Searching for software

With a consultant to manage the project from start to finish, Florida Food Tankers implemented an enterprise-wide software system that automates the company’s dispatch, tank wash, repair and maintenance,and accounting functions. Stephan Beliveau (left) and Charles Henry, are co-owners of the Lake Wales, Fla.-based company.

For the past five years, Joe Dohrn knew his company’s software would eventually need to be replaced. The system passed the Y2K test, but as more customers began asking for electronic data interchange and Internet tracking, the old system came up short.

In addition to lacking modern technologies, the software caused recurring problems in rating and billing.

“We had at least one full-time and often two full-time employees looking up rates in a big book. It was time consuming, inaccurate and led to unhappy customers,” says Dohrn, MIS manager of Dohrn Transfer, a 275-truck LTL carrier in Rock City, Ill.

Keeping up with the competition and staying profitable in today’s economy often requires carriers to make sweeping changes to their business processes. Enterprise software systems for trucking operations can automate many steps in order entry, dispatch, billing, accounting and management reporting. Selecting and implementing a new system, however, can be very time consuming and disruptive. With clear objectives and decisive methods to evaluate software, successful managers can quickly turn problems into solutions.

Clarifying your needs
Sometimes the need for a new enterprise system will be obvious. Perhaps you are experiencing frequent downtime, instability or lousy technical support – failings that literally put your operation at risk. Or, like Dohrn Transfer, you may have simply outgrown the capabilities of your current system and need a modern solution to meet customers’ demands. Whatever prompted you to consider searching for new software, begin by forming clear objectives for what you want to accomplish with a new system.

Before Dohrn contacted software vendors, he and other managers at Dohrn Transfer drafted a detailed list of specific functions their current system lacked and what they expected from a new system. The list included: automated billing and rating features; the ability to perform Web transactions such as load tracking and document retrieval; electronic data interchange compatibility; and integration with the document imaging system.

“When going through the change, we wanted to have those issues resolved,” Dohrn says. “We got together and decided what was important to us immediately and further down the road, and what things we would like to see.” After evaluating several software packages for LTL carriers, Dohrn Transfer chose Carrier Logistics’ Facts2000 system in December 2002.

Looking past the present
In the process of defining your objectives, you may discover that what you really want from a new software package may not currently be available. Such was the case when Charles Henry and Stephen Beliveau, co-owners of Florida Food Tankers, asked their management consultant, Bill Lanoue, at Kohl & Company CPAs, to find a software solution to automate all areas of their operations, including dispatch, tank wash, repair and maintenance, and accounting.

With an automated dispatch system for the company’s 24/7 “pool” operations, the owners and Lanoue concluded that one dispatcher instead of three could run the day-to-day operations.

“We were not looking for existing software,” Lanoue says. “We already knew that no one had self-dispatch.” Florida Food Tankers hauls 600 to 800 loads of citrus juice per week in pool operations. In other words, each week their customers order a fixed number of loads for various lanes. In the old system, dispatchers would assign drivers to a lane, and the drivers would call dispatch each time they completed a load and the dispatcher would manually click off completed orders in the computer.

The lack of real-time information in this manual dispatch system caused inefficiencies such as drivers showing up to a new lane after the last load had already been taken, Henry says.
After presenting Florida Food Tankers’ objectives to several software providers, Lanoue says that Maddocks Systems Inc. worked with him to develop a self-dispatch module for its TruckMate for Windows enterprise software.

“It’s taken nine months to fully develop something that runs without supervision. It’s been a developmental thing,” Lanoue says. The Maddocks system automatically moves equipment into another pool when the loads from one lane are completed and sends the drivers a macro through the Qualcomm OmniTracs system. The software also automatically dispatches drivers back to the yard for tank washing and pulls drivers from one pool to replace drivers in another pool who run out of hours, for example.

The benefit of having a third-party consultant involved in the software selection process, Lanoue says, is that he brings technical and project management skills to work with software vendors to facilitate a business’ objectives, and not just evaluate the products that are on the market.

“Anybody can buy software,” Lanoue says. “My role is in the analysis of the need and the implementation of the software.”

Ensuring longevity
Today’s enterprise systems have the flexibility to provide solutions to many different types of business needs (see “Custom fit” on page 39), but implementing them requires significant training and software support time to ensure they continue to meet a business’ needs. The quality of technical support and ongoing training that a vendor provides is just as – if not more – important than the features of the system.

When Bee Trucking, a San Antonio, Texas-based carrier purchased its first integrated software system, the decisive factor was, mistakenly, which system cost the least, says President Ron Staller.

“When we bought our first program, we did some live computer tests on three or four programs. We didn’t see a whole lot of difference. You get the same information,” Staller says. Even though management did not perceive a difference in how the different software functioned, the software support soon became the decisive factor in beginning a new search.

“The customer service was beyond belief,” Staller says. “You might get a phone call back in two days. You can’t operate 130 trucks with your software down.”

To avoid making the same mistake again, Staller says that after gathering information about different vendors at trade shows, through advertisements and by asking his industry peers, he decided to make a personal visit to the headquarters of a software provider before making his final decision.

When Staller discovered that DAT Services owner TransCore was buying Keypoint, he considered that as good a place as any to start. Having used DAT for several years, Staller says the customer support was excellent. Staller visited TransCore’s office for its Keypoint for Carriers product and spent a day getting to know the product and its support staff.

“That was it. We didn’t look any further,” he says.

When comparing the support among several different providers, a personal visit to each office is not always feasible. Calling some of a vendor’s current customers to ask about their user experiences, however, can be a no-cost alternative. Obviously, the vendor won’t send you to a customer who’s having big problems. But you are still likely to get a fairly balanced assessment from the satisfied customer. Trucking executives don’t want to earn a reputation for dishonesty, even with other trucking executives.

Another method to evaluate a software vendor’s support and training, at least from a cost perspective, is to look closely at how the software providers play the “pricing game,” Lanoue says. When software vendors give you a bid on software, he says, the pricing falls into three categories: software, training and customization.

“One company we looked at didn’t charge at all for customization,” Lanoue says. “They said the product would work straight out of the box but then hit me for an unbelievable amount in

To many customers, information is as important as the freight itself. Managers at Rock City, Ill.-based Dohrn Transfer began searching for new software last year to offer Web-based freight tracking, electronic data interchange, and to improve the efficiency and accuracy of its billing processes.

training. They said they would put someone on site for six months,” he says. “You have to think, ‘If my people can’t learn how to use it in two weeks, why should I buy it?'”

Other areas for comparing vendors’ support and training, at least from a cost standpoint, include:

  • What services does the maintenance contract include?
  • How often do you receive updates?
  • Do you automatically receive the latest version as part of the maintenance contract?
  • What is the billing rate to call with questions or technical support?

Technology transfer
Because purchasing a system is supposed to be a long-term decision, another important category to consider – in addition to the support and training provided by the vendor – is the technical expertise of your own staff and the user friendliness of the software.

“Whatever software I buy, I want it to be user friendly – something you can learn in a day or so,” says Joe Terrio, president of Shield’s Transportation, a 90-truck carrier based in Grand Toul, Mich. The quick training time for new users was one of the deciding factors for purchasing Show-Me Software’s Operations Manager, he says.

“Learning how to use it is relatively simple,” Terrio says. “You make a phone call to an 800 number, and they walk you through any problems.”

Training employees to use new software can be expensive and interruptive to a business. Companies going through an expansion phase, or even just dealing with regular turnover, may place a hard dollar return on investment on user friendliness based on reducing their training costs.

Oxford, Ala.-based B.R. Williams, for example, has grown by 30 percent during the past two years, says Greg Brown, company president of the 135-truck carrier with warehousing and logistics services. Due to the company’s rapid growth, Brown says one of the primary reasons he chose to upgrade to McLeod Software’s LoadMaster version 7 was because he wanted software that was easier to train new employees to use. The new system, based on J2EE technologies, has an easier-to-use Windows look and feel, as opposed to the company’s prior character-based software that required users “to really understand how the product works,” he says.

One of the best ways to evaluate user friendliness is through hands-on demonstrations of concepts you are trying to implement, such as integrated order entry, dispatch and billing processes. The efficiency and productivity shown by how front-line workers, such as dispatchers and clerks, use the software is a decisive factor in determining which software to buy.

Mike Salenzi, general manager of D/C Transport Inc., a 45-truck carrier with intermodal, brokerage and LTL freight, based in Elk Grove Village, Ill., says that he and other managers reviewed demos on 12 to 15 different programs before selecting Profit Tools based primarily on direct feedback from the dispatcher using the software during a two-week trial period.

“We looked at how much time it was saving the dispatcher in data entry,” Salenzi says. Using a trial version of Profit Tools for two weeks, Salenzi says that he discussed with the dispatchers the speed of data entry and assigning settlements. After using the Profit Tools demo side by side with its current software, and adding up the timesavings, Salenzi says that he calculated that each dispatcher could increase his volume by 10 percent to 20 percent.

Software in action
In addition to testing the software with your front-line workers, B.R. Williams’ Brown recommends visiting some of the software vendor’s clients to see the software in action. Many carriers have called and visited B.R. Williams regarding its use of McLeod Software’s LoadMaster enterprise software, he says.

“You can make a demo work any way you want it to. You need to see how the software is used on a daily basis,” Brown says. “If possible, sit and watch someone.”

Visiting users also gives managers a chance to see the potential downsides, in advance, of buying a software system. Sales people present a one-sided view, says Aaron Keller, manager of Keller Logistics, a division of Thomas E. Keller Trucking, a 60-truck carrier based in Defiance, Ohio.

When evaluating one vendor’s product in use at another company, one of the questions that managers at Keller Trucking wanted answered was whether or not the software would reduce the number of hours the dispatcher spends on the phone communicating with drivers, Keller says. With the phones in the office ringing constantly, Keller says that managers came to a quick conclusion when visiting another company.

“We couldn’t believe how quiet it is in the dispatch office,” Keller says. “We thought, ‘this is great; we’ve got to get this.'”

Each business has unique reasons for beginning its search for new software. The quest for continual improvement remains constant in today’s shifting economy. Today’s providers have the technology to accommodate a wide range of business and user preferences, but successful managers say that selecting and implementing new systems begins with committing to the end result before it is realized.