A solution in hand

Carriers often see technology as an “either/or” proposition: Either invest in expensive information management systems or lose the customer. There are many ways to address this concern, and Mark Headrick has developed a very cost-effective solution that gives customers essential shipment status information and reduces paperwork for his own trucking company.

Headrick is director of information technology for Benton Express, a 300-truck LTL carrier based in Atlanta. In researching shipment-tracking options, Headrick initially focused on systems available from mobile tracking and communication providers. All required a significant investment – one as high as $500,000 to equip 300 trucks with on-board computers and wireless communications.

For the limited applications the carrier needed, Headrick couldn’t justify the investment. “We can’t afford to pass on these costs to our customers,” he says.

So Headrick decided to pursue a solution based on hardware the company already had purchased -drivers’ mobile phones. Benton Express supplies drivers with Motorola i550plus cellular phones using Nextel’s two-way radio and wireless Internet services. For unlimited two-way voice radio communications, the company spends $49.95 per phone per month. Internet services add $10 per phone. To ensure the phones are used strictly for business, Benton Express doesn’t activate the phones’ cellular voice features.

Through networking and referrals, Headrick found a Los Angeles-based consultant, Strategy 7 Corporation (www.s7.com), to create a custom Java program that would work with Benton’s Internet-enabled phones. After just two days worth of programming, the software was ready.

The Java program is stored on an application server on the East coast. Each day, Benton Express’ drivers log onto the server by selecting a pre-set address titled “My Benton.” The phone downloads and displays a list of shipments – shown by invoice number and order of delivery. After each delivery, drivers select the invoice. The screen shows a list of people who usually sign for the invoice. If the person signing is not on the list, the driver selects “unknown.”

Drivers then select whether customers paid cash or will be billed later and if there were any overages, shortages or damages. The phone then sends the data back to the application server, which updates the company’s database and the company’s website.

The system is menu-driven, Headrick says. “The last thing you want to do is have drivers enter information.” Because of its simplicity, drivers generally have adapted to the new system quickly, he says. “We walk them through it, screen by screen. At first they almost always say, ‘Oh great, now I have to be a rocket scientist to drive a truck.’ But 90 percent pick it up the first time I show it to them and are ready to run with it.”

Customers can view delivery information – time, date and the person who signed for it – in real-time through the company website (www.bentonexpress.com). Besides the customer-service benefits, the system also has internal rewards. Previously, Benton Express could not begin the billing process for loads in the computer system until at least 24 hours after the paperwork was turned in, Headrick says. Electronic data capturing also gives the company new ways to monitor driver activity.

“Drivers can throw away their time sheets,” Headrick says. “We can also calculate average time per stop and perform cost analysis on the driver. It opens up a whole new door of technology.” Headrick is also putting the finishing touches on another application, made possible by the Internet-based system. Benton Express customers will soon be able to trace their shipments on their own telephone or any web-enabled PDA device.

Benton Express’ solution does not offer truck tracking or real-time monitoring of engine and driver performance data like more elaborate systems do. But for the minimal startup costs for 300 trucks, Benton Express can compete with the big guys in the eyes of its customers.