Used to be, when a driver's rig stopped dead in its tracks, that driver was in for some serious downtime. He had to put out the cones, lock up the cab, then walk or hitch a ride to the nearest pay phone. Once there, he'd fumble through a heavy phone book looking for a roadside service that he knew absolutely nothing about. Hanging up the phone, he'd hike back to his tractor and wait for help to arrive.
Then, seemingly overnight, the cell phone arrived, an invention that could turn a daylong nightmare into a few hours of inconvenience.
"Cell phones are huge as far as technology and communications go in this industry," says John Diehl, S.O.S. director for Penske Truck Leasing.
"Back 10 to 15 years ago, we were all taking phone calls from drivers who were miles away from their rigs. We were still using atlases to find stranded drivers. Everything was a manual process. Today, probably 85 percent of truck drivers carry a cell phone, if not more.
"That's so much better for us. We can do troubleshooting with them right from the cab and over the phone."
Oren Summer, president and CEO of FleetNet America, says his company is always fine-tuning its operation to speed up the process of getting drivers and equipment back on the road.
"We have an advanced VolP phone system (voice over Internet Protocol) that integrates into our in-house-developed software systems," Summer says. "Considering that every second counts, the efficiencies gained by knowing the exact status of every call, how long the call has been active, who is calling, who has talked to the customer/driver, etc., is a requirement for proper handling. Also, knowing that the phone system capacity will not be compromised during peak handling times is invaluable."
He says a subtle but effective way to get drivers back on the road quickly is having dedicated phone numbers for clients that give specific identity to the "owner" of the roadside event. Adding the integration of customer-specific data such as equipment files, driver IDs, warranty data and other information, builds an almost impenetrable barrier to fraud and mishandling.
Cell phones are hardly the only technology that has changed the face of the breakdown business. "On-board computers, otherwise known as in-cab communications, offer an alternative to the traditional phone call," Summer says. "Many clients have found process improvements by allowing interaction with drivers via these alternative communication methods."
Summer says he's still a big fan of the fax machine, which he deems still critical to handling roadside emergencies quickly. But even that old technology has improved.
"An improvement in this stable technology is fax servers rather than fax machines. Fax servers allow for significantly more volume of faxes and better methods of handling, thus improving the process."
In addition to call-in services such as FleetNet America, also replacing the phone books these days are web sites that allow users to search for towing companies, mobile repair services, truck repair shops and other providers.
Lane Goebel, owner of the National Truck & Trailer Services Breakdown Directory, offers a free web site with mapping capabilities. He says his business continues to grow because his fleet customers like the fact that they get to make their own decision on who to use - at no cost to them.
Goebel was in the middle of publishing the 2008 directory when we spoke to him. The new book, he says, will be 900 pages, 100 more than last year.
"Our online search at NTTS Breakdown averages over 15,000 searches per day," he added. Last year, the web site had more than 4 million searches for repair.
"After you have done an online search, you can click our 'map it' button and see 20 of the closest repair shops related to your breakdown, and you can drag that map around."
That speeds the breakdown turnaround, Goebel says. Besides offering a free web service to fleets and owner-operators, Goebel said he personally handles all complaints from customers, culling out those vendors who don't fit his requirements.
"I have removed more than 100 companies from the list over the years because of complaints and overcharging - [even though] some of these companies had been with us for many years with no complaints."
Computer software is what's speeding up the process for those using the Bandag Emergency Tire Assistance Program, says Tom Trego, product manager in marketing.
"Where we can shave some time off the process is through the technology and software we use," Trego says. "We have software that includes longitude and latitude information, and if the driver has a GPS unit in his vehicle and he can give us that information, we can get to him much quicker."
In addition, Bandag has access to customers' profiles and preferences.
"Do they require a purchase order? The software makes that critical fleet information pop up quicker," Trego says. "The information can be very basic or very detailed, depending on what the fleet gives us. They can say, 'I use this tire size and here's the top two tires I prefer.' Or they may have three preferences for trailer tires and preferences for drive tires. They might have requirements for the tire that's taken off, whether it's still good or needs to be scrapped.
"Or they might have other services they want done any time they are serviced. This information saves the driver time."
This is the case with many services, such as Yokohama Tire's YES program (Yokohama Emergency Services). Dan Funkhouser, corporate manager of national accounts, says his company understands what the fleets require and keeps complete profiles on all customers.
"When someone calls YES, YES knows what their requirements are and can expedite the repair," Funkhouser says. "That includes tire size, preference by position and even billing information. The idea is to keep the fleet running - period. They call the 800 number and we get them back on the road in two hours. Two hours is our guarantee."
Beyond technology, accessibility is what gets the TA RoadSquad's breakdown service customers back on the highway fast, says Karen Piccolomini, shop project manager for TravelCenters of America, which now includes both the TA and Petro:Lube repair networks after last year's acquisition of Petro by TravelCenters of America.
"TA and Petro:Lube are strategically positioned along the interstates. We look at freight patterns, so our starting point is in a very high traffic area. We're on highways, so we can get to you quickly. We're positioned near weigh stations and areas where, unfortunately, drivers go down."
That's where RoadSquad claims to have a big advantage in the roadside repair business: "When it comes to a road call, every minute counts. And we have the trucks on the ground," Piccolomini says. "The value of the TA network and now the Petro:Lube network, is the magnitude. We have 235 locations, well over 400 service trucks out there, and 3,000 technicians available with one centralized dispatch center.
"We're going to maintain our service truck fleet, make sure its up and running. Make sure we have qualified technicians. Because of our centralized dispatch center, we have the ability to manage those ground resources effectively and leverage our network to the best advantage of the customer in order to get them back up and running."
Piccolomini recalls Jan. 2 this year, a day when much of the nation was suffering bad weather.
"The RoadSquad network performed 50 percent more road calls that day than the day after New Year's in 2007. Professional drivers returning to the road after the holidays were met with extreme winter conditions across a good portion of the country. The weather was brutal. We were very, very busy, and a lot of the calls were for gell up, freeze up and engines not turning over. But I believe we were as busy as we were because of driver knowledge. They know we're open. We're a 24/7 business. Our techs are not on call. They are at work."
TA's goal is to develop the program to the point where they can deliver on a 30-minute dispatch guarantee, she says. "In order to earn the business, we know that we have to be timely."