Sep 20, 2002

Routing Issues: From Paperwork to PDA Efficiency

Software Technology for the Bottled Water and Water Treatment Industries

Have you ever considered exchanging your piles of paperwork
for personal digital assistants (PDAs)? You have certainly seen them, handheld
devices called PDAs, used by the big players in the service and delivery
industries. In fact, major companies could not even imagine sending their
drivers and service technicians into the field without these devices. No longer
regarded as a luxury or the next "gimmick" designed to pull your
money from your pocket, PDAs are a necessity to run an efficient and successful

The Paperwork Trouble

As anybody who works in the bottled water and water
treatment industries knows, the daily business routine creates piles of
paperwork. Early in the morning, drivers and service technicians receive their
work tickets printed on the previous day. If a customer calls in for a change
or a last-minute order, handwritten papers have to be added to the tickets.
Drivers or technicians leave the office with lots of papers, which if the
company already is using a solid routing package, is at least arranged in the
order of the stops. If the company still is based on a manual system, not only
do the drivers themselves determine what is on their truck, they also decide on
the best routing for the day.

On the road they may encounter unexpected delivery and
servicing problems. For instance, when a customer asks for additional items or
different service, drivers or technicians deliver the additional bottled waters
or perform the requested task, but they also have to make handwritten notes on the
papers and keep track of any changes. Sometimes a customer is not at home,
which makes the proof of delivery or service often difficult. At the end of the
day the work tickets contain numerous scribbled-down notes that the office
personnel has to incorporate into the actual invoices.

This description alone demonstrates how cumbersome and
inefficient it is to run a company without the appropriate software technology.
Errors accumulate easily. Precious time is wasted. Ultimately, your company
pays the price in real dollars by not getting the most out of the delivery and
servicing routes.

Switching to PDAs

Now to begin considering PDA options. Handheld devices have
been around for several years by now. Rental car companies were perhaps among
the first to use them; suddenly the return process was reduced to a couple of
minutes. By now, handhelds have enjoyed enormous popularity in any industry
that deals with deliveries, services or exchanges. The bottled water and water
treatment industries are not an exception. PDAs enhance performance, accuracy
and cost-efficiency.

Here is how it works. Each delivery or servicing technician
has a PDA that in the morning is loaded with delivery or servicing requests.
The PDA also determines the most efficient routing for the stops that have to
be made on the particular day, especially if it integrates with a mapping GIS
program. Last-minute orders and changes already are integrated when the driver
or technician picks up the PDA. Special instructions are quickly uploaded by office
personnel so that customers receive superb service. No extra phone calls are
necessary anymore because the driver or technician only has to read the
messages on the PDA to understand the situation. Similarly, the driver or
technician has access to a customer's delivery and payment history by a simple
push on the appropriate button. Route personnel return to the office without
leaving messy and unreadable notes on the desk of office clerks. Instead, they
place their PDA in a cradle connected to a desktop computer and the information
uploads automatically from the PDA to the desktop software. Your office
personnel are free to speak to customers and take care of other work. Your
customers will notice the difference in the professional deliveries and services
and will recommend your company to family and friends.

PDA Selection

How do you choose your PDAs? First of all, you will need to
differentiate between the hardware and software. Big hardware manufacturers
such as Casio, Compaq, Palm or Symbol produce new models at a fast rate. They
either run on the operating systems "Palm OS" or "Windows
CE," Microsoft's Pocket PC. Yet the crucial aspect of your PDAs relate to
your selection of the software. If the program is "buggy" or
otherwise cumbersome, the best PDA is of little use. The task will be to find
software that's right for your business routine. Once you identify the software
that is good for your delivery and service needs, the appropriate PDA almost
will recommend itself.

The Right Software

You will need to do your homework: Determine your budget,
set up your time line of implementation, clarify your business needs and ask
colleagues in your industry which PDA software their company is using and if
they are happy with their solution. Then put yourself on the phone and call a
few software companies. Ask them about their expertise in your industry. How
did they get into the bottled water and water treatment industries, and how
long have they been in it? Have they developed the software themselves? Does
the company continue developing the software so that you will be able to expand
your software solution in due time? Get references from the company and take
the time to speak to its customers. Also check if its pricing is within your
budget range. Perhaps you have to wait another couple of months and save for a
budget that will allow you to get what you want. Inquire about leasing options
to get your software sooner rather than later. Software companies are aware of
tight budgets and gladly recommend leasing companies to you. Above all, make
sure that you get a solid understanding of what a particular PDA software
solution can and cannot do for you. Do not go by pricing alone. Remember that
you and your employees should want to live with the software for years to come.

Connecting PDAs with the Office

The integration of PDAs into your business has many
benefits, some of which are immediately clear while others will take some time
to show. All of them will contribute to making your company a business of noticeable
efficiency and success. Your drivers or technicians will be among the first to
notice some of the immediate benefits. Their routes are laid out for them.
They simply have to verify the
loads on their trucks with their PDA and then they quickly will leave the yard.
Equipped with PDAs, drivers or technicians have daily routing and customer
information at their finger tips, or rather at their "stylus pen
tips." Features such as signature capture and receipt printing on the spot
allow completion of the business transaction at a customer's house. Your driver
or technician also is able to collect payment information, even by credit card,
which is entered into the PDA.

Drivers' or technicians' confidence in using
"computers" will make them excellent representatives of the company.
Most of all, the saved time allows them to return to the office in time where
their notes are saved in the PDA ready to be uploaded into the office system.

Another benefit relates to the invoices sent to customers.
When office staff deals with the data entered by the driver or technician
during the previous day, they bill customers for deliveries and services not
presumably but actually rendered. Your staff no longer needs to handle angry
calls about mistaken invoices from your valued customers. Instead, your
customers appreciate the professional-looking invoices that present the correct
billing. Your company keeps track of all the records, avoids resending invoices
and saves everybody time and work. Staff resources become available to expand
the business in quality and quantity.

Handheld devices close the circle in the delivery and
service process that desktop solutions in the office alone cannot fill. With
PDAs, the business interaction on the road becomes an integral part of a company's
activities. Fewer errors, more time, saved money and better overall interaction
organize bottled water and water treatment companies into smooth operations.
PDAs are a necessity in today's world where excellent relationships with
customers are the foundation for success. PDAs help any route delivery and
servicing company to reach this goal whether in the office or on the road.

About the author

Lorraine Keating is president of Prism Visual Software, Inc., a software company developing solutions for the field service and delivery industries. Prism's software has won major awards from renowned technology organizations such as Computerworld's "100 Emerging Companies to Watch in 2002." With 10 years of experience in the bottled water and water treatment industries, the Prism team developed MiniMate-PDA solution that integrates seamlessly with Prism's routing and servicing packages RoadQuest and ServQuest. Prism can be reached at 516-944-5920; [email protected].