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Looking to integrate IT systems? Ask these questions first

A fleet management system (FMS) or transportation management system (TMS) offers many benefits. It can streamline load management and dispatch, plus automate invoicing and driver payroll. And it can generate reports that will help in decision making. The data and corresponding information you get with an FMS is in- valuable.

So, at what size do you start considering moving from manual data entry into an FMS? For for-hire carriers, we peg the number at around 12 to 15 trucks. But for those operating a private or dedicated fleet, that magic number typically comes in at 20 to 25 trucks.

What questions can you ask to find the right partner? Here are some that will help lift the fog.

Should you run a “legacy” or hosted FMS?

You can host your own computer and have the information on your server … and it’s dedicated to you. That’s the “pro.”  The “con” is you have to pay for it and have an IT group that can maintain ‘patches’ (updates) as your software and business evolves. Patches aren’t simple. Often, the IT person will wait to bundle patches before implementing the fixes—and that causes delays. Lastly, what happens when a legacy system crashes … or if your computer system is hacked and you’re taken hostage? Those are very real questions that you should think of now instead of later.

What’s the benefit of a hosted system?

Ease and paying for what you actually need. You’re paying a subscription fee, and that means you don’t have a big upfront cost or have to have IT staff assigned for “maintenance” and “patches.” It’s much more economical, and you can pick and choose the level of service and support you want.

What are the right capabilities?

Most FMS providers have more capabilities than you’ll ever need, but it’s always good to ask to make sure. Typically, they can help you with:

• Integration with ELDs and other applications you need to manage your business;

• Load management and dispatch;

• Invoicing and freight bills;

• Labor tracking/detention pay and activity-based pay;

• Payroll settlements;

• Reports; and

• Asset management.

Since you probably don’t need everything, can you order and pay for just what you need, or do you have to pay for the entire buffet? What’s more, how is the information viewed? Is it in real time? How can information be used by you and your customers? For example, if you have a load in transit, can your system automatically alert your customer as to the status? Lastly, how easy is the integration, and how much help can they provide?

How can you tell if the provider is a good fit?

Look for a provider that listens and can come up with a program and solutions that fit your needs. FMS is not static. It’s always evolving and every customer is different. You should work with a provider that wants to work with you individually to come up with the right solution that will help your business grow. You should have the gut feel that they have your best interests at heart. If they don’t, you’ll end up with a vendor, not a partner, and that relationship probably won’t last.

What about service and support?

Ask about support and what to expect. Do they charge extra for any support, or is it part of your contract?  Be up front on support questions and what any costs might entail. You’ll always need support, and you may need to pay for that time, but you don’t want to feel gouged. Understand how support works before you sign that contract.

If I have a hosted FMS, does that ensure uptime?

Ask if the provider guarantees uptime, and what happens if that uptime doesn’t come through. If you’re working with a provider that is hosting the information, you should ask what the penalty is should they not perform as advertised. Also ask how long ‘planned’ updates and patches generally take. Planned updates could be when you change ELDs and need to add new information to your FMS, or program in compliance regulations.

Planning for the future

I always enjoy the ‘what if’ questions when dealing with new customers. We encourage it; it shows they’re thinking about the future. Your transportation model today will likely vary in the years to come. If you choose the right FMS partner, they can help you along the path and show how what might happen in the future could be integrated into your system.

Ask for referrals

That’s a litmus test. Companies should not be afraid to have you talk with existing customers. If you do your homework and feel confident about the FMS provider you’re most interested in, do one final check. Talk with two or three of their customers and ask questions that will be vital to your operation.  If they talk glowingly, you can move forward with confidence.

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