Feb. 9 2009 03:48 PM

To some companies, tracking a product during its final hours in a supply chain is akin to a letter’s P.S. — optional but not essential. But companies that cut corners on last-mile technologies could be losing a lot more than just visibility, according to one longtime IT professional.
“Shippers clearly understand the importance of using sophisticated hardware and software for global or national supply chain management. But they’re less convinced of the need to bring the  final 50 to 100 miles of the supply chain into the 21st century,” said Jonathan Turner, Chief Information Officer of 3PD. “It’s such an irony because that’s the part of the supply chain that’s the most visible to customers — and so potentially useful in terms of building good relationships and brand loyalty.”
In the spirit of that relationship-building, PARCEL asked Turner to share his thoughts on which technologies his last-mile company wouldn’t consider leaving the loading dock without — and how he thinks they truly deliver.
It’s hard to imagine why any company wouldn’t take advantage of email’s efficient and inexpensive communications potential.
As soon as we receive a customer’s home delivery request, we immediately send an email to let that customer know her order has been received and to pass along key pieces of information she can use to track it or contact us.
Admittedly, this step isn’t rocket science. But small touches like these go a long way toward making customers feel like they’re getting the attention they deserve.
Optimization is used quite adeptly for big-picture supply chain design. However, many retailers could stand to use it more effectively at the last-mile level, especially if they’re optimizing their individual stores’ home deliveries separately instead of optimizing several stores’ deliveries at once.
This is typically a late-in-the-day tool for 3PD because we run a lot of our optimizations after the cut-off purchasing times our retail clients have established in order for customers to receive next-day delivery — usually 5 PM or 6 PM Thus, we place a premium on system speed.
We also emphasize systems precision because when you’re predicting delivery times for individual consumers, there’s really no in-between: You’re either going to be 100% on-time or 100% late.
Automated Pre-Calls and Cell Phone Calls
Scheduling a delivery appointment is essential for high-end and heavy goods, and we’ve discovered that automated phone calls work especially well.
As soon as our optimization tool has scheduled a customer delivery, it triggers an automated call to the customer letting him know his delivery date and window. Customers can then use their touchtone phone to confirm the appointment or request a change of date.
All customers also get a call on the day of delivery from the driver team that’s handling their shipment, usually about 30 minutes to an hour before a truck will be at their home.
When you combine this with the introductory email and optional emails and text messages some clients opt for, it may sound like an awful lot of contact. However, we believe these communications are a key reason we’ve been able to make our productive stop rate so high — about 96%.
Hand-Held Devices
Admittedly, hand-held scanning devices aren’t cheap. A robust one can cost $3,000. However, their potential applications and advantages are more than worth the expense.
Each morning, our driver teams use these devices to scan items onto trucks as they’re being loaded. They also scan items off of the trucks as they’re delivered, and they capture customer signatures once deliveries are completed.
All of these scans are immediately transmitted to our company’s delivery management system, which constantly updates individual trucks’ delivery schedules and modifies each appointment’s ETA as appropriate. If a truck’s modified ETAs fall outside of the delivery appointments that were scheduled, the system instantly alerts a dispatcher, who can then begin the appropriate exception management sequence.
Our driver teams also use scanners to record and communicate any delivery exceptions that merit a return — wrong color, product defect, etc. — so our clients and their customer service departments can quickly begin corrective measures.
Finally, the customer service signature on each hand-held device prompts our company’s delivery management system to begin the customer survey process, a step that’s one of the most important and productive in the entire home delivery equation.
Automated Surveys
Whoever said what you don’t know can’t hurt you was obviously never in the delivery business. While our local managers would love to be everywhere at once and supervise each team making a customer delivery, the truth is they can’t. Customer feedback serves as our eyes and ears — and as an objective point of reference for our clients.
We’ve programmed our system to call and do an automated phone survey within 30 minutes of a driver team’s departure from a customer’s house — a time when most people are likely to still be home and have their delivery experience top-of-mind.
The survey takes less than two minutes, and individual results are immediately sent directly to our company and to the client for whom the delivery was made. (Survey respondents also have an opportunity to leave a voicemail that goes directly to the client at the end of the survey.) Our systems also plug those results into performance-related charts and graphs that are shared with clients — and used by our company to fine-tune future performance.
Some have asked us why we don’t make this survey more personal by using “live” surveyors. We’ve tried that, and it turned out we got a better response rate using the automated method. Considering that the automated method was also cheaper, it proved to be a win-win scenario.
Web-Based Tracking
What did any one of us do before the very aptly named “web”? Throughout the delivery experience, our company’s web portal is a vital communications thread between everyone here and key stakeholders in our clients’ organizations (including sales personnel, store managers, customer service reps and top management), granting password-protected, real-time visibility of everything. 
It’s not a substitute for the customized reports, phone calls and emails that also take place. But it does minimize the work involved with keeping everyone on the same page, including customers, if clients desire.           
On a final note I’d like to make a brief product plug — one for the value proposition of better last-mile systems.
While managing the last mile may seem comparatively less complex than the monumental effort required to shepherd products across the world it is still anything but simple, especially if you want to do it well.
It may rock the corporate boat to request more advanced hardware and software funding for this function. But if our experience is any indication, it’s a move you, your company and your customers will never regret.
Jonathan Turner is Chief Information Officer for 3PD Inc. (www.3pd.com), one of North America’s largest and only national providers of last-mile delivery and logistics services. The company makes nearly five million home, business and job site deliveries per year via a North American Network that includes nearly 500 locations and 1,500 delivery teams.