By Fred Bussone

Handheld computers have been around long enough to make them “standard operating equipment” for many companies that deliver bottled water, salt or tanks. If you aren’t using handhelds for your product deliveries, it’s probably not because you doubt their value but because the up-front costs have scared you away! If you’re one who has been waiting for the next generation of less expensive, more powerful handheld devices, your long wait is over!

Evolution of convenience
For about 10 years, the delivery personnel of water companies have used handheld devices successfully. The first companies to use handheld computers were among the industry’s largest. In particular, water bottlers Suntory and Hinckley Schmidt stand out as examples for which economies of scale of their route delivery operations made handhelds more cost effective. These companies—like telephone and cable corporations that began using bulky handhelds more than a decade ago—saw clearly the advantages of using this technology. They had two important advantages over their smaller competitors:
1. The capital resources needed to fund this costly investment, and
2. A programming department that could develop the software and manage a handheld interface with their in-house accounting software.

A second wave of handheld users came during the last five years fueled by the “industry specific software” vendors—companies that developed software tailored specifically for the water industry. These companies offered customers a turnkey handheld software interface to their existing software programs. Although the handheld itself was still very expensive, the cost of the initial programming and ongoing support expenses were lowered by spreading them out over multiple users. Many companies clearly saw big benefits to using handhelds and came up with the dollars to purchase this powerful new technology.

A number of people reading this article today may own a Palm Pilot or have friends that use one. There are several companies that manufacture such PDAs or “personal digital assistants.” These PDAs were initially developed to keep track of busy people’s schedules—as an address book or organizer would—to do expense reports and, lately, even to download data from the Internet while on the road. These same PDAs are bringing the industry to its third wave of handhelds. You can still use all the standard features you’ve come to depend on from these units, plus have route delivery software with signature capture on the same unit. And if you’re one of those waiting for the price of handhelds to come down, you can celebrate because your business is about to get a whole lot more efficient.

Cost and durability
Aside from price, the other main reason you’ve resisted handhelds is durability.

How will these PDAs stand up to the torture your route drivers dish out? No handheld can be invented that some enterprising route delivery person can’t find a way to destroy. We’ve seen some good ones survive a lot. Units have been run over with delivery trucks, had bay doors pulled down full force on them or have been left on the hood of trucks, falling off with their fate forever a mystery. Others have been used as battering rams to open doors. Yes, our route delivery people are very creative, and I have no doubt they’ll continue to impress us with their abilities. Units will be damaged and destroyed—there’s no escaping that fact. It’s a cost of doing business, but it’s not a valid reason not to use handhelds. In the final analysis, proper training and protective holsters will go a long way to minimizing loss of equipment. Even when you factor in the cost of destroyed equipment, though, handhelds are still a real value. The lower cost PDAs will further reduce this business expense.

Software specific
OK, you’re convinced it’s time to take a second look at handhelds for your business. So just how do you go about doing that? First, if you already have industry specific software, call your vendor and tell them you want to have a look at their new PDA handhelds. If you don’t currently have industry specific software, now is the time to get it! For those of you without industry specific software systems—there are turnkey software programs available that can be customized to work with your software system. Switching to an industry specific program can offer multiple efficiencies that might make the investment more cost effective in the long run. Trying to run a water company without industry specific software is a costly business decision. If you have a successful bottled water distribution business, it’s a good bet you’ll many of you will eventually end up with industry specific software. It’s only a matter of time.

If you’re looking for a software vendor, choose one with a proven commitment to the industry, one whose primary business is software for the water industry. Be sure it’s a company that offers professional training and good support. When it comes to this, be sure you check references. Ensure that you can get proper support (a person, not voice-mail) when you really need it! Call the support numbers yourself. Next, make sure the vendor offers a proven user-friendly software package, with handheld interface—one that meets the unique needs of your business. Remember, there are many different ways to run a successful delivery business. One software program does not fit all.

Finally, look at the cost of using the system over its lifetime. Please, note the “cost of use” has only a small correlation to the purchase price! Labor cost, support and updates fees, supplies and postage will far outweigh the purchase price over the lifetime of a software system.

If you have your own customized in-house software, you now have another good reason to switch to industry specific software as the cost of maintaining and supporting a custom system is more than most companies can afford. And, in the long run, it’s not nearly as cost effective.

Handheld computers are no longer leading edge technology for water and salt deliveries. They’ve become standard equipment and the next generation of handhelds—PDAs—will enable a whole new wave of users to benefit from this technology. Isn’t it time for your business to begin reaping the benefits of using handhelds?

About the author
Fred Bussone is sales director for Nevada Computer, the largest provider of industry specific software for the water industry. Nevada Computer offers the WaterFlex for Windows Management System and the RouteFlex Handheld System. Bussone can be contacted at (800) 294-6222 or email: http://[email protected]

Reviewing the Benefits of Handhelds

  • Data entry labor savings. The driver will be able to complete a delivery transaction quicker with a handheld. Back at the office, no one is now needed to enter that transaction into the computer to be billed.
  • Reduced math and data entry errors. When you are delivering to over 60 different customer in a day, it’s easy to make a math error when creating the delivery invoice. Back at the office your staff is now entering these transactions into the billing system. Maybe the route driver was not so neat and a number is mistaken for another number, or they just do a simple transposition of numbers. The risk of this type of error is reduced with handhelds.
  • Sales tax calculations done correctly. Each driver on a given day might have several different sales tax rates to remember. They not only have to remember the rate, but do the math correctly and then round off the same way the billing system does back at the office. The handheld throws this problem out the window.
  • Professional company image. The image your drivers present to your customers is very important. If they look dirty, doubts are raised about the water or if they’ll make a mess in the basement when they deliver the salt. Image is important. Handhelds present a professional image of your company. An image of being progressive and up to date.
  • Readable delivery invoices. Neatness does count. You have customers that call because they cannot read what was delivered or what the charge was. You won’t have this problem with handhelds.
  • Reduced cost for supplies and postage. Because of neatness, etc., many companies mail a nice invoice for today’s delivery from the office. With the handheld leaving a nice invoice of the delivery is immediate, so this should no longer be needed.
  • Time stamped delivery records. You’ll now know exactly when your driver made each delivery. You’ll know the time between each delivery. This information is beneficial if a customer calls, you’ll be able to tell them about when to expect a delivery from looking at the last time this route was run. You’ll be able to also see if a driver seems to be taking too long between stops.
  • Inventory control. The handheld will know what the truck left with. It will know what’s usually delivered on this route. During the day the driver will be able to see if he has enough product to finish the route or needs to stop back when he gets close to the warehouse for more product.
  • Complete “route delivery” analysis and fast accurate route sales reports! Your route can be billed and balanced not by noon tomorrow but before the driver leaves today. You’ll know who you missed today and why. You’ll know if you balanced with what was loaded on the truck, and what came back and what was invoiced. You’ll have a report at day’s end of new sets and of what each driver sold in quantity and dollar volume.

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