Everything you need to know about route optimization software
Whether your making local service calls or delivering goods cross-country, the inefficiency of your fleet costs you time, money and customer satisfaction. Luckily routing software exists which makes sure that your staff will drive the most efficient route available. In this article we’ll help you understand the routing software landscape so you can make an informed decision when choosing the right system for your business.
To put things into context, lets see why UPS never turns left …
Routing Software in action!
It may not surprise you to hear that UPS delivers an average of 18.3 million packages/day. What may surprise you is that only 10% of all UPS delivery van turns, are left turns.
Sounds pretty weird right? Here’s why:
According to UPS Senior Director of Process Management Jack Levis, this Zoolander-esque peculiarity is because “A left-hand turn is less fuel efficient … your car’s idling longer, which is also not good for your vehicle … “. While doing so often points drivers further away from their final destination, it reduces the chances of an accident and optimizes drive time.
Should you tell your staff to always turn right?
Whether or not you turn left should be based on a larger route optimization strategy. It’s just one aspect of the strategy that UPS employs to minimize costs, saving them $300 - $400 million/year in fuel, wages and vehicle costs. It also allows them to deliver an extra 350,000 packages per year and cuts their fleet by 1,100 trucks.
Exactly what should your strategy be then?
Route Optimization Strategy & Software
Because most service-based businesses operate on a time-and-materials basis, optimizing for time, rather than fuel is the way to go. The good news here, is that there is an entire branch of computer science devoted to solving the travelling salesman problem, which attempts to find the shortest route to a number of locations. While this problem is extremely computationally expensive to solve, today’s route optimization systems offer solutions that are more than adequate for the average business.
But wait, do you really need to read this article? Doesn’t Google Maps already cover you here?
Google Maps and Apple Maps
On the surface, it may appear that consumer products like Google and Apple maps get the job done. However, while they may provide directions to one or even a few places at a time, the problem is that they only provide those directions to locations in the exact order you’ve typed in.
Here’s the problem:
To minimize your time on the road, you must also optimize the order you visit destinations … on top of what streets you take to get from one destination to the next. Failing to do this will leave you with a false sense of frugality. This extra criteria is what makes traveling salesman problems quite difficult, which is why consumer products fall short. It remains one of the hardest problems in computer science to solve since it was first introduced almost 60 years ago.
What system should you use?
Picking Route Mapping Software
Next we’ll figure out what route mapping software might be best for you. There is an abundance of systems out there so it can be a bit overwhelming. We’ll look at the different options you should be aware of, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each. We’ll also look at which are designed for your type of business, and we’ll offer you some best practices to follow.
Real-Time (and historic) Traffic Conditions
You might think that the fastest route from A to B is obvious, but did you take into account traffic, the accident on Main street, or the Construction on Elm? While traffic condition monitoring may seem ubiquitous in software these days because we are so used to Google Maps, do not assume that your routing software takes current traffic conditions into account. We highly recommend going with systems that take current traffic conditions into account.
But real-time isn’t enough …
Google Maps and systems like it use 2 types of data to calculate your route. One is Real-time data, which is gathered primarily from Google Maps users who have allowed their phone to access their GPS coordinates. But what about the roads where nobody is currently driving? Perhaps the road is closed, or perhaps its in bad condition and must be driven on slowly. In these cases, Google’s historical data helps them generate much more accurate estimates, especially in areas where live data is scarce.
Here’s where real-time data can be really handy:
The beauty about real-time data is that when planning your route, you’ve got the most accurate information possible. But what happens if the traffic conditions change? What if an accident happened up ahead, or if the Beatles have finished crossing Abbey Road? Chances are, you’re no longer on the optimal route. In these cases, your system should notify you and offer you the new fastest route.
But what if your clients cancel on you while you’re on the road?
Considering that your staff can potentially reorder his/her route on the fly, think about how the role of your dispatcher could change. Traditionally a dispatcher is there to schedule appointments, tackle changes and re-assign or re-route your field crew. A lot of that can be done by a routing system, so for smaller teams a dispatcher can be overkill.
What if your dispatcher handles incoming calls?
Great! Now your dispatcher has a tool that makes them more efficient. They can capture the important client data they need in the routing system, plan efficient routes and assign jobs to whoever is closest. Watch overtime drop while customer service improves dramatically, all because this important team member has the right tools for the job.
The only thing more dynamic than traffic conditions is your business; appointments get canceled, emergencies come up, opportunities appear, etc … Having the flexibility to adapt to these situations makes you more profitable. So as your priorities change, so should your route. Routing software that locks your route in once you’ve chosen, leaves money on the table. Look for systems that allow you to add or remove stops while en route.
But also consider how many stops you need to make …
Earlier we mentioned that the travelling salesman problem is a hard one. Specifically, we meant that as the number of stops gets bigger, the time needed to calculate the shortest route increases superpolynomially (which is similar to exponentially). This means that systems that offer route optimization have limits to the number of stops they can optimize. If they are offering unlimited routes, or a huge number of routes, be suspicious. Here’s what might be going on:
- The system freezes when you route more than a few addresses
- It cuts corners somewhere (e.g. not reorder stops)
- Marketing is misrepresenting what the system can actually do
Where does that leave you?
This will all depend on how many stops your staff need to make. If they are installing something like HVAC systems, they may only take around 2 stops per day, but if they are making sales or prospecting visits, they may make 4-10 stops. In the later situation, route optimization is a real concern and you’ll want to be able to optimize at least a dozen stops.
But what if the visits are time sensitive?
Windows of availability
So imagine this: It’s a Monday and you’ve got 5 client homes to visit. They are all able to take time off work to let you into their homes, but they only have a specific window to do so. If this sounds like your business then its a bit more complicated. Your mapping software now has to find the fastest routes among temporally viable routes. This will inevitably narrow the options available to you, because few systems offer such a feature.
But don’t break the bank just yet …
Before you invest a lot of money in an expensive system, it might be useful to test out candidate systems with some typical data. You may realize that client windows of availability will leave you with so few options that you don’t even need a fancy system to optimize it. Google Maps might just do the job.
This next one can get you in trouble …
Now because staff may be installing your routing system on their phones (BYOB), or at least phones that they will be carrying around, you’ll need to have a conversation with them about privacy. For routing software to be effective, it will need access to their location via GPS. So, they’ll need to give the system access to their phone’s GPS location. There are 2 options there:
- Always (meaning the app will access the phone’s GPS at all times)
- Only While Using the App (meaning the app will access the phone’s GPS only then the app is open)
Typically you should always go for the latter and be suspicious of routing apps that don’t offer the “Only While Using the App” option. Nobody wants to be tracked after work hours. Also apps use more power when accessing GPS, so limiting that will prolong your battery life.
What if staff use company phones or tablets?
If you’re in a scenario where staff are using company devices to access your routing software, then the “Always” option is more acceptable since you are not infringing on their personal life. One advantage of this option is that you can dispatch staff more easily because you can see who is closest to each job. Or if someone is taking a breaks when their shouldn’t be, you’ll know.
Some mapping systems can do it all. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Keep it simple
Face it, if you require an Air Traffic Controller to use your routing software you probably have something too complex. The key to successful navigation is something that you can quickly pull the places you want to visit and plot a route. The software then calculates all the extra details no fuss, no hassle.
Speaking of no hassle …
Training your team on your routing software shouldn’t require a technical guru either. Granted that some businesses have complex business requirements, a good piece of software should be intuitive and shouldn’t require any more training than a quick video.
Here’s the good news.
Using simplicity as a criteria when choosing routing software is a great idea because it makes the gruelling selection process easy. If you can’t figure a system out quickly, chance are, neither will staff, so cross it off your list. Plus if the system is simple enough, you can avoid wasting time and money on training altogether.
Reduce Software Your Footprint
Are staff willing to use yet another system?
Does your routing tool reduce your software footprint? What I mean is, how many different systems do your employees need to use each day? If your footprint is closer to a Sasquatch than a Black-capped chickadee (really small bird), then you need to be careful. Staff can only handle so many systems before there is a mutiny and they stop using them.
Here’s what most people don’t realize:
Most routing programs are pretty specific and manage just the mapping portion of the job … which is fine. But other systems manage to tackle things you need to handle anyway, while keeping their route optimization sophisticated and simple. Our system Solve Client Manager falls into this category.
For instance, what if your client management or tasks/priority/calendar management system could also handle your route optimization? Wouldn’t that make significantly more sense? Most of your trips are generated from client or task data anyway, so why shouldn’t the system that manages clients also help you with the route?
Think about it …
If you have an all-in-one system, your crew can avoid copy pasting addresses and names from your CRM or calendar, into your routing system. This is a huge timesaver, especially if they’re on a device. Plus they can immediately record notes and schedule follow ups on site which its fresh in their minds. Details are easily forgotten if they wait to get back to the office … a trip that can often be avoided.
Here are some other things to look for in all-in-one routing systems:
- Time tracking
- Does your software track time spent on the road and on site?
- Does it provide a place to easily upload photos or service reports.
- Can it manage your vehicle or fleet information?
- Are there access multiple levels of access?
- Does it help you get an overview of what’s happening?
Now let’s talk about dollars.
Investing in Routing Software
So yes, whether we think about it that way or not, routing software is an investment in the most traditional sense of the word. You are spending money upfront with the expectation of receiving dividends down the road. In this case, those dividends will be paid in saved time. And that road, is literally being traveled by your staff.
So here’s a quick way to look at it:
How many more billable hours will the route mapping system save each staff per month on average? How much more will the company bill with these extra hours? And how does that additional revenue compare to the cost of the software per staff? Here are 2 strategies depending on your company size:
- If you are a large enterprise with thick margins, you may be able to consider a wider variety of routing software because each hour generates more revenue and because you may be able to squeeze more efficiency out of the software itself.
- If you’re a small business, you can make your money by being scrappy and finding a routing software that while might not have 100% of the bells and whistles, it gets the job done at a reasonable price.
Whichever way you decide to go, just ask yourself this: “Is this the most efficient way to spend by next dollar?”
Here’s a question that shouldn’t be asked without feeling at least a bit of shame:
One more thing that always comes up is “Does my routing software print the route after it is calculated?” Wait, print? This is 2019 for Pete’s Sake! Every one of your employees has a phone that will talk to them, and most use map apps to get around these days anyway, so they are probably already familiar with it.
And cut back on accidents too …
Ever try reading a map at the same time as driving? Not a logical or safe option in this day and age. Instead of needing a co-pilot, Siri can navigate so your drivers can keep your eyes on the road, even when driving along. But you already read about all the advantages of real-time data, so you didn’t even think about printing, and I’ve been preaching to the choir. ;)
Is Routing Software right for me?
Who should be using it?
If you found this article and read this far, the answer is probably “yes”. Mapping software is particularly helpful if you have a business that visits 3+ locations in the same day. Here are the types of clients we see who use it the most:
- Landscaping/Lawn Care
- Pick-ups & Deliveries / Couriers
- Real Estate Agents
- Property Managers
- Asset Managers
If company owns trucks, that’s a good indicator.
Look, no system is going magically turn bad employees into great ones. Nor will a system replace great employees. But for employees to be excellent they need excellent tools. Good Routing Software will make staff more productive and improve your service. There are lots of options that are well priced, plus, they’re free to try.
If you have any questions or suggestions regarding this article or Routing Software in general, feel free to reach out and we’ll be happy to help. Of course we also offer our own Client Management system that supports robust route optimization. We’ll be happy to help you get started with it as well. Why not give it a try?