Celadon Group's Tom Glaser follows a simple rule of thumb when he looks at integrating fleet software systems: “He who has information makes better decisions.” Nowhere is that more important, he believes, than when it comes to integrating dispatch with customer service, sales and the executive suite.

“Feeding real time information side to side within our fleet, as well as top to bottom, reinforces the company's base and makes our decision-making skills at the top stronger,” says Glaser, president and COO of the truckload carrier. “It's not only the speed of the information flow [that's important], but getting it in front of the people who make key decisions day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute.”

Glaser points to how metrics gleaned from dispatch can be used throughout the organization. “Steve Russell [the carrier's chairman and CEO] will look at data coming from dispatch to measure our overall day-to-day efficiency and profitability, while our driver managers will look at that same data to see if our drivers are getting enough miles, pay and home time,” he explains. “Then our customer service looks at [dispatch] data for delays, such as whether our drivers are being held up during loading or unloading. [This will help them] make decisions about detention charges, etc.”

“It's all about achieving information visibility so our company can make better decisions for our customers, our bottom line and our drivers — all at the same time,” notes Margaret Kilanski, IT manager for Con-way Truckload Services. “Dispatch integration with other systems is a big deal because driver satisfaction is a big deal; we don't stay in business without them. So sharing information across departments allows us to make sure we satisfy our business goals while minimizing the impact on our staff and drivers.”

“Improving how we make decisions at all levels of the company is the goal here,” Celadon's Glaser notes. “That's a function of spreading information gathered in real time from dispatch among all the departments that affect operations. In this business, it is easy to be reactive; but it's intelligent to be proactive. That's why getting better information more quickly helps us make better, more proactive decisions for customers and drivers.”

DATA LINCHPIN

According to Pol Sweeney, chief technology officer for @Road, one of the reasons dispatch is an information linchpin is that most of the vital metrics a trucking company uses to track profitability are generated in dispatch to begin with. “Dispatch is more and more seen as the hub of field service and delivery operations [because] it's the single point at which all the essential information affecting customer service and operational efficiency is available,” he explains.

“Essentially, dispatch is the point at which the business knows the ‘who, what, why, when and how’ for the task at hand,” says Sweeney. “With the knowledge of which customer the task is required for, who is going to deliver it, what is required, why it's required, how it's going to be achieved, and when it's needed, the business is in the ideal position to affect the cost of delivery and the quality of service delivered.”

The next step in the process is data accuracy, which is why integrating other software programs into dispatch is vital, notes David Custred, director of sales service for McLeod Software. “Continuity of data is the goal here — you want to have the most accurate data possible not only flowing from dispatch to drivers, but from dispatch to sales, dispatch to customer service, etc.,” he says.

“The reason is that the transportation industry changes minute by minute,” Custred explains. “So you not only need everyone within the fleet looking at data in real time, you want them to be looking at accurate data — not something typed in once, twice or three times by three different people.”

Integration brings data from one place and spreads it out among several different systems, he says, which helps shorten the order-to-cash cycle as freight orders, load tracking, invoicing and billing are now all linked together by a single information stream.

“You can stop anywhere along that information path and drill down for more data — what's my percentage of deadhead miles, what's my load cost versus length of haul — so each department along the way can conduct its own analysis on information gathered today, minutes ago, as opposed to data batched from last week or last month,” Custred notes. “Because when you're making business decisions, you need that information now and in detail — you don't want to wait for a report to be run.”

Parcel delivery company DHL provides a good example of how real-time dispatch data integrated with other systems can help improve not only service to customers, but also a company's bottom line.

DHL's Route Optimization Initiative uses a customized software solution to pull pickup-and-delivery data from courier data terminal scanners, says John Cameron, executive vp of operations. That information, in turn, is uploaded for analysis and route mapping, enabling DHL to increase efficiency and effectively balance its workload capacity across its entire U.S. fleet, he says.

“Since its inception last year, our route optimization program has decreased required drive times, limited route length and fuel consumption, yet enabled more rapid processing of shipments and more predictable, regular delivery times for customers,” Cameron notes. “In addition, we've been able to extend the deadline for pick-up service by up to 90 minutes in over 400 metropolitan areas across the U.S., encompassing over half-a-million businesses.”

DHL is expanding its route optimization program this year by integrating more precise shipment forecasting tools into the system, he points out, to ensure that “all courier routes are constructed to account for fluctuating volume by customer, seasonality and historical data.”

Integrating “optimization” tools with dispatch systems is where fleets plan to gain cost savings for themselves, adds Con-way's Kilanksi. “These are tools we've not traditionally attached to dispatch — tools that assign loads and create routes based on the best fuel stops,” she explains.

“This helps us establish a box, if you will, within which we can place acceptable load and route options to keep our drivers happy, while reducing out-of-route miles, saving us fuel,” says Kilanski. “So now, instead of spending a half hour manually developing route options that have to be discarded because they don't meet driver or company needs, the system calculates them automatically for the load planners - all from one screen — so they can make instant decisions.”

“We need greater visibility into each vehicle, on every trip, in real time, along with tools for automated reporting, including the IFTA fuel tax requirement, so we can improve our operational efficiency,” says Kevin Tremmel, corporate fleet manager for Bradco Supply, a national distributor of building materials.

Bradco is now using a fleet management solution from Telargo Inc. that is built around its dispatching system to gain real-time management capability for its 1,000 vehicles spread across 154 branch operations in 29 states.

“It save us time and money to eliminate excess administration time and increase the accuracy of our reporting,” Tremmel says. “We're getting more than just fundamental track and trace capabilities. We're getting data intelligence that will help us to improve our field operations, communication and customer service.”

A further benefit — and perhaps the one most critical to Con-way's Kilanski — is that integrating systems keeps the upkeep costs low on the IT side of the equation.

“We're talking about linking several systems together, not creating one big system that does everything, which would be a nightmare to maintain,” she says. “So dispatch software remains dispatch software, CRM [customer relationship management] software stays CRM software. So what we are doing with integration is feeding data into systems on an as-needed basis through one screen. It's a centralized tool approach that minimizes the IT overhead and minimizes the pain of change.”

“It's about presenting data more efficiently to everyone — dispatcher, sales staff, executives, everyone involved — and far more quickly,” notes Stephan Karczag, vp-sales and marketing for Cheetah Software Systems.

“The issue always is figuring out how to manage freight volumes when everyone is extremely busy,” he adds. ”That's what integration brings to the table. It allows the organization to stay nimble and flexible in the midst of a rapidly changing market.”

Synching tips

Integrating your dispatch system with your other software can seem like a daunting task. Here are some tips from a variety of experts that should help things go more smoothly.

Getting a basic transportation management system up and running “typically takes about three months,” says David Custred, director of sales service for McLeod Software. “For a large-scale project with multiple sites involved, it'll take you a year.”

Installation time depends on a number of factors, including the number of systems you're trying to integrate. According to Custred, however, the biggest variable is the time it takes to establish a test environment alongside systems already in use to make sure everything works correctly before the integration goes “live.” This process can take anywhere from several weeks to several months.

Custred recommends that when you're ready to switch to the integrated system you should pick a date when freight volumes will be low, “giving your operations team some breathing space to make the switch as smooth as possible.”

Margaret Kilanski, IT manager for Con-way Truckload, says its important to make sure the different software platforms can “talk” to each other properly. “Be prepared to thoroughly analyze the systems you plan to plug into dispatch,” she says. “Everything needs to be tweaked to make sure data sets are being translated properly into the format you want to use.”

Keeping all the programs in a standard communication formats, such as XML, is a good idea, but it can be difficut — especially when older systems are involved.

Using an application service provider (ASP) is another approach that can make things much easier. “When you use an ASP, your fleet doesn't have to invest in servers…because your system is ‘hosted’ somewhere else,” says Stephan Karczag, vp-sales & marketing for Cheetah Software Systems. “All you need to do is log in via a secure online channel,” he explains. “Its easier and faster to get new systems up and running because there's no hardware or computer infrastructure to install.”

But the best system out there won't make a difference if you don't provide the kind of training your employees need to use it correctly. “More often than not you need to change the mindsets of people as to how they approach their work so they will use the technology for maximum benefit,” says Kilanski.

That's one reason Karczag believes any systems integration effort must be led by the operations staff rather than the IT department. “If integration comes from the IT department alone, people tend to view it as an IT project [and it] gets pushed down on the list of priorities. Making operations the lead puts the benefit of the effort in full view of everyone.”