BY CHRISTINE UMBRELL
Bottled water delivery to the home and office has become much more sophisticated during the past few years, with most bottlers leveraging advanced route management systems. These technologically advanced systems allow companies to deliver bottled water to a larger footprint of customers using less manual labor—while offering advanced options that were unheard of in years past.
“You can live-feed inventory off of trucks; you can track customer locations; you can see by drivers’ phones where they are on their route; you can track speed and acceleration,” says Brad Wester, director of operations at Premium Waters Inc. And by integrating a robust company website with a route management system, “it’s all tied in with online ordering,” he says. “Customers can go online to pay bills, skip or add deliveries, and order extras.”
But not everybody is leveraging these systems to their fullest advantage. Here, industry professionals explain how advanced route management systems can help bottled water companies meet and exceed their goals.
Planning Optimal Routes
Using a route management system that can both map routes and adjust to last-minute changes is critical, says Douglas R. Hupe, route manager at Aqua Filter Fresh Inc., bottlers of Tyler Mountain Water. That way, drivers can follow predetermined pathways to make deliveries in the most appropriate geographical order, using roads with less traffic and requiring less fuel, as recommended by the software program. Flexible systems empower drivers to make unscheduled changes and immediately see a newly optimized route.
USING A ROUTE MANAGEMENET SYSTEM THAT CAN BOTH MAP ROUTES AND ADJUST TO LAST-MINUTE CHANGES IS CRITICAL.
Wester touts the automatic routing feature as the backbone of these systems. Each night, his system—supplied by Advantage Route Systems (ARS)—is programmed to pull information on the next day’s deliveries and determine the optimal route by time, mile, and fuel efficiency—ultimately saving money and requiring less time to make deliveries. That information is automatically uploaded to drivers’ company-provided phones, which remain at headquarters overnight for charging. It’s a rare occasion when drivers alter from the preprogrammed itineraries; that only occurs if a customer is not home or a business is opening late, Wester explains.
Premium Waters has chosen to partner with ARS, says Wester, because the company is one of a handful offering systems geared specifically to water delivery companies.
While some very large bottlers may have the finances to build their own specialized route management systems, most water delivery firms partner with route management companies that offer platforms designed for delivery services. ARS is one such company; it partners with 300-400 bottled water companies worldwide, according to David Kroutil, the company’s president and chief executive officer, and bottled water comprises about 60-70 percent of ARS’s business.
“There are certain things, like handling bottle deposits, keeping track of empties, cooler and equipment management, and add-on products like coffee” that are unique to the bottled water industry, says Kroutil. ARS’s handhelds, software, and route optimization portals have integrated specialized features that address the specific needs of water delivery drivers.
“When a bottled water company gets involved with us, we understand the industry,” adds Kroutil, citing monthly billing rents, asset tracking, route optimization, and tools for contacting customers as examples of key features that should be integrated into systems.
Improving Customer Communications
Bottled water companies can foster and improve relationships with their customers by leveraging some of the technologies integrated into advanced route management systems. “We build our new technologies based on the needs of our customers’ customers,” or the individuals purchasing bottled water, explains Andrew Kuneth, vice president at Prism Visual Software, another route management system provider.
With the rise of Amazon and similar e-commerce sites, customers have come to expect the ability to order and pay online using just a few clicks, and then track their deliveries using an easily navigable website—and they are demanding similar features in their bottled water purchases. “Customers today want to be communicated with automatically on their upcoming deliveries and to be informed the delivery was completed with success,” says Kuneth. Customers also want to check statuses, manage bill payments, and more.
Prism’s communication module is designed so bottled water companies can call, text, or email before or after the delivery, and customers can use a web platform to pay bills, self-shop, and check order status, says Kuneth. “The customer is happy to use their mobile devices and self-manage,” he explains. “And the bottled water distributor is thrilled to save on labor” since the system can facilitate operational tasks, such as payments. Plus, bottlers who specialize in home and office delivery (HOD) can advertise other products and services in the virtual storefront. These options allow HOD bottlers to compete with larger online players.
“With communication automation, you can keep thousands of customers happy and sell more because they will learn to love your brand, taste, and service,” adds Kuneth. “They feel part of your family.”
Being able to integrate a website is extremely important and can drive customers online, resulting in fewer phone calls and a boost in business, agrees Wester. Premium Waters has integrated its route management system into its website and ramped up its social media marketing. “As the company starts to put products online, we use social media to drive people to our website,” he says.
Customization for Greater Value
Some bottled water companies are choosing route management systems that offer customization and can be tailored to their unique needs. Aqua Filter Fresh Inc. leverages an ARS system, but Hupe says his company’s version of ARS software “is not what everyone else has,” because his company has modified and upgraded the system over the past several years. For example, Hupe found a third-party vendor to give the system a more user-friendly interface. Customers can go to the new website and add on to their orders using the easy-to-navigate interface, which boosts sales of case water and coffee.
Most route management systems can be adapted to fit your company’s ideology, according to Hupe. He recently worked closely with ARS to integrate another special feature—the ability to take photos and immediately import them into the platform. “We wanted to modify the system” to allow drivers to take pictures at stops to document when customers forget to put their empties on their front porch, and other nonroutine circumstances. “If someone says they left a note on the garage door with instructions, our driver can take a photo of the garage door” documenting that no such note was left, says Hupe. Photo documentation “can diffuse customer anger” and prove that drivers made the appropriate stops. With this added feature, customers understand if “we charge an extra route fee” to go back out and make a second trip, if requested.
MOST ROUTE MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS CAN BE ADAPTED TO FIT YOUR COMPANY’S IDEOLOGY.
Other bottled water companies ask for integration of specific software programs, says ARS’s Kroutil, so his company offers a robust base platform with options to upgrade. “A lot of people love Quickbooks or Peachtree,” he explains, “so we’ve evolved our products so they can interface with these solutions.”
Doing More With Data
HOD bottlers are making operations decision much more strategically, armed with the data aggregated through route management systems.
ARS’s systems are set up so companies can download route reports; performance reports; and sales reports by date, customer, or product. Data can be exported into dashboards or into Excel to create Pivot tables. “All kinds of metrics” are available, including bottles per mile, stops per mile, bottles per hour, and information that allows a company to compare driver performance and identify areas in need of improvement, says Kroutil.
“You can see by route how much drivers sold that day, how much you grossed…you can look at one product or all products, and I can see it for all 10 of my locations,” says Wester. He can examine the data and identify, for example, drivers who may need more instruction on upselling.
Hupe says product-specific information helps his company decide whether new specialty products are selling well. “If the data indicates [that very few] customers are choosing those products,” he can discontinue those offerings.
Companies also are leveraging data to determine when to increase prices for specific customers—for example, higher pricing may be warranted for a customer that costs the company more because it is off main routes or because it requires specialized billing, suggests Hupe.
Perhaps most importantly, all of this data can be used to provide superior customer service. “This is a relationship business,” says Wester. “You’re constantly going to the same customers,” and being able to provide more targeted delivery times and offer more personalized service—and communicate how you are doing so—is critical.
Expecting Future Innovations
Over the next few years, route management systems are expected to integrate newer technologies for even more intuitive route management. “Systems will continue to advance to do more with less labor,” says Kuneth. “Processes traditionally managed by a person physically will be managed by the computer and machine.” He believes this evolution will improve relationships between customers and HOD companies and enable bottlers to compete more effectively. “Additionally, data will help managers make more informed decisions to balance routes, sell new customers, and increase customer satisfaction, which ultimately will allow for a more profitable and competitive business.”
Kroutil expects to see more application of artificial intelligence in the next five to 10 years. He foresees integration of water cooler intelligence to inform the distributor when customers are running out of water or need their unit cleaned, as well as automatic alerts regarding repairs. In addition, he speculates there will be a growth in in-plant intelligence and remote control. Data-wise, Kroutil believes systems will be aggregating data that alerts the company when people move, “and if you detect they are coming to your area, automated messages will appear on your phone guiding them to your company and your services.”
Hupe asserts that the future is unknown but believes video documentation will become more sophisticated. “Maybe route delivery drivers will have to wear a camera to document everything that happens throughout the day,” he says. “That way, if they get in an accident or make a delivery, a manager can review the tapes.”
Whatever the future brings, route management systems will continue to help bottled water companies serve customers faster and smarter—increasing sales and boosting customer retention. BWR
Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia. Email her at [email protected]