The virtual carrier

Several years ago, K&J Trucking launched its website (www.kandjtrucking.com), the first version being its sales portfolio in a downloadable format. First-time visitors found the information useful, but the carrier’s actual customers had little reason to enter the website – or to return.

“The original website was pretty quick. We wanted to get it out there,” says Laurie Koch, project coordinator at the 100-truck refrigerated carrier based in Sioux Falls, S.D. But K&J ultimately wanted its website to be a useful customer service tool. The first step of that transformation happened two years ago with the addition of a load tracking application. Future developments will be tailored to meet more customer needs.

“We want to make it very customer-friendly and put out as many tools as we possibly can,” Koch says. “We’re going to do an overhaul.”

Like K&J Trucking, thousands of carriers have discovered that providing customers self-service tools through the Web can improve service while reducing the time it takes carrier personnel to provide that service.

“We’ve been making a commitment to Internet communications with our customers for about four years,” says Mike Ludwick, vice president of information technology for Bison Transport (www.bisontransport.com), a 750-truck carrier based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “Although in the beginning there were only a few users of the tools, the time savings and better service we could offer justified our work.” About half of Bison Transport’s top 50 customers use the site’s tools in some form or another, Ludwick says.

As Internet technology has improved – and customer expectations have grown – many carriers have started using the Web to support a much broader spectrum of customers’ communication and information needs – from rate quotes to order entry, shipment tracking and account management. The biggest hurdle to building a virtual carrier isn’t a massive technology investment. Rather, the larger battle may be trying to convince customers to change their habits and stop picking up the telephone.

Turnkey solutions
From a technical standpoint, the most challenging part of developing an interactive website is building the “bridge” or middleware necessary to link various Internet applications to your live database, says Kim Bateman, director of information technology for American TransFreight (www.americantransfreight.com), Morrisville, Pa. Several years ago, the carrier worked with McLeod Software, its transportation management software provider, to complete this process.

“Our main goal is to have whatever is currently in the system out on the Internet in real time,” Bateman says.

Internet-based applications abound. As is typical for application providers, software companies leverage development driven by one or more customers into technology it can offer to others. Today, most transportation management software vendors offer Internet modules that integrate with the database to post and retrieve real-time information to and from a website.

K&J Trucking, for example, uses Xpress Suite from Innovative Computing Corp. After installing the software, the only setup K&J needed to go live with the load status tracking application was to put a hyperlink on its website. When clicking on the link, customers are prompted for their username and password that will allow them to enter Xpress Suite. Users can track a load by order number, bill-of-lading number or trailer number, or they can search by date ranges and check on completed loads and delivery times. “From what I’ve seen, it’s been pretty easy and seamless,” Koch says.

Securing capacity
Many turnkey solutions are available for carriers to offer online customer service tools, but these solutions are developed to meet a fairly common set of business functions across many industries. Custom development may be needed to offer tools to help customers secure their capacity needs online – tools such as online rate quotes, pickup requests and equipment availability reports.

Pitt Ohio Express has developed a website – www.mypittohio.com – for customers to handle their communication and information needs online. Registered users – those with a login and password – can enter data into fields linked directly to an internal rate engine to generate instant rate quotes, says Scott Sullivan, vice president of information technology for the 950-truck, Pittsburgh-based LTL carrier.

“Now that (the rate calculator) is available, we have eliminated calls coming into the back office,” Sullivan says. In August, for example, the company had 10,000 online requests for rate quotes.

Pitt Ohio’s online customers also can make pickup requests online. When customers complete the form, the website e-mails the form to dispatch. The company plans to integrate the order entry forms directly into its enterprise system for a no-touch order process.

But since many shippers already use EDI transaction sets to request rates and send and receive load tenders, Web-based pickup requests and order entry forms actually may create more work for customers.

“We do have an order entry tool, but we found that customers just aren’t interested in that,” says Bison Transport’s Ludwick. “If a customer has the ability to transfer data electronically, we have typically written EDI imports or even custom data imports, and the Internet often acts as the vehicle for data transfer.”

While online order entry is not a huge hit, Bison Transport uses a live available equipment list to help customers determine capacity. Both registered and unregistered users can access the report.

“We have many customers using the available equipment screen. In fact, customers can sign up to have that information pushed to them at any time interval they choose,” Ludwick says. Because the carrier is based in Canada, the available equipment report primarily shows U.S.-bound shipments without a return trip assigned, since the company needs to turn its trucks quickly to go north.

“We’ve found that instead of us making the calls to some of the accounts that help us with capacity, they are calling us.”

Tracking freight
The most common online service tool developed by software vendors and carriers alike is real-time load tracking, which can appeal to all types of customers, large or small. While large shippers already may require its carriers to use EDI for shipment status updates (214s), the information in an EDI transaction set is limited by EDI’s time-sensitive batch process – transmissions are sent once or twice a day, for example. As a result, visibility and many details about the freight are not available readily. In addition, many shippers don’t have any EDI capabilities.

For Bison Transport, load tracking was the first online application developed because the company already was printing and e-mailing reports to customers, Ludwick says.

“The Web tools just allowed us to automate that,” Ludwick says. “For the ones that do EDI with us, many of them still refer to the Web tools because it can be more timely data as well as additional info they may need. For example, a customer can find out the exact satellite position of a hot load by looking it up on the site.”

In addition to providing real-time location, online tracking systems can e-mail load status information automatically so that customers don’t have to visit the website.

Far West Freight (www.farwestfreight.com), a 200-truck carrier based in Sumner, Va., uses Maddocks Systems’ TM4Web to send automatic delivery notification to customers. When a bill is completed or delivered, the system sends an e-mail or fax to the client with details of the bill and arrival date, says John Gaston, Far West Freight’s IT manager. For more details, the customers can log in and trace the load by entering a bill number.

BarOle Trucking (www.liveload.net/barole.htm) – a 60-truck company based in Centerville, Minn. – uses an automatic e-mail feature in its Profit Tools management software to notify customers of pickup, delivery and detention events. If a detention event occurs, the e-mail prompts the customer to acknowledge the event by clicking “approve” or “deny,” says Paul Gerou, operations manager for the intermodal carrier that serves five Midwest states.

The e-mail sent to customers contains a hyperlink to the company’s online tracking system – Liveload.net from Profit Tools – that customers can visit for more details to track the equipment or to retrieve images such as a signed proof of delivery (POD).

Managing accounts
In addition to providing customers with tools to secure capacity and get real-time detailed shipment status, carriers can use turnkey solutions to offer customers a full menu of account services.

Customers of Atlanta-based PEI Logistics (www.shippei.com) can generate online reports based on a variety of parameters such as date ranges and shipment status, says Jay Patterson, executive director of the 23-truck freight-forwarding carrier. Customers also can look at their account history for paid/unpaid invoices and print out their own copies.

In September, the company bought Trans-Soft TS2000 Plus software with the TS2000net Internet module for online account management. To access PEI Logistics’ online Web portal, customers simply click a link on the carrier’s website, Patterson says.

“Development on our end was minimal,” Patterson says. “It took only five minutes.”

From both the carrier and shipper perspective, perhaps the most valuable online service is document retrieval. For companies that already use document-imaging systems for internal use, granting customers access to those systems online is a logical step to reduce phone calls. At Pitt Ohio Express, image retrieval is the most used function, Sullivan says. The company gets more than 20,000 image requests a month.

Web-based document retrieval also eliminates bottlenecks from employees, agents and contractors.

“Currently, about 20 percent of our customers are using the website to get PODs and to pull invoices,” says American TransFreight’s Bateman. As a non-asset based carrier, the company’s contractors and agents use the website for 100 percent of their documentation needs, she says. By having documents available online, paydays no longer cause a logjam of paperwork and phone calls.

“We don’t mail settlements and checks – we transfer funds electronically,” Bateman says. Agents can download and pull a load report or a terminal aging report offline. “We did that so it removes the burden on us and allows an agent or driver to do it on their own time.”

Web services
Websites can be a central portal for account information, but many customers prefer to have timely information sent to them automatically. As previously mentioned, systems can be set up to e-mail information and reports automatically. Furthermore, some carriers have created Web services that their customers can use to integrate data from the carrier’s website into their internal systems.

Pitt Ohio Express, for example, offers a B2B feature that allows customers to automatically receive data such as load tracking information in an XML format. (For more information on XML, see “EDI Makeover,” CCJ, September 2004). Data that is updated automatically to Pitt Ohio’s website can flow directly into a portal or product on the customer’s website to update internal applications. Currently, the feature is used by several of Pitt Ohio’s largest shippers and 3PLs, Sullivan says.

“We have been doing it for a couple of years. The customers that use it are few and far between,” Sullivan says. “Some (customers) have figured it out. They are getting more sophisticated.”

In addition to spreading the word to customers and training them to use the online tools, not-so-subtle reminders can help jog their memories. To help customers remember that a virtual carrier is just a click away, Pitt Ohio Express gives customers a mousepad with the company’s website on it. With about 50 percent of the company’s customers using the Web to self-service some or all of their needs, it’s easy to justify the expense. The point is, when you invest in high technology, you sometimes need low technology to get people to use it.


The yellow padlock
Using SSL gives your visitors an added peace of mind

With thousands of threats to data privacy and security over the Web, consumers and businesses increasingly are sensitive about what information they give out over the Internet and what data they download through their browsers.

One way to assure customers that the information they view and input through their Web browser is secure is through using Secured Sockets Layer (SSL), the most common security protocol for browser communications. SSL ensures that the information is sent from a Web browser, unchanged, only to the server the user intends. For example, online shopping sites frequently use SSL technology to safeguard credit card information.

When visiting a secure website that is SSL-compliant, a small yellow padlock icon appears on the screen, letting users know they have a secure connection.

Pitt Ohio Express made its website SSL-compliant. “When they see the key and lock, people understand that we are using real data, but that it is secure,” says Scott Sullivan, vice president of information technology for the 950-truck LTL carrier based in Pittsburgh.

Developed by Netscape Communications, SSL uses 40-bit or 128-bit encryption. According to information obtained from Google, there are two primary ways to obtain SSL: through a commercial certificate authority (CA) or a vendor that offers this service by means of a packaged product, such as VeriSign, Thawte and NewCreations.