“It’s like having a camera without having to watch all the footage.”
That’s how Don Nelson, owner of Glacier Snow Management, describes the GPS-powered tracking software he installed in all his company’s vehicles last year. Based in Moorehead, Minn., the snow removal company has been operating for more than a decade. Clients include schools, hospitals, and retail stores.
Picking the right routing and tracking software, says the small businessman, is no different than selecting a new piece of equipment. Like most purchases, price is the key, but no one size fits all. Equally important is the ability to customize the software to meet your company’s unique needs and the ability to “try before you buy.”
Nelson offers a good case study. Last year was the first season he installed GPS-units in all his trucks. He selected Montreal-based Operasoft. For the most part, he was pleased with the software, but he says there were a few “glitches” and areas where the program did not always adapt to the unique needs of his business. For example, the software only recognized two lot shapes: rectangular and square.
“Some of our lots are triangular-shaped, so this led to some confusion,” Nelson says. “That said, Operasoft was a great step forward for our company in terms of liability, proof of service for insurance companies, and for our clients.”
When choosing a routing software provider you also need to make sure it matches, or is easily adaptable to your company’s billing cycle – is it hourly, a flat rate for the season, or do you charge per each snow event?
After discussing its product at an industry trade show this past spring, Nelson decided to switch to IndusTrack, which is based in Plymouth, Minn. Price was a big factor in this business decision. Operasoft cost him $40,000, while IndusTrack costs a little more than $20,000.
IndusTrack also sent Nelson a couple of units for him to try before he made his final purchasing decision. “If they had not let me do that, I might still be using Operasoft,” he says.
Glacier Snow Removal uses nearly 80 pieces of equipment and hire many subcontractors. Don Nelson, owner of the company, says all of the vehicles have a GPS unit installed in them. Subcontractors plug it into the cigarette lighter of their truck and it just sits on the dash or console.
“If they want to work for me and get paid they need to have our unit installed,” Nelson says. “If they don’t plug them in at night, we will have a problem because I pay off the reports generated by these units.”
Installing GPS-units also keeps everybody honest. “Sometimes our subcontractors would deny hitting something, but the GPS showed they were the only ones next to that door or that parked car,” Nelson says.
Keeping employees honest is also a reason Tony Gleason, co-owner of Gleason Johndrow Landscaping, is installing a system this winter. “The GPS can be cross-checked against payroll to determine if anyone is mis- representing their hours,” he says.
Once you get over the “sticker shock” of the initial investment, Nelson says installing GPS-units is a no-brainer. It streamlines your operations. It simplifies your billing. It saves you time and your company money.
“We got rid of one full-time employee,” he says. “Before installing GPS tracking software in our vehicles, we had a call-in system. All our operators would call in from the lot, so our call center operator could record where each vehicle was and at what time they started.
“There was often a lot of human error since we have between 70 and 80 pieces of equipment on the road every morning … that first hour is always confusing.”
Nelson does not recommend a cellphone based system. While GPS-units cost more, the chance of operator error with a cellphone is much greater.
Currently, Gleason Johndrow Landscaping does not use a GPS-tracking system, but the Northhampton, Mass.-based company is looking to install one for the upcoming winter season to better track its 20 snow-removal vehicles.
“We are planning on putting in a system that will show exactly where the truck is that is no more than 15 seconds delayed,” says co-owner Tony Gleason.
“From an operations perspective this enables us to give more accurate information to our customers. In the past you would have to call the driver on a cellphone and rely on their ability to estimate when they would arrive at a specific account. Sometimes you would have to wait for a return call from the driver. Our operations manager should have a much easier time this winter with the new system.”
The customer is still king. Gleason Johndrow Landscaping chose to implement a GPS-tracking system this year based on the need to provide better customer service.
“Any time there is a way to provide better service we look at it,” Gleason says. “Snow removal is a very hard animal. Essentially we have between 10 and 15 events to make all of our revenue for the entire four-month winter season.
“We have 400 customers, so we receive a lot of phone calls during a storm. We know we can’t reduce the phone calls, but now we can give better information thanks to the GPS … it will make us stronger from a customer service perspective.”
The return on investment should always be viewed with customer retention in mind Gleason adds – especially snow removal clients.
“In the past if we called a driver and he said: ‘I’ll be over to XYZ site in 20 minutes and we relayed that information to our customer, then he showed up an hour later we looked terrible. The new system allows the office staff to do what we do best. We can see where the truck is and make our own determination on timeframe, promises and commitments,” he says.
When is the right time to invest in a GPS-tracking software solution for your snow removal business?
“When you reach a certain size it is almost mandatory,” Gleason says. “Last winter we had 20 trucks and 45 guys out there and relying on guys answering their cellphones in a timely manner while they are working is never ideal.
“The tracking software also enables you to make changes on the fly to provide better efficiency. For example, if six trucks are ahead of schedule and four are behind, it is easy to figure out who needs to help who out.”
The author is a freelancer based in Toronto.