November 2001
Volume 43 Number 11
 

Computer Ware: The Route Not Taken -- or Routing Redux
by Fred Bussone   Pages: 

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As a water treatment dealer, do you find yourself spending too much time working on routing issues? Do you suspect there’s a better way to train new route drivers and make ongoing changes to your routes? Do you think you could greatly improve your routing efficiency if you started from scratch and totally re-routed all your customers—only you never get started because the task is too overwhelming? Today, there are a number of tools that can help you with these tedious tasks. Combine them with the best of your current routing practices and you can get a better handle on your routing challenges.

Water treatment dealers have two areas where efficient routing affects their level of customer service and their bottom line— “product delivery” routing and “service work” routing.

Mapping it out
Companies with “scheduled” delivery services are challenged with trying to facilitate the most efficient and cost effective delivery of products for each route every day. “Customer turnover” and “call-in deliveries” complicate routes on a daily basis. If you have experienced delivery people running your routes, you can usually get by. But if you’re training a new delivery person or have people filling in on unfamiliar routes because of sickness or vacation, then routing problems are magnified. How can you help these employees run an unfamiliar route quickly and maintain your customer service level? Would it be helpful to be able to give them maps, which visually display the route in stop order from beginning to end? Would it help to give them detailed written instructions for the entire route and local area street maps for each delivery address? If your answers are “yes,” well now you can! Today, there are a number of routing/mapping software programs, which can quickly provide accurate directions and maps for your routes.

Mapping/routing programs (like Delorme X Map and Microsoft MapPoint 2002) are up to date, accurate, easy to use and inexpensive. These programs enable you to look up and view or print a color map for any street address. This software can easily create and print your daily routes on a map (highlighted in color), which links all stops in order from start to finish. If you prefer, you can have the software suggest the best route for the stops you have entered. The suggested route can be edited to accommodate special conditions that might necessitate changing the suggested route stop sequence. An example would be a customer requiring a p.m. delivery, which the software had routed as one of the day’s first stops. That customer’s route sequence would be changed so that the customer would be delivered on the inbound rather than the outbound portions of the route, therefore ensuring the required delivery time. Your routing/mapping software program should be able to interface with your accounting/delivery software to import your daily routes in truck and stop order.

These programs have interfaces with GPS (global positioning systems). Such systems use hardware to capture signals from satellites to pinpoint an exact location on the Earth’s surface. The armed forces have been using GPS for years. This technology is now relatively inexpensive and readily available. Maybe you’ve rented a car with a GPS or seen the ads for General Motors OnStar System, which is GPS-driven. Using a GPS system can enable you to map and route your stops even in areas without a street address. You can also take the GPS hardware in a delivery truck and use it to create a route, or you can download a route into a GPS device and send it with your driver. Then the GPS will guide him by displaying exactly where he is, and where he needs to go through the day’s deliveries. Some of these programs allow you to record voice direction to correspond to the visual route map, adding to the ease of use for your route delivery person. Many visual mapping programs run on specially designed GPS hardware, while others have interfaces to personal digital assistants (PDAs) like the Palm Pilot or laptops. These on-board GPS devices have the greatest value for “new” or “fill-in” drivers.

Fishing out routes
In July, at the Texas Water Quality Association annual meeting, Rick Grace—owner of Culligan of Victoria, Texas—gave a presentation on GPS. Grace became interested in GPS for his fishing trips and ended up incorporating it into his route training. In the past, whenever a new route driver was hired, Grace ended up riding shotgun for a few days until the new driver learned the route. The new driver had a great trainer but other areas of Grace’s business would have suffered except for the fact that he was willing to work nights and weekends to make sure they didn’t.

Today, Grace’s new drivers leave the dealership with a map of each stop and a GPS screen on the dash of the truck. The GPS unit beeps at the driver when it’s time to turn, shows him where he is and displays how to get to the next stop. New drivers only use the GPS unit in the truck until they’re familiar with the routes. Once that happens, the unit goes back in Grace’s fishing boat.

This might sound sophisticated and expensive but you can purchase a set-up like Grace’s for about $700. The software used is Street Atlas by Delorme and costs about $50. Another one, MetroGuide by Garmin, goes for about $150. Grace also uses Garmin’s Street Pilot GPS unit with a cost of about $500. He said there are less expensive units but their screens are very small. Or, you can spend $1,400 and get one with color but Grace doesn’t feel that’s necessary. From there, he suggests a good way to learn how to use the GPS is to try it in your car. Once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be able to show any new route drivers how it works. Then, new employees will have a tool to help them become part of the “team” more quickly.

Other uses
Some of you may be thinking, “This will not work for my business because we pre-call all our customers and we don’t know who will be getting a delivery until after that call is made.” If that’s the case, you’ll only need to feed your list of confirmed deliveries into the routing/mapping software program after your pre-calling is completed. Then you can use the software to route and map those stops for you. You may find that using this software is actually more useful in your business than it is in businesses with scheduled routes, since your drivers are dealing with dynamic, not static, routes. They’ll never memorize a route since it’s constantly changing.

Perhaps you have a large service business and several trucks going out each day on installations, service calls, recurring maintenance and product delivery. You schedule each serviceman’s day, projecting the number of stops for each one. Since your serviceman might never have been to this customer before, giving him a route, directions and maps for each customer’s service address should be a big help. If you’re using customer management software to manage your service business and create service “work orders,” you should be able to import the addresses of a day’s scheduled service calls into your routing/mapping software. Then create routes, directions and maps for the scheduled “service calls,” which you give to them along with the “work orders.”

‘Turnover rate’
Every company has customer turnover. New customers are added and others are lost. The nature of your business, rate of growth and the competition in your area will determine your “turnover rate.” You could have a change of 5 to 50 percent in your customer base in any given year. The higher your “turnover rate,” the more difficult it becomes to maintain efficient routes. It’s also true that the more delivery customers you have, the more important it becomes to route them efficiently. More efficient routes result in decreased labor cost, and can enable you to delay adding another truck and driver. More efficient routes result in fewer miles driven, therefore lowering fuel, maintenance and truck purchase/leasing costs. Increased route efficiency significantly affects bottom line profitability.

In addition, how would you like it if you could import your “delivery customer” list into a software program and it would automatically reroute them into more efficient routes? Would you like to be able to type a new customer’s address and have the software tell you the best route, truck and stop to assign for that customer? This type of software is called “route efficiency software.” It’s relatively expensive, but cost justifiable, especially for large companies with high “customer turnover” rates. Smaller companies, and those with a more stable customer base, might find it beneficial to analyze and redo their routes once or twice a year. If you’re one, you might want to contact one of the manufacturers who offer a yearly “route efficiency software service.”

This “route efficiency software” is very sophisticated. It looks at many different factors to build new, more efficient routes. It looks at the geography and customer delivery requirements or restrictions and then uses complex algorithms to analyze factors that affect route efficiency, including drive time (considering speed and miles) to get from the warehouse to the first stop and from the last stop to the warehouse; product delivery time (considering speed and miles between stops), and projected product delivery time (average of product delivery time for each customer). This software has proven to be an extremely powerful tool, and has consistently resulted in more efficient routes, which increased deliveries per stop and decreased miles between stops.

Conclusion
Hopefully this article has prompted you to think about how you can use routing/mapping tools to help you with the ongoing challenge of efficiently managing your routing. You know your business best. You understand the unique way your routing is done, so be sure to choose only the tools that work best for you.

About the author
Fred Bussone is sales director for Nevada Computer, of West Des Moines, Iowa. For over 30 years, Nevada has been recognized as an industry leader, providing training, support and software (featuring WaterFlex for Windows®)designed specifically for the water industry. He can be reached at (800) 294-6222, (515) 225-1889 (fax) or email: fbquest@email.msn.com