Investments in the Future

Aug 05, 2010
tech-head

Technology I

Survey Tool Enhances Customer Experience

Over the last 18 months, Atlas IT has produced a quantum leap in technology for agents; IT has integrated an interactive estimating tool with the AtlasNet Survey and fine-tuned it for popular mobile computing platforms. Atlas introduced the first generation of the tool in 2007. It allowed the sales person to enter data into a handheld device and send a completed survey to Atlas via the Internet.

"Before, data transmitted as a scanned image only," says Business Analyst Nancy Menke, Atlas IT. "The original data was located at each agency independently in various electronic, paper, and handwritten forms. Now, users can actually sync their wireless devices with the Atlas system and upload data directly from anywhere in the field. The data is stored in a central location in a standardized format for all authorized parties involved in the shipment."

Nancy led the project team, which worked with developer IGC Software. The new system establishes an Atlas-centric environment that allows agents at origin and destination to share essential information in real time. They can get status updates as they are happening for such functions as "pending request," "sales person assigned," "confirmed scheduled date," and "completed survey."

The tool is also well integrated with the Atlas system. Uploaded information is instantly accessible to dispatch, registration and scheduling functions. The agent can access an Atlas database to check progress, answer service questions, and make changes. The system produces a scan automatically whenever data is entered, so the file is continually updated. What's more, it keeps a historical record of all changes.

"The survey is the blueprint for a successful move," says Mike McCarthy, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Golden Van Lines (991). "This helps everyone who has a hand in the move know what to expect; it enables us to better deliver on our service commitment and create a seamless experience for the customer."

The system allows the surveyor to use camera-equipped devices to create and append photos that show floor layout, house access, even pre-existing condition of goods. Mike believes this capability is one of the most valuable.

"Suppose the customer shows me an antique hutch, an heirloom from a grandparent, and tells me the piece is very special," says Mike. "I can note it in the survey, I can even snap a photo. When the van operator meets the customer, he's already aware of the item. He can ask to see it and reassure the customer about how it will be padded, wrapped, and secured."

Mike and Administrative Assistant Laurie Sipe, Golden Van Lines, worked on the field team that beta-tested the new system during the second half of 2009.

"I would enter variables we knew a user would rarely, if ever, encounter in real-world scenarios," says Mike. "Laurie played the role of the relocation coordinator. If the results were glitchy, she would work through them with the headquarters team. You might say we were looking for ways to 'break' the system...we wanted to make sure the bugs were out so Atlas agents won't encounter problems."

The survey produces a clean, standardized format that is easy to read and understand. "It looks professional," says Mike. "Once all the information is entered, I can use it to review the move with the customer, go over what is moving and what is not. The software does the arithmetic, so I don't have to worry about whether I totaled things up correctly. When I'm finished, I simply click on a button and send a copy to the customer's email. It's neat, instantaneous and paperless."

"This is another indicator of where the industry is headed. It's like leaving the age of the horse and buggy and entering the age of the truck. Everyone wants instant information. This is the future...eventually this tool will be as commonplace as the pocket calculator."

tech-callout

Making the Investment

Platforms
Palm, Windows Mobile, iPhone and iPod Touch devices, iPad, Tablet PC.

Investment Per Device
Hardware: Cost varies based on device Atlas System Support: $260 annually per device.
Data Plan: Approximately $30/month, (may vary).
WiFi use: Free.

"A drawback to any new technology is cost," says Mike McCarthy, Golden Van Lines. However, gains in productivity more than compensate for the outlay." In regard to the learning curve, Mike says it's not bad. "One of our sales people had never used a Palm before, and he was up and running in a week."

Mike's advice: "I recommend an iPhone with a data plan. The iPhone has the camera built in for photo documentation. As time goes by, I believe this feature will only become more beneficial. If other Atlas sales professionals would like to know more about our experience with this, I invite them to call me...I am glad to discuss."

Technology II

R/DS Brings Radical Improvements to Rating and Distribution

"Our agents want to get paid quicker," says Mark Spiehler, Senior Vice President of Account/Agent/Claims Services. "Now they can."

Mark is referring to the Rating and Distribution System (RADS), a new interactive link between Atlas and its agents. Mark's Rating and Distribution Services (R/DS) team worked with Atlas IT to ensure the development and process teams were in sync. Thanks to the hard work of all, the cycle time for invoicing and distribution will be reduced in some cases by up to 50 percent.

"With the old mainframe system, the faster we tried to go, the more we could see our error rate creep up," says Mark. "The R/DS system employs a rating engine that makes decisions in an automated fashion. It pulls data from Atlas Dispatch, Contract and Pricing systems, thereby greatly reducing the chance for data entry error."

"In today's world, most updates happen after the shipment has been delivered," says Mark. "In the R/DS world, information is updated as the relocation takes place. When the relocation is completed and the documents are received at Atlas, provided all the information is loaded correctly, RADS performs a brief audit, generates an invoice, and distributes payment to the agent."

RADS also includes a "Pre-rating View," whereby an agent can rate a shipment and view the distribution before an invoice is generated, and a "Booker Audit" that lets a booking agent conduct the invoice audit prior to van line involvement. Booker Audit replaces the old system's agent audit that took place long after the shipment was delivered.

"We're introducing RADS in phases," says Mark. "The COD portion was live for most of 2009. And we were able to begin phasing in national accounts, in February, 2010. More complex shipment types are in testing now and nearing the live arena."

"RADS gives agents the chance to become more proactive. It benefits everyone involved to keep the systems up to date."

Technology III

Going Where the Customers Shop

In the mid 1990s, Atlas was among the first in the moving industry to stake out a substantial web presence. In 2002, the original website underwent a total rebuild to support the Atlas World Group brand. Now, given the evolution of the web, the increased sophistication of users, and the importance of search engines, another overhaul is in the works. This time, Atlas defines its Internet turf as the centerpiece of a direct-to-consumer sales effort. The scope and the stakes are huge.

"Perhaps the most significant change is the design of two distinct websites," says Director of Internet Sales and Marketing Vic Baillargeon, who heads the IT team responsible for the project. "One site encompasses Atlas World Group as a corporate website promoting the Atlas family of companies. The other is dedicated to Atlas Van Lines. Before, the two were one and the same."

Vic says the van lines site is dedicated to moving, which in itself will help the ranking with search engines. In addition, a slew of best practices for search engine optimization (SEO) are being woven into the architecture and content. To fully exploit these techniques, Atlas has enlisted two strategic partners: Performics, a world leader in SEO; and the Internet marketing division of Evansville-based Daniel, Burton Dean|DBD, which is responsible for design and content that resonates with consumers.

The higher a company appears in the organic search results, the more traffic it will generate, ultimately leading to more business. Currently, Atlas ranks lower in the search results than is optimal when prospective customers search for moving-related terms. But Vic says that will change.

"We are going to move up significantly, to the first and second pages of results," says Vic. "We have over 1,500 web pages. Our goal is to optimize all the relevant pages for search, which is most of our content except for certain archived pages. We want people looking for our services to find us.

Among other things, the Atlas Van Lines site will be rich with internal and external links, a feature that contributes to better ranking. "Link building will be very beneficial," says Vic. "When agents link their sites to Atlas Van Lines, it will further boost our visibility to the search engines."

Opening the Door, Making the Sale

SEO provides the muscle that opens the door for consumers to enter the Atlas website. Better ranking will bring more people in, and a new and improved website will make it more inviting for them to complete an online form. This will turn visitors into leads for the agents to convert into customers.

"When a customer makes an online query, they expect a follow-up as soon as possible," says Vic. "Some sources indicate an online lead starts to go stale in as little as 15 minutes. The phrase 'an authorized representative will contact you soon' rings hollow."

Which is why Atlas is automating its Lead Manager application to get leads into the hands of the agents as quickly as possible. "We're making lead dissemination nearly instantaneous... as soon as the consumer submits a request, the system checks it and forwards it to the agent for immediate follow-up."

Vic says in the competition for online leads, Atlas is determined to win. He believes the "aggregators" will be among the losers. Such firms simply record sales leads and sell them to moving companies, including Atlas agents.

"Even though the aggregators are not moving companies, they are competing for the same online customers," says Vic. "Now, instead of buying leads, we'll get in front and capture the information ourselves."

Phase one, including new first- and second-tier pages for AtlasWorldGroup.com and AtlasVanLines.com, is scheduled to launch May 1. The balance will come online throughout the year. Vic says the look will be fresh, simple, and easier to navigate. Because most Internet users now have broad-band access, site design will take advantage of today's faster data transfer.

"Expect a more contemporary design that reinforces the unique brand character of Atlas," says Vic. "Customer service starts with the very first impression. We want to create satisfaction throughout the customer's experience. The Atlas web will be a positive influence for building relationships, and a superior sales tool for Atlas agents."

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