With mobile communications and computer software, fuel oil dealers can automate much of their delivery and management processes to enhance efficiency and productivity. Implementing such technology also accelerates the invoicing process, which can be a boon to the bottom line. There are a number of systems that fuel oil dealers can choose from. Here are some highlights of some systems.
Over the last couple of years more oil dealers have invested in wireless mobile communications, in part because it usually features vehicle tracking capability based on the global positioning system (GPS).
John Redmond, vice president of product strategy for ADD Systems, Flanders, N.J., said this vehicle tracking feature enables the office to know where delivery trucks are at any given moment, and so supports overall productivity. ADD Systems markets the Raven handheld computer for fuel delivery operations.
Both the vehicle tracking and the continuity of mobile communications are better today because cell phone coverage has expanded and improved over the past three years, Redmond said, enabling, for example, transmission of data with fewer interruptions or glitches. In the event a driver does enter an area without cellular service, the ADD System stores messages until the fuel oil truck re-enters coverage, at which point it transmits the stored messages.
For fuel oil companies with multiple offices, the system can help drive out costs, Redmond noted, by allowing centralized dispatch.
When a deliveryman is finished with a delivery, the onboard system prints an invoice for the customer. The invoice can display useful information such as whether the tank was full after delivery, price, taxes, customer balance, any discounts that may apply for prompt payment, miscellaneous charges and customer payments. This advances the billing cycle by at least a couple of days, Redmond noted, no small consideration when fuel wholesalers are expecting payment in 10 days
Delivery forecasting capability and a routing program, as well as turn-by-turn navigation, combine to push delivery orders out to the handheld units. Redmond said the system also features “geocoding” – in which the GPS unit records the longitude and latitude each time a delivery is made for the first time to a new fuel oil account. Thereafter, if the GPS shows the truck at a location that matches none of the geocoded locations, the system will issue a notice that the truck might be in the wrong place.
Automated Wireless Environment
Automated Wireless Environment’s system enables fuel oil dealers to control the complete supply chain, from the desktop, in real time, said Damon Boyer, sales and marketing manager for the company, based in Lake Hopatcong, N.J. For example, Automated Wireless integrates with all tank monitors, Boyer said.
“We can compare and contrast real-time with our degree day projections, along with knowing how much is in the tank, so it’s a profitable delivery,” Boyer said.
The system includes a feature enabling an office manager to remotely shut down the pump on the truck without talking to the driver. This feature might be used in cases when a customer is inside, on the phone with the office and the delivery man is outside.
The person in the office would shut down the pump on the truck at a gallon or dollar amount specified over the phone by the customer. Since the customer has given the green light for the delivery, knowing what it would cost, and presumably can afford it, the account is less likely to end up in collections, Boyer pointed out.
The way that Standard Oil in Bridgeport, Conn., uses the Automated Wireless system seems to illustrate Boyer’s point about controlling the supply chain from the desktop in real time.
Standard Oil’s service vehicles have computers bolted into the space between the front seats. When a technician starts the vehicle and signs on to the computer, he is in effect clocking in for the start of his day. He then requests his first call, which has been loaded into the system by the dispatcher, and includes the address, a brief customer history and what the job entails. Once he arrives at the location, the tech presses a button to start the clock ticking, for accurate billing. After the job is done he enters “work performed” codes, notes parts that were used, adds any comments, and hits a “send” button to transmit the information to an employee at the office who handles dispatching and billing. (For more on how Standard Oil uses Automated Wireless, see the profile of Service Manager Al Breda in the May 2011 issue of Fuel Oil News.)
Digital Dispatcher is marketed as an inexpensive option, the company’s literature says, because there is “no massive hardware investment. Most customers already have the cell phones, computers and other hardware tools necessary to implement the system.”
“We typically use the cell phone network and the cell phone itself as the field mobile device, which you can pick up at the local Verizon, Sprint or AT&T store,” said Tom Duffey of Digital Dispatcher, based in Jenkintown, Pa. “That’s our point of differentiation. Smart phones and rugged tablets are very inexpensive. You can get a rugged tablet for under $200.” In comparison, ruggedized handheld computers and ruggedized laptops cost thousands of dollars, Duffey pointed out.
Digital Dispatcher includes a full back office suite, which interfaces with customer accounting software. This includes a fuel delivery field management solution for home heating oil deliveries, which features a comprehensive interface to existing customer accounting software packages.
For example, Duffey said, work orders are picked up by the Digital Dispatcher program, working in conjunction with the accounting software. The Digital Dispatcher program features tools to help execute those work orders, including route optimization, which is growing increasingly useful, Duffey said. “There are a lot of companies that are doing more same day, will-call deliveries in addition to the pre-defined routes,” he said, and Digital Dispatch is especially suited for that scenario. What would typically involve “a cumbersome, labor-intensive voice communication between the dispatcher and a driver in the field can be managed with a couple of clicks of a mouse,” Duffey said.
The system also makes use of a Bluetooth connection in the field to interface with electronic registers on the oil trucks, and printers to print reports and delivery tickets.
In addition to fuel delivery field management software, Digital Dispatcher offers software for managing oil burner and air conditioning service departments and their technicians in the field.
DM2 Software has added an option for a customer service relationship (CSR) management module to its software, said Tom Lane, vice president of sales. The move was made in recognition of increasing competitiveness among fuel oil dealers trying to expand, Lane said.
“Our customers are trying to grow and improve their sales approach,” Lane said, and the CSR option was created to support such efforts.
“Getting new business is more challenging than ever, and most of our customers look to grow by expanding the area that they cover,” Lane noted, “so they’re trying to become much more efficient in the way that they approach their sales process.”
The CSR software allows fuel oil dealers to capture all internal correspondence with back office departments, including service and collections departments.
For example, a sales representative preparing to call on an existing customer can check the CSR files to see whether there are any service issues or credit issues. “That way,” Lane said, “they’re not stepping on any landmines – trying to upsell somebody that’s on credit hold or trying to upsell somebody that’s been having service-related problems.
“It gives the sales people a more well-rounded view of the interactions the entire company is having with the customers,” Lane said.
There are two primary reasons for fuel oil dealers to use information technology and mobile communications: one is to make office processes, such as invoicing customers and paying suppliers, more efficient; the other is to better manage drivers and optimize their deliveries, according to Glenn Turner, president and chief executive officer of Firestream WorldWide.
“When a driver is making tank wagon deliveries everything you can do to make those deliveries more efficient is key,” Turner said. That enhances productivity, which for drivers, is based on the amount of time spent at each site.
Firestream Worldwide’s offering includes a product that directly reduces the amount of time the driver spends on site by capturing all the delivery information directly from the meters.
More and more, a goal of fuel oil dealers is maximizing fills, Turner continued. “It’s really not efficient to simply have a route and stop by houses based on what you think their usage might be,” he said – “or waiting for them to call. It’s much more efficient to be using a combination of degree day forecasting and actual inventory monitoring.”
His company’s software supports degree day forecasting, Turner said, and he encourages fuel oil dealers to use it. “If you’ve got small users who buy a few hundred gallons of heating oil a year – getting their tanks filled once or twice a season – that’s not a bad method,” Turner said.
“For larger users of heating oil and propane it makes sense to physically monitor the inventory with a remote device,” Turner said. There are a number of companies that offer inventory reading products, “and the price has dropped dramatically on those devices,” Turner observed. Whereas a few years ago they cost many hundreds of dollars, plus monthly fees, today Firestream Worldwide is able to offer the equipment and monitoring “all in” for $49 per month.
That makes it fiscally feasible for fuel oil dealers to monitor their larger-volume customers, Turner said. “You want to be watching their real inventory so you can replenish them in time and not have them run out,” Turner said.
Another growing trend is allowing customers to access their account information on a portal, Turner said. Enabling customers to sign into the fuel oil dealer’s website, using account information or an email address, can be a labor-saver. Customers can see what their standing is, including their next forecasted delivery, the date of their last delivery, and the status of their budget billing or pre-buy programs. This is becoming increasingly common, Turner said, is not difficult to roll out.
“Really, giving people as many different accesses to the information as they can possibly have – without them having to call you – is a good thing,” Turner observed.
Consistently “pushing out” information, whether to dispatchers, office managers or customers, is another tactic that can benefit fuel oil dealers.
The term refers to alerting those people to important information, or in software lingo, “key performance indicators” or, simply, “exception reporting.”
Turner offers an example of what a fuel oil dealer might do in this regard: “Every day when you come into the office it’s better to have an email that says, ‘These three customers missed their budget payments yesterday’” – far better, he said, than having to run a 30-page or 50-page report on all budget customers and having to sift through it with a highlighter to find all the ones that didn’t pay.
This practice of “pushing out” key bits of information extends to automated notification of scheduled deliveries and messages providing pre-buy information, Turner said, noting that Firestream’s software includes a tool that allows the fuel oil dealers to do just that, so their customers “know what’s going on.”
Anyone who has shopped online usually has had the experience include an email telling them the order was received, and then another telling them the order was shipped, Turner said. The same drill can be followed to good effect in fuel oil dealing, he pointed out, especially since dealers are constantly calculating degree days for all of their accounts.
“Why not proactively send an email,” Turner said. The message could alert a customer that the dealer’s forecasting shows a delivery will be needed later in the week, and that the dealer plans to deliver that Thursday. By taking such measures, dealers can pre-empt phone calls from concerned customers who want to make sure they get a delivery.
A lot of deliveries are made when the customer is not home, he also noted. Firestream’s software enables automated emails to customers telling them a delivery was made, the number of gallons, and that an invoice for a particular amount was left at the house, along with a polite request for payment.
“It’s really about creating a good customer service experience,” Turner said. “It makes your business look more efficient. And this is a competitive business. There is usually more than one dealer people can buy heating oil from.”
“We have technology on the truck that taps every event that occurs,” said Dan Warren, vice president of marketing and brand manager for SmartLogix, meaning the system digitally records the register, verifies and confirms the bill of lading number and number of gallons loaded.
Each “event” – e.g., delivery – is recorded by the system with a time stamp and a stamp of the longitude and latitude. Such data, including signature capture and “totalizer” information, are transmitted in real time, Warren said, as opposed to being stored for some period of time before being forwarded to a dealer’s office computer system. The SmartLogix system can interface with any back office accounting system, Warren added.
A short-range WiFi-like setup between the handheld and the truck enable a deliveryman who is, say, behind a house filling a tank, to shut down the solenoid valve on the truck remotely if there is a break in the pipe, Warren said.
The vendor’s support of the system is enhanced by the fact that the Motorola handhelds used in the field have Internet provider (IP) addresses. “We can remotely access drivers’ handhelds, and control the handheld as if we were there, pushing the buttons ourselves,” Warren said, “so we can remotely support them.”
The heart of the onboard system is a small computer that includes a router. The computer is wired directly to the register for digital recording of gallons dispensed. “It’s hard-wired to the register because that is the one most important piece of information,” Warren noted.
Tank monitors can be programmed remotely via a website, and can be set to report tank levels at a specific time, at predetermined intervals, or when a significant change in tank volume is detected, the company’s literature states.
Security features include a GPS-based “geo-fencing” feature that can issue an alert if a truck’s location does not match up with an actual customer location. There is also a belly valve alarm, designed to deter theft of fuel; it too sends an alert, in the form of an email or text message to a manager’s or supervisor’s mobile phone.