IT & efficiency

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Accurate and timely data capture is such an integral part of the supply chain process today as it relates to running the entire [freight] company – from sales prospecting, to quotes, to operations, to finance, to customer notification – [to create] a cohesive, optimized logistics process.” –Gene Gander, vice president of sales-Americas for CargoWise edi

It’s OK to roll your eyes when the talk turns to driving business efficiencies through information technology (IT) improvements. Lord knows, it sometimes feels like the IT community speaks a whole different language, one filled with all sorts of clunky terms (‘optimization’ is my favorite) and inscrutable acronyms (SOP, EDI, etc.)

Thing is, though, properly designed and deployed IT systems really DO bring efficiencies to the table. I talked with a small family-owned moving company in Texas not long ago, a company that’s been investing heavily in IT upgrades over the past five years, and they told me one of the end results of their systems improvements was the elimination of 270 human “touches” to a shipment – especially where the exchange of bills of lading and other paperwork is concerned.

That’s a tremendous amount of time and effort the business Is no re-focusing elsewhere – and time is probably the most precious commodity companies have in the freight market these days, especially since shipment “speed” still remains the watchword of the day in many cases.

"We operate in a global freight and logistics environment that is considerably more dynamic and complex than it has been in the past," noted Gene Gander, vice president of sales-Americas for CargoWise edi, a freight IT provider based out of Chicago.

“This is especially true in the current worldwide economic situation where new business paradigms are increasingly necessary to meet existing and future business challenges,” he stressed. “The entire freight … process is evolving as global economic changes occur, and today requires more advanced and efficient IT tools to support these market dynamics."

Gander believes there are seven distinct ways IT solutions can be applied across a wide scope of business functions that can automate and integrate various company processes and cohesively manage them throughout the entire freight process.

Provides a Consistent SOP (standard operating procedure) Process: In too many cases today there are fragmented communications solutions in a disparate global operating system that may serve one business segment more so than another, said Gander. This requires multiple data entries and is redundant in nature. A single SOP system for supply chain visibility can access necessary shipment data and integrate information across business functions, saving time and creating companywide efficiencies. With integrated information, sales reps can enter critical data that is used to facilitate increased sales and customer service by monitoring project status and meeting customer deadlines, while operations management can use the same information for reporting and oversight without requiring additional data entry. IT optimization provides cross-functional management visibility as a by-product of the sales effort, but is also an invaluable communications tool for ongoing operations.

Increases Ease of Training: Ongoing training of changing IT system methods is critical to effective global freight operations. The establishment of a single integrated IT system through one provider permits a more effective and freight-specific systems training process across departments, business functions and company branches. This can provide efficiencies for both company employees and customers using training manuals on-site, or on a remote or on-demand Web-based basis.

Creates Deeper Customer Profiles: The sales and marketing process is the first contact with the customer/prospect your company has, stressed Gander, so a single customer-specific operational profile of the customer and shipment parameters and variables can be an invaluable operating tool. Changing customer organization details, contacts, and procedures once a logistics process is underway can be an administrative nightmare with multiple data systems within a company. A single and comprehensive data system with a common point of customer input ensures continuity for the entire team, which has access to the same updated information to ensure a seamless flow of quality information. A properly integrated customer profile does not require sales to send multiple memos, but rather enables the system to automatically inform operations of how to most efficiently manage that account regardless of organizational changes.

Consolidates Reporting: An effective, consolidated IT system can create a valuable reporting tool that offers superior, electronic data mining, funnels important shipment data and documents throughout your company's business functions without redundancies, improves the workflow and enhances the decision-making process for management while ensuring data quality through a single and consistent electronic reporting system, noted Gander. Using accurate and timely information that flows in all directions helps to create efficiencies by avoiding miscommunications – while also creating a “greener” electronic, paperless work environment in the process.

Improves the Customer Service Process: A properly integrated IT system can significantly improve customer service by providing accurate shipment data for both the company and customer. IT efficiencies enable a more precise customer record to be entered into a CRM (customer resource management) tool that is both accurate and cross-functional, Gander said. IT solutions with an integrated CRM process enables sales, operations and finance to work from the same records, maximizing companywide operating efficiencies and greatly enhances the customer experience through improved reporting of shipment status.

Creates Centralized Data Efficiencies: A robust single system and transparent IT solution can also enhance the nature of the data quality and efficiencies throughout your organization, Gander pointed out. By creating a centralized database that is accurate and accessible to all parties in the pipeline, maximum efficiencies are created by centralizing information regardless of skill level or geographic location. Entering data only once reduces possible errors caused by multiple touches, and saves money and resources by not having to re-key it multiple times. The cross-functional visibility created by one integrated IT system enables it to be viewed and managed efficiently from both ends of the supply chain.

Enables Greater Supply Chain Visibility: The electronic entry of shipment information, as opposed to manual entry, allows the data capture to be pushed out through the extended supply chain more accurately and timely, Gander said. For instance, an export data entry does not just start with the arrival of information with an IT-efficient system; but rather when the foreign export is initiated for shipment management. This provides more immediate end-to-end supply chain visibility for all trading partners.

"Ultimately implementing a robust, single-source IT infrastructure can greatly lower hardware and software costs, while streamlining all business functions and improving workflow productivity," Gander believes. "This ultimately enables [freight companies] to more efficiently manage global operations electronically through a single software provider, allowing your operation to provide consistency, improved and timely shipment status communications and vastly improved global supply chain visibility.”

It’s a tough market out there as carriers, owner-operators, freight forwarders, logistics providers, and freight brokers all jockey for a shrinking pool of business. Having the right IT tools in place can make your business, no matter how small, more efficient and thus a more nimble competitor. At the very least (to steal a phrase from my compatriot Tim Brady) it’s something to think about.

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