements could be made]” (Interview 12, Christchurch).

Presence of an ATF

Brokers in types A and C had an ATF and tended to have regular contact with some MAFQS officers, as officers visited regularly to inspect goods at the ATF. Type A customs brokers, located in Auckland, were at times frustrated with the level of service provided by MAFQS. These customs brokers had experienced MAFQS staff shortages, and then variations in the decisions made by staff as new staff were employed and became part of the inspection team. Brokers in type A were often concerned about delays in inspection and cited instances of trying to contact officers without success, simply because they were too busy. While they understood the problem of staff shortages, they also felt there may be some creative solutions. One customs broker said:

“ we know they’ve had their issues, huge staff turnover and a lot of old people gone the brain drain is just phenomenal so you’ve got a lot of green people and you’re going to get a different answer all we’re talking about is not necessarily getting the answer you want to hear, but a consistent answer ” (Interview 6, Auckland).

In contrast type C customs brokers appeared more satisfied with the level of service provided by MAFQS with regard to their ATF. Unlike type A brokers, type C brokers tended not to mention delays in inspection. However some had found that they did not need their ATF as much as they had assumed, as clients tended to have their own ATF. These customs brokers were in the process of deciding whether or not to keep their facility due to the cost involved.

Website & other information sources

Brokers were also asked to comment on any information they received from MAFQS. Many mentioned the MAFQS website, but also talked about how hard it was to use. There did not appear to be any major differences in use of the website between types of customs brokers. However customs brokers most often simply rang a MAFQS officer to obtain a document or be directed to a particular site for information. This was made easier for type C and D customs brokers who had a good relationship with their local MAFQS office. One broker commented:

Oh, that’s pretty hard to navigate [the website]! It’s good that it’s there but you do need to have your wits about you when you’re navigating around it ” (Interview 6, Auckland).

MAFQS has put a considerable effort into providing as much information as possible, as well as providing email and hardcopy updates on particular issues. It was clear that many customs brokers’ were unaware of these services.


The differences identified between customs brokers did have some implications for their communication needs. Customs brokers outside Auckland (types C and D) expressed satisfaction with their communication with MAFQS. They generally had a longer term relationship with local officers. These customs brokers often talked about telephoning MAFQS to obtain information or even visiting their local MAFQS office. This is defined as a proactive approach (Hua, Sher et al. 2005). In contrast MAFQS was perceived as being reactive by customs brokers in Auckland (types A and B). For type B customs brokers there was often little interaction with MAFQS officers. Hua et al. (2005) found that the most effective communication occurred when both sides were proactive. However even when only one side was proactive effective communication could be maintained.

Proactive communication

This suggests that considerable progress can be made on this issue, particularly as MAFQS is actively addressing communication with customs brokers. One of MAFQS key goals could be to allow brokers to build up relationships with staff, especially in the Auckland region, in the words of one broker, “… to create an environment for buy-in” (Interview 21, Auckland). Customs brokers who had been able to develop an effective relationship with a local MAFQS officer or MAFQS office, were more confident of the information they obtained from MAFQS. In addition they gave positive feedback on the helpfulness of MAFQS staff when they were seeking new information. This does needs to be balanced with the workload issues MAFQS face. The majority of containers and shipments come through Auckland which presents a considerable challenge to MAFQS.

Brokers felt that communication was a critical part of relationship building. One broker commented, “if [you’re] talking about improving communication with customs brokers I would say most customs brokers would mention that as being something that they would like to do to understand why an application has been treated in a certain way to get feedback ” (Interview 16, Auckland). MAFQS acknowledge this and are addressing these issues.

Some suggestions from customs brokers were:

  • Maintaining regular points of contact for brokers that are face to face (Interview 21, Auckland)
  • Regular informal meetings with some of the larger broking companies to keep them up to date with changes (Interview 19, Auckland)
  • Having a general email for enquiries, accessible from any MAFQS office across the country so that questions could be answered quickly (Interview 19, Auckland)
  • Workshops and other training opportunities. One broker expressed this as “I would like to see MAF sponsored education taught by someone who has had a lifetime of biosecurity work officers processing BACCs must find it quite frustrating if for instance the broker didn’t realise he needed … a type of certificate” (Interview 16, Auckland)

Communicating problems

The other area where differences in communication needs were obvious was for those customs brokers with an ATF (type A and D). For type A customs brokers this was often a source of frustration. Several researchers suggest that trust is one key to dealing with this type of situation (Wilson and Vlosky 1997; Turner and Mller 2004). Turner and Mller (2004) suggest that a breakdown in communication can lead to a corresponding breakdown in trust, albeit in a project management environment. Customs brokers with an ATF trust that MAFQS have appropriate checks in the system and expect a certain level of service associated with these checks. This suggests MAFQS officers inspecting goods have a major role in communicating biosecurity risks and providing feedback. Once again, MAFQS are actively seeking to address these issues and are using the information provided through this project and others to address these issues.

Information provision

Discussions with MAFQS staff revealed that they are already providing email and hardcopy updates to various stakeholders as they are trying to ensure that customs brokers have the correct information. However many customs brokers are clearly unaware of this. Customs brokers were aware of the New Zealand Customs Service weekly newsletter that gave updates on changes to the system or regulations and any other appropriate news. They were concerned that often they did not know when a MAFQS document was updated until they were informed they did not have the correct documentation. This suggests that MAFQS could work with Customs to provide information to be included in the customs newsletters, thus providing some information to brokers via a route they are aware of. Many brokers expressed concern at yet another email or newsletter to read when they were already under considerable time pressure. However others indicated that hard copy newsletters were quite useful as they could pin them on a board to remind themselves of any changes or issues to be followed up.


Interviews with customs brokers revealed that there were differences amongst brokers and that some of these differences influenced their communication needs. In particular brokers in Auckland (types A and B) were more likely to express frustration with MAFQS and the level of communication and service provided. Brokers with ATFs (types A and D) were more likely to be concerned at the level of auditing. Suggestions from customs brokers were used to develop some recommendations designed to address these issues. The government quarantine service, MAFQS, are actively engaged in improving the service they provide, particularly to customs brokers, and are using the results of this project and others to direct their efforts.


We would like to thank Charlotte Davies from MAFQS for her willingness to be involved in a case study with us! Charlotte and Jim McLaggan (MAFQS) helped us immensely with contacts for brokers. We would also like to thank them for their patience in explaining “the system” to us a number of times.

Thanks also to Julia Smart who allowed us to pilot the initial set of questions with her and gave us some valuable feedback.

Finally, thanks to all the customs brokers who gave up their time to share their experiences with us.


Dick, B. (1998). "Convergent interviewing: a technique for data collection [on line]." from

Grunert, K. and S. Grunert (1995). "Measuring subjective meaning structures by the laddering method: Theoretical considerations and methodological problems." International Journal of Research in Marketing 12(3): 209-225.

Hua, G. C., W. Sher, et al. (2005). "Factors affecting effective communication between building clients and maintenance contractors." Corporate Communications 10(3): 240.

Turner, J. R. and R. Mller (2004). "Communication and co-operation on projects between the project owner as principal and the project manager as agent." European Management Journal 22(3): 327-336.

Wilson, E. J. and R. P. Vlosky (1997). "Partnering relationship activities: Building theory from case study research." Journal of Business Research 39(1): 59-70.

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