Easier To Swallow

One company conquers its thirst for information with wireless.

Managing a sales force has never been a simple proposition. There are egos to cope with, logistics and travel to manage, and pay incentives to grapple with. Yet all this pales in comparison with handling the mountains of paperwork required to keep a business humming. At many firms organizational inefficiency has become an unavoidable reality of doing business with sales reps in the field. But that's not the case at Dry & Thirsty Beverage Distribution Inc., Farmingdale, N.J. The company -- which supplies more than 150 beverage products to 4,000 delis, bagel shops, and pizza parlors throughout New York and New Jersey -- has made the task of managing data easier to swallow. Last summer it handed 18 sales reps personal digital assistants (PDAs) and specialized software that streamlines and automates various functions in the field. Simply put, it has changed everything. "We've cut costs, improved order accuracy, bettered our customer service, and improved inventory management," says Jeffrey Brown, president of the beverage-distribution firm, which handles brands ranging from Procter & Gamble's Sunny Delight to Welch's juices and drinks. "Mobile computing has made us a much more efficient company. It also has improved our customer service." The devices -- Symbol Technologies 1500s and 1700s incorporating the Palm operating system -- have allowed the sales reps to eliminate paper entirely. They can view their route and the next stop on-screen. And instead of carrying around cumbersome pricing lists, they simply use the device's built-in scanner to add an item to an order. But that's just the beginning. The device also can display product availability and pricing. And by entering a store's name or customer ID, it's possible to view a shop's last order and suggest new products that might complement the existing line. If an account is delinquent, the driver cannot enter the order without clearing it through headquarters. Also, the system eliminates the possibility of a rep giving away free cases of soda or manipulating the inventory. At the end of the day, Dry & Thirsty's 18 reps each use a modem to sync their PDAs to a central server. The data are imported into a flat-file database, which routes the information to the appropriate software for further handling. After a clerk generates a master shipping list from the database, the trucks are loaded and sent out with the beverages. "When we relied on paper, there were constant mistakes with math, pricing, and product availability," says Brown. In some cases, reps would take orders outside their territory or for the wrong store of a chain account. "That has completely disappeared. In addition, we don't have to worry about fax machines getting jammed and omitting part of an order or someone copying a figure over incorrectly and a store not getting the products it needs." Indeed, Brown says that in times past, mistakes sometimes translated into a driver having to head back out and make a special delivery to a shop. "It's a distributor's worst nightmare to send a driver back out for one or two cases," he explains. By eliminating that problem and introducing an array of other improvements, the firm has slashed the time it takes to process orders by 50% while speeding the time it takes to generate an invoice and collect on it. The $55,000 that Dry & Thirsty spent on the system -- which includes a Dell server at its headquarters and 20 Palm devices in the field (as well as assorted software) -- is expected to be returned in savings within 12 to 14 months. Brown came up with the idea of going mobile after using a Palm III device himself. After doing some checking, he discovered a commercial program for beverage distribution that runs on the Palm operating system, though it wasn't entirely suited for his business. He hired a programmer to modify the software before installing it. Dry & Thirsty isn't stopping there. Brown wants to enable drivers to use PDAs to print their delivery routes and receive orders via a cellular network while in a truck. The system would also enable a driver to enter corrections and update information on the fly. "At that point," he says, "we will be entirely paperless. We're achieving results that simply aren't possible using standard computers and paper."

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