Intelligent drivers are often associated with the kind of software delivery services that have brought us plug-and-play. But it may come as some surprise to hear the term being used to describe Yorkie-munching truckers, lugging hardware kit from one place to another.
Although it is wrong to assume that just because someone drives a truck for a living they must be intellectually-challenged (as taxi driver and former Mastermind champion Fred Housego can attest), it is unusual for a logistics firm to train its drivers in the art of installing, testing and de-installing IT equipment.
The aim of such a service is to save manufacturers, distributors and dealers precious time and money that would have been spent sending high-paid engineers into the field for basic, low-level engineering work. The service is called a swapout service and has been set up by IT logistics firm Christal Fastrack, which can boast names such as Digital, Hewlett Packard, Data General, ICL, Bull and Elonex among its existing client base.
The swapout service has developed into a u31 million business in three years, says joint MD Ben Bovill. Operations director Don Moores believes the service has reached such a level that the company has consciously decided to look at new areas in which it can grow, and this means dealers.
'It is becoming clearer that dealers are providing more customer services these days, so it would be a logical step to offer swapout to dealers and their customers.'
Christal Fastrack has been operating a swapout service for five years.
It is available in three levels: the swapout, a simple exchange of unit; the service swapout, unpacking the replacement unit and repacking the defective unit; and full-service swapout, unpacking, installation and running agreed test procedures. 'It is aimed at dealers, distributors and OEMs that are supplying service and warranty arrangements to customers,' says Bovill.
'Although the service was originally designed for manufacturing, we have realised it is applicable to any business that has customers.'
This swapout service is undoubtedly Christal Fastrack's golden egg.
Moores is aware that other companies are realising its services are special and that many are 'jumping on the bandwagon'. Moores says people are starting to realise that calling in engineers is costly and that this realisation is starting to open the market for services like swapout.
'Two separate call-outs by an engineer are usually needed to replace defective equipment,' says Bovill. 'At u3,100 plus a visit, the immediate costs are high. There is also the argument that on-site repairs are considered less reliable than off-site repairs - another reason why the service is so important.' Bovill adds that taking a new unit to a site and bringing the broken one back for warranty repair can sometimes cost as little as u330.
Moores is more reluctant to mention figures and says there is no available printed price list. 'It is based on individual requirements and which service is actually needed.' Nevertheless, both Moores and Bovill are confident in their estimations that dealers can make massive savings.
Their bottom line is that since it has worked so well for manufacturers, it should also work well for dealers, distributors and OEMs. 'For the user, the problem is normally solved after just one visit,' says Bovill.
'There are DOAs, but that is less than one per cent.'
Christal Fastrack has around 80 products on swap, including 12 different monitors, eight different fax machines, 20 different printers, medical cardiograph equipment, Epos and many more. It has 80 vehicles covering the UK, with each driver trained in the art of basic installation and testing, while five trained area managers keep all drivers up to speed on training refresher courses and information about new products on the swap cycle.
Retraining is important, but when carrying out between 250 and 300 swapouts around the UK every day, it could be that many of the drivers will be installing and testing with their eyes shut. Dealing with different or new product can require more training, but with just 80 drivers on staff, the prospect of training them is not so daunting.
While the swapout service is undoubtedly the company's main thrust, it is by no means its only service. Christal Fastrack was founded in Manchester in 1967, and started out as a taxi business. 'We started running parts for Digital,' says Moores, 'and it grew from there.' It developed into as an IT carrier and according to Moores, is currently growing at a massive rate of 25 per cent.
A 1993 management buyin, led by Bovill and joint MD Bryn Mickleburgh and backed by Grosvenor Venture Managers, a division of Mercury Asset Management, breathed some new life into the firm. It is now owned by the Cardinal Group and has a turnover of about u34.5 million.
Although it is still a relatively small company when compared with many of its rivals, Christal Fastrack does not seem to shy away from taking on big ventures. The fact that it is dedicated to the IT industry also stands it in good stead, although like any company, it is subject to price competition from larger logistics firms looking for new business.
Bovill and Moores do not consider this to be a problem and the fact that it doesn't have a printed price list and is prepared to quote costs depending on the service required is perhaps the best example of that. Being flexible is important for any company. Setting rigid pricing structures can quickly backfire, especially since the IT industry constantly changes.
Learning to move with the industry is half the battle and although Bovill and Moores have been in the industry long enough to trust their instincts, there is always a danger that the industry can run away with you. Nevertheless, Christal Fastrack is moving with the times. As well as the swapout service, the company offers a range of other services aimed at making life easier for its customers and its drivers.
It has 100 cage sites - secure drop/collection points - strategically placed around the UK. This enables consignments to be consolidated into one delivery at the cage site, where one or more engineers can repair and alter faulty equipment.
Bovill says more field service operators are recognising that delivery of spares direct to the customer site is expensive. The use of cage sites makes a more economic use of deliveries and engineer time. He says that with an average floor size of 50 sq ft, the cage sites can also be used for the storage of frequently needed spares and for holding packing materials for returned items.
The idea for the cage sites was born out of the company's network service, which offers a daily, scheduled overnight delivery service of spares and other equipment between customer branches. Collections are made at the end of the working day and scheduled deliveries start at 3am.
The company dismisses suggestions that anything is too fragile to handle.
Gone are the days when burly truckers tossed delicate items into the back of a trolley, only to find them rolling around like a pinball once on the move. Packing and loading is done by hand so there are no conveyor belts, rams, shutes or mechanical arms.
Although the image of caring, Fairy-soft hands is probably over-stated, there is still something to be said for avoiding the widespread use of machinery and bulk collection systems. This again, is a result of the company's size. Both Bovill and Moores stress that being a relatively small company enables Christal Fastrack to maintain these services because it is easier to quality control its workers.
But like many companies in this position, if successful, it will grow, so keeping the element of smallness is almost impossible. But in terms of the logistics industry, Christal Fastrack has a long way to go before it can be regarded as a big deliveries firm.
The problem for Christal Fastrack is that it is often on a direct competition path with national couriers. This raises the inevitable point of price competition, but like any company targeting a particular market, its specialisation is often enough to win over even the most cost-conscious clients. Moores says it comes down to service, which if carried properly, will save IT firms in the long run.
National couriers would find it difficult to compete with Christal Fastrack's level of specialisation. It is not just about getting equipment from point A to point B, which is the fundamental policy of the national couriers.
An extra feather in its cap comes in the form of a computerised tracking system. A Unix-based real-time system, it gives continuously updated information on deliveries and collections as they are carried out, enabling customers to know exactly where the delivery van is and when the customer can expect its arrival. This information can either be accessed via customer services or through a direct link to the system.
Having the ability to inform customers on delivery and collection times is no doubt crucial. And since the company promises a next-day delivery service, the information is invaluable, enabling it to keep close tabs on the development and execution of its services.
Whether or not this makes Christal Fastrack the best logistics company in the IT industry is uncertain. It certainly ranks as one of the best and perhaps one of the more innovative. Its swapout service is the undisputed jewel in its crown, but with other firms looking to offer a similar service, the firm may be faced with fierce competition ahead.
But as Moores says, Christal Fastrack was there first and has learned a lot about how to handle IT equipment and more importantly, how the customers want it handled. As far as dealers are concerned, it may be worth a punt.
When anyone suggests cutting costs by saving the time and energy of engineers, then it must be worth listening to, regardless of the size of the company.
Suddenly, logistics doesn't seem so simple. But then, with companies of all kinds striving to offer this 90s ethic called customer service, it never will be.
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