The data center at Pitt Ohio Express is handling a large volume in Web-based interaction. In April alone, shippers requested 14,000 images, tracked 15,000 deliveries, entered 2,300 pickup requests, created 3,000 bills of lading and configured 200 reports.

Personal relationships used to be the foundation of most trucking companies. When customers called, they expected to get a real person who would either help them or direct them to another real person.

But times change. Although many carriers remain committed to providing human support, that’s not necessarily what customers themselves want. As technology improves and younger managers climb the corporate ladder, a sizable and growing number of customers expect to obtain and convey information in ways that are faster, can be initiated at any time and as often as they like and reduce the chance of miscommunication. At the same time, technology allows you to handle more communications with fewer people and to improve the quality of your customer service.

Keeping focused
Often, technology doesn’t replace or reduce the role of human customer service. Rather, information systems in many cases allow companies to ensure that their customer service is of high quality and consistent.

Carriers with some of the most demanding customer service requirements are household movers. To integrate all of the internal and external service delivery functions from initiation to invoice, Darryl Flood Warehouse and Movers Inc., uses a management system called “Software for Moving,” says Bruce Snyder, the Dallas, Texas-based company’s national director of corporate sales.

Using the software, customer service reps document each conversation with a customer in the system and create memos that are automatically date and time stamped when they are entered. Beginning with order entry, each touch point automatically prompts the next step to be performed by the move manager in the process, Snyder says.

“Move management is more than the coordination of packing, loading and delivering someone’s personal belongings,” Snyder says. “It is about delivering critical information and managing all of the components involved in the moving experience the right way at specifically the right time.” The software is customized to coordinate communication with customers based on the carrier’s 36-step move management process, he says.

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“Each call and topic of conversation is choreographed to deliver specific information within the timeline of the transferee’s relocation experience,” Snyder says. “We have found that our customers retain more of the information that we share, which dramatically reduces the frequency of incorrect assumptions, misunderstandings and unmet expectations.”

Automating information
One approach many companies have adopted is to deliver information to the customer even before he asks for it. In trucking, customer relationships are built on the services you offer them that make it easier to do business with you by saving time and increasing efficiency, says Mike Ludwick, vice president of information technology for Winnipeg, Canada-based Bison Transportation. The company has implemented online tools that automatically push information to customers through e-mails from registered users of its website,

Customers can sign up to receive a report through e-mail, for example, when loads are delivered, or receive an automatic status report at a certain time each day. Within minutes of a load delivery, customers receive an e-mail that says, “Thanks for delivering with Bison,” followed by the information about the delivery, such as arrival times and other real-time information they may request, Ludwick says.

Automating communications with customers through the Web increases efficiency for customers. But unless you offer customers a full range of customer service tools through the Web, they will never begin relying on the Web rather than a live person. For this reason, Scott Sullivan, vice president of information technology at Pitt Ohio Express, considers the development of online services to be an all-or-nothing affair.

The Pittsburgh-based LTL carrier developed its website to support all the communication that a customer would call a live person to handle. The menu includes shipment tracking, document retrieval, and an automatic rate calculator, Sullivan says. He estimates that as many as 50 percent of the company’s customers now use the Web to self-service some or all of their needs.

“The way I look at it, the challenge is to support all mechanisms of communication,” Sullivan says. “The phone used to be really big, but now a lot of people are migrating to the Internet to control how they want to get information. People are going there as a channel to get information, just like the telephone. Only now they can control when they get information.”

In addition to being more convenient for the customer, Sullivan says that Web-based interaction with customers frees up time in the office for customer service reps to focus on more productive tasks. In April, for example, Sullivan says that shippers requested 14,000 images, tracked 15,000 deliveries, entered 2,300 pickup requests, created 3,000 bills of lading, and configured 200 reports.

Efficient call handling
No matter how much time and money you invest in Web-based customer service, you can’t expect to wean all your customers from the telephone. So even in the Internet age some carriers are still investing in technology to handle calls more efficiently.

Instead of routing inbound calls through telephone lines, Benton Express recently decided to install a telephone system in all its terminals that moves voice through data circuits and application servers, says Mark Headrick, the Atlanta-based carrier’s director of information technology. One benefit of the new “voice over IP” system is that the company can transfer calls between different terminals using a four-digit extension instead of asking the customer to dial a different number to speak with a representative at another location.

“It will greatly improve customer service,” Headrick says. “It is no longer voice and data. You can now use an application running over a network that happens to be voice.”

With the new phone system, Headrick says, a single attendant could answer and route phone calls for an entire state rather than staff attendants at each terminal to answer inbound calls. In addition, if a customer calls one of the terminals after hours, the phone system can route calls to another terminal that keeps later office hours.

The phone system, developed by Tempe, Ariz.-based Inter-Tel, will also lower hold time for Benton Express customers, Headrick says. For example, if a customer calls for a quote and all representatives are busy, the system will place the call in a queue, notify the caller of the expected wait time and provide an opportunity to leave a voice message. When the queue opens up, the call will automatically go to the next available agent. If the volume gets too high, the system will route calls to supervisors rather than continue to ring. If the customer decides to hang up, the system will automatically call them back, Headrick says.

The architecture of Benton Express’s new phone system eventually will allow the carrier to link it to databases for more automated customer service applications. Using speech software, for example, a customer could dial in, state his PRO number and obtain a computerized voice response providing the status of the shipment. For more information about speech systems, see “Voice of efficiency.”

Managing customer relationships today means making it more convenient for customers to get real-time information without depending on a live source of information. The personal touch will always be a competitive differentiator, but is no substitute for accuracy and timeliness of information.

Landstar uses speech technology to automate outbound and inbound communication between agents and its 8,000 independent operators.

Voice of efficiency
Computerized speech becomes more acceptable

You probably use some form of speech software on a regular basis – to access your bank account balance, for example. Chances are, you may even prefer to hear a computerized voice for many types of routine communication. A recent study on acceptance of speech systems by research and consulting firm Harris Interactive found that most consumers reported that they were highly satisfied with their most recent speech encounter. The study also showed that more than 75 percent agreed that speech is convenient and easily accessible and that companies using speech systems are perceived as forward-looking and creative.

Because trucking is a highly mobile workforce, communicating via the Internet is not always convenient. Jacksonville, Fla.-based Landstar, for example, uses a speech system routinely to contact one or more of its 8,000 independent business capacity owners (BCOs) to transport freight.

Until about a year ago, a Landstar agent would contact BCOs by sending a message through a paging system or listing the load information on Landstar’s website. Without an Internet connection, BCOs would have to contact an agent directly to find out more information about the load and to arrange to deliver the freight. The problem was that “agents may page 15 drivers at a time and all of a sudden, they’ve got 12 of them responding and have to go through all that 12 times,” says David Hesford, director of voice communications at Landstar.

This year, Landstar implemented speech technology from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Edify into its Landstar Communications Network. The solution automates the outbound and inbound communications between agents and BCOs.

Using the Internet, agents can choose to contact all BCOs within a certain radius of a pickup location and the Edify solution automatically calls the selected BCOs on their cell phones to give information about an available load, such as the origin, destination, the rate and commodity. BCOs can then call the agent if they decide to accept the load, having already heard all the information necessary to make a decision on whether or not to accept it.

In addition to using Edify to automate outbound calls, Landstar uses speech technology for inbound calls from BCOs to make check calls. With the new Edify platform, drivers can verbally tell their current location, time, and status, such as “leaving shipper” or “arriving at destination,” Hesford says.