How does your shipping solution provider plan to support you and your investment in multi-carrier functionality after the system is up and running? Does your solution provider offer a software maintenance agreement? Are you taking advantage of the value inherent in software maintenance?
If you have an agreement, do you know what it covers? Or are you paying on a per-incident basis for rate changes, version upgrades, upgrades to carrier technology and by the hour for phone support?
In the process of evaluating and selecting a multi-carrier system to automate shipping processes, focus is usually placed on the software functionality and the benefits and cost savings that will be received when the solution is implemented. Less attention is paid to the post-implementation support that will be needed to keep the system current and provide maximum value.
Its an aspect that shouldnt be overlooked. A software maintenance agreement allows you to plan and budget on an annual basis for the expense of maintaining your system and to avoid unexpected charges for upgrades or support. A robust software maintenance agreement will ensure you receive carrier technology updates, rate changes and version updates in a timely manner. It will also provide access to a toll-free support hotline or a Web-based support system. In short, it is the protection you need to keep your system current and functioning optimally.
Over the past 10 years, the services and technology of the major small package carriers have evolved at an extremely rapid pace and continue to do so. The major carriers are continuously enhancing their service offerings, the tools and methods available to customers for tracking and receiving delivery confirmation and the technology with which multi-carrier systems connect and transmit shipment data (for example, moving from dial-up modem transmission to Internet transmission).
How much do carriers and software change? By way of example, here are the typical changes that a multi-carrier shipper that uses two to three small package carriers and one LTL carrier can expect in a given year:
LTL carrier rates will change at least once
Each small package carrier will initiate at least one technology upgrade (for example, an enhanced communication format), one new service and one rate change
All carriers will change surcharges frequently sometimes monthly as fuel charges and other costs fluctuate
Your software vendor will issue one to two version upgrades with enhancements
The volume of changes underscores the need for consistent, timely shipping solution updates.
Updates, as Needed and on Time
As a customer of both the carrier and the multi-carrier shipping solution provider, it is essential that you receive these carrier-driven updates in a timely manner. Timely updates keep your technology current and enable you to offer these new carrier services to your customers and pass along any changes in prices.
In addition to carrier-driven changes, most software providers continually update the software functionality, adding new features and improving usability. The functional upgrades may be bundled with the carrier upgrades, or one version may be dependent on the other. Regardless of how they are packaged, receiving and installing upgrades as a part of software maintenance is necessary to get value out of your investment.
Rate changes from the major carriers continue on an annual basis but have become routine, expected events. At a minimum, your · software maintenance should provide all rates in advance of their effective date.
When evaluating a shipping solution, ask the following questions of the solutions provider and the providers customer references:
Format: Will you receive updates via disk, CD or the Internet? (Tip: To prevent updates from getting lost on someone elses desk, make sure your solution provider has the correct name and address of the appropriate member of your staff.)
Timing: How far in advance of rate or service changes will you receive solution upgrades? Will you be notified of upcoming upgrades so you can plan and schedule installation?
Support: Is clear, easy-to-follow documentation for upgrades made available online or at least in hardcopy? Are separate support lines opened to assist customers with upgrades?
Complexity: Typically, how complex are the upgrades? Can the shipping manager handle them or will IT involvement be required?
Is Help Just a Phone Call Away?
Access to a quality support line that can answer questions and correct problems is necessary to keep your system functioning at its peak. An effective support line will do three things:
1. Span the times and time zones critical to your business. When and how long is the support line available each day? For US-based businesses, a 12-hour day, 7 AM to 7 PM CST, is ideal because it covers you from start-of-business on the East Coast to close-of-business on the West Coast. For businesses with offices worldwide, longer hours may be required. At minimum, support should be available during the hours surrounding close-of-business typically the busiest time of day for shipping.
2. Solve problems over the phone or online. Does the support line have a high incidence of resolving issues within one phone call? Can support personnel dial into your system and diagnose and fix problems online? Can issues be submitted to the support group via e-mail and an e-mail response received? These are minimal standards in the industry; you should expect a timely response and problem resolution.
3. Wont keep you waiting. What is the support lines average hold time for callers? The best support desk in the world loses its value if you have to sit on hold for an extended period of time waiting to talk with a technician to help you solve your problem.
A good software maintenance program from your solution provider should cover all these items from carrier and technology upgrades to effective support at a fixed annual cost so there are no surprises in the amount of effort, time and the cost to keep your system current. The right program protects your investment and continues to provide benefits and cost savings over the life of your multi-carrier shipping solution.
Johanna Boller is vice president of product line management for Pitney Bowes Distribution Solutions. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.