Distributor installs mobile accounting

Rick O’Donnell, owner of Noble House, a direct-store distribution firm serving convenience and grocery stores, says one of his drivers recently delivered $5,000-worth of product. That represents an awful lot of candy and sandwiches, but the deliverer had a high-tech helper.

The Sherwood Park, Alta.-based Noble House gives out handheld computers so its truck drivers can calculate invoices and check inventory while on the road.

It’s much better than the paper-based system Noble House used to employ, says O’Donnell. The drivers had carried invoice books with the products listed in them. Upon delivery they’d tally everything up manually, calculate the taxes and add them to the bill.

Errors were common, O’Donnell recalls. And for “every error over a dollar, we went back to the customer….The drivers were spending time collecting their errors from the week before.” The mistakes hurt customers and drivers. I know some of the drivers were embarrassed to take it back to the customer. They’d just pay it themselves.”

O’Donnell sought a way to reduce errors and to speed the delivery process. Taking a recommendation from colleagues at another distribution house, he selected Solid Innovation Inc.’s mobile route accounting platform.

According to Craig Fisher, Solid Innovation’s CEO in Prince Albert, Sask., the route accounting infrastructure includes handheld computers for drivers (usually Symbol Technologies Inc.’s SPT 1800, a rugged device that can survive four-foot drops to concrete), as well as software for the customer’s HQ that takes information from the handhelds and uses that data to update inventories.

Fisher says Solid Innovation’s route accounting can link the handheld computers to the back-office equipment via wireless connections, “but perhaps to Symbol’s chagrin, we don’t promote the wireless side….If the remote operator can settle daily via a simple telephone connect, then that’s what we need.”

O’Donnell says Noble House’s drivers connect their handheld computers to a PC at the office each morning, downloading new inventory information to the devices.

The Symbol handhelds generally stand up to wear and tear, although the printer terminals tend to die sooner than the rest of the device, O’Donnell says, explaining that drivers connect the portables to Oki Data printers in their trucks to produce paper invoices for customers. Drivers make so many deliveries per day that the handhelds’ printer tabs wear out quickly.

Noble House did run into some trouble with the Solid Innovation system when the delivery firm first installed it. O’Donnell remembers discovering that a couple of erstwhile ignored numerals in product UPCs — digits not necessarily required for the old paper-based system — were very necessary for the handheld computers. Products wouldn’t scan properly without those numbers.

O’Donnell explains that Noble House staff first got a glance at the handheld after agreeing to purchase the system. If he could do the project from the start again, he would conduct something of a demo installation first to ensure the company knew all of the details beforehand.

O’Donnell also says he would have installed the Solid Innovation solution on a single truck, rather than all of them, as Noble House did in the beginning. Teething problems affected the entire fleet as a result.

Fisher says Solid Innovation ships an installation utility with the mobile accounting platform. The vendor also encourages customers to give Solid Innovation an Internet link into the client’s back office to facilitate remote fixes when required. Despite the early glitches, O’Donnell says invoice-calculation errors, so common under the paper-based system, are rare these days. And now the distribution company is using a new facet of the Solid Innovation platform for third-party billing, which reconciles orders and invoices for multiple deliverers.

That’s important for this delivery firm. Noble House is a member of the Preferred Independent Distributors Corporation (PRIDCORP), a $65 million collective of distributors in Western Canada and Northern Ontario. When customers with national accounts need deliveries across those regions, they don’t want to have to pay each deliverer individually, O’Donnell says. With Solid Innovation’s third-party billing Noble House’s drivers can produce invoices that describe which distributor delivered the goods, and request payment to PRIDCORP instead of the deliverer.

Safeway Inc. is on PRIDCORP’s client list. O’Donnell says the grocery store operator doesn’t just appreciate the third-party billing. “That’s something they demand.”

How can companies considering systems similar to Solid Innovation’s mobile accounting solution ensure the installation process goes smoothly?

Fisher says, “You need a key office person, an administrator willing to look at integrated systems.” This technology covers multiple departments, including sales and delivery, warehousing and accounting. Giving control to just one department doesn’t make sense.

O’Donnell from Noble House advises firms to conduct a pilot project before expanding the technology to the whole operation.