By Ian Ross
Staying ahead of their transportation competition through some imaginative technology-based concepts is what makes Manitoulin Transport an industry customer-service leader.
Through the Internet, the large regional freight carrier has made itself accessible to its clients 24 hours a day from a computer anywhere in the world.
On the forefront of the Internet boom since the late 1990s with its customer shipment tracking capability, Manitoulin is certainly not content to rest on its laurels.
Being headquartered in Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island offered no great advantages for the less-than-truckload carrier to engage in e-business back in 1997 with no fibre optic, broadband infrastructure nearby to speak of.
By teaming with Ontario Northland Systems, they brought Internet access to the company and the island residents in exchange for providing storage facilities for the ON's telecommunications equipment.
Manitoulin's shipment tracking capabilities are just a small portion of the range of services they have built on the Net, says Robert Wilks, the company’s information systems manager.
By creating a password-protected area, clients can receive customized reports on detailed shipment information, historical information, receive bills of lading, proof of delivery, freight ETA and track their shipment wherever it goes in North America. They can receive immediate e-mail updates every time their freight reaches a Manitoulin terminal or one of its strategic partners.
"The Web is on our main system so the information that the customer gets is as up-to-date as our customer-service people get," says Wilks.
Sometime in the future they hope to have product satellite-tracking capability installed on all their trucks with second-by-second, real-time shipment information.
Customers can log on to their Web site and trace shipments through purchase orders, probills and any reference number on their bill of lading. Invoicing and all customer statements can be done over the Net and customer reports can be prepared and e-mailed on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
Wilks says they are constantly expanding their capabilities to be more flexible to customers' needs such as e-mailing pickups which automatically end up in the carrier's dispatch and manifesting systems.
Among their ongoing pilot projects is delving into truer business-to-business applications with some of their bigger customers where, Wilks explains, "their pickup systems talk directly to our dispatching systems, computer-to-computer, with little human interaction."
The company is also experimenting with wireless communication in tying in their dispatchers, pickup and delivery fleet through digital phones and palm tops.
"We've proven our wireless concept works," says Wilks. "Now it's a matter of finding the actual device to make it work."
They are also testing a satellite system in Western Canada that poses "big potential for interfacing with our back-tracing systems."
Down the road, Manitoulin intends to venture into more interactive strategies emphasizing more business-to-business communications via the Web.
Their innovative use of the Internet has allowed the business to grow and add more customers without having to increase staff. With fewer people calling in for freight-tracing information, it has freed up their custome- service people to do other things.
"It's certainly reduced administrative costs of handling those calls," by having many different reports available over the Web, says Wilks.
Their technology strategy is not a money-saving venture, says Wilks, but is regarded as a communications tool. Though it is easy to be carried away by information technology, the company stresses that human interaction and being responsive to the customers' needs remain paramount.
"You have to listen to them all the time, know what your competition is doing and want to strive to be better," he says. "If you put up a Web site and think you're doing well without keeping your customers' thoughts in mind, you're not going anywhere. Really it's their site, not ours."