Magazine Article | November 20, 2006

Optimize Your Route Drivers

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

With more products to manage than ever before, route delivery companies can stay ahead of the curve by deploying mobility solutions.

Integrated Solutions, December 2006

It wasn’t so long ago that store shelves held a handful of soft drink choices. Regular and diet colas were always standard. And, of course, there were the requisite alternatives such as orange, root beer, lemon lime, and ginger ale. The whole scene was pretty orderly and predictable.

This certainly isn’t the case in today’s retail stores. From Pepsi ONE to Pepsi Vanilla, route workers must account for more than a dozen varieties of Pepsi. More than a dozen varieties ... of Pepsi. This doesn’t even begin to address the other brands of soft drinks and their myriad variations. And this is just one segment of the soft drink market. The retail shelves are also stuffed with energy drinks and juices and coffees and teas. Well, you get the picture.

“Managing the proliferation of SKUs [stock keeping units] is a major challenge. There’s no question about it,” says Ted Hastings, general manager, Delivery Division, HighJump Software. If only this issue was unique to the soft drink industry, it might be more manageable. However, the proliferation of SKUs seems to exist across all consumer goods. There are now dozens of varieties of breads and shelves upon shelves of alcohol and beer choices. Adds Hastings, “This situation creates unique pressures where you must have the right SKUs in the warehouse in the right quantities. All of a sudden, forecasting and inventory planning become significantly more important.”

In addition to consumer demands and market pressures, your mobile workforce is also impacted by significant advancements in mobile technology. Business processes that once required little more than a clipboard are now being ported to handheld mobile computing devices and leveraging real-time voice and data communications. “Most companies are moving past paper-based systems to some level of real-time management,” says Tyler Buskard, sales manager at BelTek Systems Design. “This means that the software and hardware need to be pretty bulletproof from a user perspective. Handhelds can’t be complicated, and the interface needs to be intuitive.”

Managing the flow of products from warehouses to store shelves is more complicated than ever. And, there is no shortage of technology solutions that aim to make your people and processes more efficient. The key, of course, is to deploy the technology you need now and that can be expanded in the future.


Managing dozens or hundreds of route delivery workers would seem like a perfect opportunity to leverage GPS (global positioning system) technology. After all, how couldn’t a company benefit from knowing the precise location of its field force at any point in time? The answer, it turns out, really depends on what the company is trying to accomplish with the location-based data.

GPS has risen to the forefront for a few obvious reasons. First, it’s widely used by consumers. Second, GPS technology is commonly integrated into mobile devices. Third, location data just seems like it must be very valuable. “GPS is widely available, and consumers are certainly familiar with turn-by-turn navigation powered by GPS technology. And this use of GPS makes sense for new drivers who are unfamiliar with the routes they travel,” states Buskard. “Beyond that application, however, traditional GPS provides just too much data to be useful to many companies.” Some companies use GPS data to track driver locations and routes, ensuring they did not deviate from their schedules. GPS data can also be used to track how long drivers stayed at one location or whether they followed speed limits. To some, this use of GPS has a “big brother” feel to it. “Ask yourself what you plan to do with the GPS data you’re gathering. GPS should be used to solve business problems, not address HR issues,” says Buskard.

While GPS technology is commonly available in handheld devices, the real value may come from GPS that is integrated with vehicle diagnostics. “When GPS is integrated in the handheld, you are essentially tracking the location of the handheld. That’s of little value. When GPS is integrated in the vehicle, you can monitor vehicle diagnostics and track such things as driver logs and route compliance,” says Eric White, general manager, Handheld Solutions, Trimble Mobile Solutions. For instance, if vehicle-integrated GPS data indicates that a delivery truck stopped for 15 minutes in midroute and shrinkage is reported, that data can be used to track and deter this problem. Additionally, a company could establish a geofence around a retailer’s dock doors. GPS data can determine how long a truck sat unloaded and whether that complied with agreed-upon metrics. “All organizations are trying to save on fuel costs, accomplish more jobs per day, and reduce or eliminate overtime. Integrated GPS is a technology that can help companies achieve these goals,” relays White.


The move toward real-time mobile computing is really forcing companies to evaluate a host of technologies, including GPS. GPS or not, most companies are moving forward with mobilizing their route personnel. The level of real-time computing that is required, however, is certainly up for discussion. Using carrier networks, personnel with handheld devices can interact with back end systems in real time from the field. Another scenario allows personnel to collect data on handheld devices and relay that information in batch at the end of each day. Both require wireless handheld devices, and both reflect the different levels of data exchanges. “There are all kinds of options for companies that are looking to improve their real-time communications. You can use wireless networks, you can leverage hot spot locations, you can exchange data in intervals. There are a wide variety of deployments, and customers really need to evaluate what they are trying to accomplish now and in the next few years,” says HighJump’s Hastings.

Understanding how wireless connectivity will impact your business is essentially understanding the business problems that wireless will solve. In some cases, wireless connectivity won’t solve those critical business issues. If a back end accounting package or processes can’t accommodate real-time data from the field, then billing cycles will not shorten. If a company has more than 24 hours to react to demand and constraints, then real-time data may not be important.

Real-time data exchanges can go a long way to reducing paper-laden business processes. In some cases, BelTek’s Buskard says paper can be eliminated from transactions altogether. “There is an assumption that the customer needs to have an invoice as the driver leaves the location. In most cases, customers are paying off the statement and not the invoice. So, three quarters of the time, that invoice just gets thrown away,” says Buskard. “If the customer could just sign the screen on the handheld and receive an invoice by e-mail, that would eliminate the paper from the process.”


Streamlining business processes and eliminating paper is all contingent upon mature software that can run on mobile devices and integrate with back end systems. Within each company, either the IT department or the sales department can lead this decision. And according to Trimble’s White, each department typically arrives at a different choice. “The IT department generally see drivers as order takers. So, they’re not looking for a software with a lot of functionality. The sales department will take a different approach. If they see a software package with a lot more functionality that will help improve the bottom line, they’ll train employees to take advantage of it,” says White.

For example, a software package may be properly deployed to improve promotions management, reduce stock-outs, and increase revenue. These benefits are typically more meaningful to a sales department than the IT department. For this reason, it’s best to have a good mix of IT and sales personnel on the software selection team. It’s also good to know that the project evangelist – IT or sales – may largely determine the type of solution that is deployed.

Obviously, there are a lot of technology choices for companies that manage route drivers. The first step is automation. Make a commitment to rid your company of manual, paper-intensive processes. This will naturally lead you to software and mobility solutions. From this point, you’ve started a journey that will improve customer service and allow you to profitably compete in an increasingly complicated market.