Concrete Products is the leading source for Concrete Plants, Concrete Mixers, Precast, and Ready Mix news.
 
 

 

How to Improve Business? Fix Time First

Concrete Supply Co. uses mobile technology to streamline operations, enhance customer interaction and strengthen its bottom line

By Victoria K. Sicaras

Delivering a perishable product to jobsites whose schedules can change with the weather, among other things, involves challenges that are often beyond a concrete producer’s control. As a result, the effort to meet performance goals is a continuous balancing act. It requires the flexibility to handle a multitude of curveballs including unforeseen jobsite conditions, customer behavior and equipment issues.

BCMI iii

BCMI Material Pro app
CS i

Concrete Supply Co. equips account managers and customers with mobile apps to ensure concrete deliveries run smoothly and issues are dealt with as they happen. CEO Henry Batten wants to give drivers real-time analytics straight to their cab or iPad to better understand how their performance is affecting the next scheduled load(s). PHOTO: Concrete Supply Co.
BCMI i

With BCMI Corp.’s Material Now mobile app, contractors can track order delivery and progress from a mobile phone or tablet, and adjust orders as needed. PHOTO: BCMI Corp.
CS iii

Concrete Supply is providing contractors with mobile apps to monitor their orders from batch to pour out—and the trucks delivering them. PHOTO: Concrete Supply Co.
BCMI ii

Concrete producers juggle data from many different systems—dispatch, customer database, accounts payable, and so on. BCMI Corp.’s Material Pro app gives plant operators, salespeople, dispatchers and QC technicians access to this data via phone, tablet or laptop. PHOTO: BCMI Corp.

To drive financial improvement, producers must identify and address the things they can control. In many cases, that means time management. “If you want to improve your business efficiency, you have to fix time first,” says Henry Batten, CEO of Concrete Supply Co., based in Charlotte, N.C., and past National Ready Mixed Concrete Association chairman.

Many producers are turning to mobile and cloud-based technology to streamline the processes that tend to bog down employees and eat up their time—freeing staff to focus on what matters most: serving customers and troubleshooting those unexpected curveballs. These companies are improving efficiencies by equipping both employees and customers with tools that provide a direct line to the real-time information needed to make more immediate ordering and scheduling decisions.

“When we say ‘improved efficiencies,’ that’s just a catch-all phrase for saving time,” says Batten. “Technology is all about putting [the right information] in front of people so they can react quicker, and they can evaluate their own performance to find ways to get to the next step, or load or job faster.”

BUILDING THE ROAD TO EFFICIENCY

Like many companies, Concrete Supply had to scale down to survive the Great Recession. After years of layoffs and cutting back, often down to the bone, the concrete industry emerged from the recession with a troublesome labor shortage—the biggest issue the industry is still facing today, notes Batten, adding, “When business started expanding, we had to decide how to move forward so we could take on more work despite having fewer people. For us, that meant investing in scalable technology first.”

The initial goal was to improve internal operations related to customer contact, which included streamlining the quote-to-order cycle and optimizing concrete load scheduling and delivery. “We wanted to spend less time entering orders, setting up sales quotes and managing customer data—and more time in front of customers selling products and helping them successfully complete projects,” explains Batten.

At the time, the company’s sales account managers had to manually prepare and submit quotes for customers and maintain those hardcopy quotes. Once a project was awarded, that information had to be manually transferred into the dispatch system so the customer could place an order. “As you can imagine, this resulted in constant phone calls to dispatch addressing those details,” says Batten. “In fact, 25 percent to 30 percent of all calls to dispatchers were internal. Meanwhile, actual customers were often placed on hold, waiting for the next available dispatcher.”

The solution was to implement cloud-based business management tools that gave employees remote access to the company’s sales, project and order data. As a result, account managers had all customer information at their fingertips, which enabled them to create quotes with more speed and accuracy—and minimal phone calls to dispatch. The tools also automated the quote-to-order steps by converting approved quotes into projects, which minimized the time spent completing paperwork so employees could focus more on execution and improving service.

“Our sales and operational managers now use mobile devices and laptops to manage the quoting process anytime, from anywhere. They can review orders on their screens and send a quick text to dispatch with notes attached to the order,” says Batten.

Just as important, the more simplified workflow freed up dispatchers’ schedules—and phone lines—as they no longer had to act as gatekeepers. Instead, they could concentrate their efforts on scheduling deliveries to maximize truck usage and navigating the hurdles that can impact timelines and load performance. Like bad weather and traffic congestion.

Another issue was that customers averaged seven phone calls to the company per order, including calls to check on truck and load statuses. Those status checks added up, taking account managers and dispatchers away from higher-level work and stealing valuable minutes from contractors working in the field. Concrete Supply was able to reduce the number of calls by placing a mobile app in customers’ hands, giving them the transparency needed to monitor their orders from batch to pour out. Customers can look up job tickets and track their concrete orders—and the trucks delivering them—in real time.

“We’ve given them a window into the logistics of their order and how it’s being executed at any given moment,” Batten affirms.

GROWING WITH TECHNOLOGY

“Everything we’ve done has been incremental and has depended on the technology available to our industry,” says Batten. “We started with fine-tuning our internal processes, and as the technology evolved and new vendors came on the market offering more options, we shifted our focus externally to enhance how customers can interact with us.”

As an example, the first mobile app the company used gave customers visibility into their orders, but it did not allow them to place or adjust orders. Concrete Supply has since migrated to a fully integrated application that lets customers complete transactions from their smartphones and tablets. Contractors can compare ordered versus actual truck spacing and reschedule trucks as job conditions change. Or, when the app sends an alert that the last load is on its way, the contractor can take measurements to determine if more concrete will be needed. If so, an order can be placed immediately, through the app.

“From there, it will take us a minute to make that change,” says Batten. “That’s a lot faster than having to step away from work to make a phone call. The speed at which a bump load order can be placed and delivered is important because the crew is standing idle waiting to finish the job and the concrete that has already been poured is drying.”

Next, Batten plans to focus on driver performance. The company issues tablets to all drivers so they can view job tickets and schedules and communicate with dispatchers. The end goal, however, is to give drivers the tools to understand expectations for each load and how slow turnarounds and delays affect the performance of the next scheduled load(s)—and the contractors waiting on those loads. “If we give them that understanding of how they can help improve business, and supply what they need to be successful, they’ll do it.”

According to Batten, many companies will give drivers weekly printouts measuring their performance against industry benchmarks. “I don’t think that’s useful. I want to give them real-time feedback on how they’re performing during their workday so they can make adjustments as needed—or communicate to dispatch why the job is being held up. I want them to visually see where they are in the cycle. The technology is not there yet to provide those real-time analytics in the cab or on the tablets, but it’s coming. We’re working with our provider to develop a solution.”

ON THE HORIZON: TECHNOLOGY AND MARKET CONDITIONS

Henry Batten is seeing more widespread use of mobile technology by concrete producers, and he expects that trend to continue, thanks to an increased number of providers who specialize in developing cloud-based solutions for materials producers. “They are doing a better job at providing what we need,” he says. “The technology advancements have actually outpaced our industry, in terms of our ability to implement and adapt to them. But we’re catching up. We’ll get better at it.”

Wireless technology also can be leveraged to help insulate companies against the next economic downturn, says Craig Yeack, co-founder and president of BCMI Corp., a technology provider that offers cloud-based concrete dispatch and mobile solutions and has been working with Batten and Concrete Supply for the past year.

“Downturns are cyclical, inevitable, and the market is already flat for many producers. While times are still good, we have to prepare for what we know is coming,” says Yeack. “The companies who are able to invest in technology before or during a downturn have a higher chance of coming out of it stronger.”

The following examples provided by Yeack show how mobile solutions can help speed procedures that impact a company’s bottom line:

Sales cycle. Producers are already sitting on a very rich dataset of customer behavior by work type and geographic region. The right technology tools can help harness and interpret that data into actionable information. For example, producers can automate the process of calculating price points for specific projects or customers based on historic customer behavior.

Customer interaction. Mobile apps that empower customers to do business with the producer from their device or laptop—i.e., see products available, place orders and make payments, look up past job tickets and invoices—significantly reduce the legwork that’s often required of sales teams and dispatchers.

Driver performance. GPS-equipped applications give dispatchers the ability to see and manage trucks and routes in real time. They can adjust truck scheduling so they aren’t stacked up waiting to unload at one location while other locations are waiting on deliveries. Plus, truck-tracking tools can show how much time drivers spend on activities such as pre-trip checks and cleanup. Managers can compare those times against industry standards and set benchmarks for drivers to meet.

Analytics: Measure and control. Technology tools that connect users to the data stored in all systems a producer uses, from customer relationship management to concrete dispatch to billing, can present a full picture of volumes, costs, time spent on activities, etc., per job so producers and their customers can identify where they can improve to save money and complete jobs quicker.

The last economic downturn was a once-in-a-century occurrence, or so we hope. Companies were unprepared for its depth and length. What’s more, says Yeack, “We didn’t have the technology available to help us streamline costs and build customers. But we do now.”

When producers can retool the processes that slow them down, they can do more than save time. They can do more with less in lean times and easily scale up to take on more work when market conditions change.

Victoria Sicaras is a freelance writer based in Countryside, Ill. She has 14 years of experience working as a writer and editor serving the construction industry.