How to Find the Best Real-Time Visibility Solution

March 27, 2019

Researching choices without a solid evaluation framework often leads to inaction. This couldn’t be truer for sorting through real-time visibility options.

The recent Gartner Market Guide on Real-Time Visibility revealed nearly 20 providers now crowd the marketplace. Waiting for a handful of visibility leaders to emerge may seem like the smart choice. In reality, it means you’re foregoing the benefits of real-time visibility. Your competitors will seize the opportunity you defer.

Determining if a visibility vendor’s claims are grounded in reality is challenging—not to mention time-consuming. To help you navigate real-time visibility solutions, we’ve broken down the most important functions into five crucial areas. Each section includes the most important questions to ask vendors during your research phase.

Using this guide will codify and simplify your evaluation process, and provide a basic script for your team to follow during discovery calls.

Any visibility platforms you’re considering should provide all the capabilities outlined below.

1. Real-time Shipment Tracking

The building block of a visibility solution, real-time tracking is a must. Every visibility vendor’s website and brochures talk up the speed and accuracy of their tracking. Relatively few live up to these promises.

What To Look For

The main culprit for poor data-tracking lies with data collection. Real-time visibility vendors that rely on email, phone, fax, or web scraping to obtain carrier information cannot provide timely updates.

The vendor should retrieve shipment location updates from carriers via API, ELD/telematics, smartphone apps, or satellite. That data should then be enriched with weather and traffic information. Enriched, real-time data forms the bedrock of predictive analytics.

As they say, timing is everything. Real-time data should be updated in your system at least every 15 minutes, with the possibility of being updated every second. This frequency should increase dramatically as the shipment nears an identified stop.

What To Ask

When reviewing platforms, dive into the details of what “tracking” means. Visibility vendors are not held to a universally accepted definition for real-time tracking.

Ensure the vendor provides clear definitions for:

  • When does tracking begin?
  • How is data captured from carriers?
  • What level of detail is available?
  • How is data privacy handled?
  • How does the solution meet GDPR requirements?
  • How is tracking data shared with our team and our customers?

These questions will not be answered in an RFP or RFI if they’re not explicitly asked. That’s largely due to many visibility solutions existing as a patchwork of manual processes, outdated technology, and outsourced providers. As a result, responses from inferior visibility vendors tend to gloss over the specifics.

Insist on answers in plain English. If you have the slightest reservation, ask to look under the hood. A vendor should be happy to set up a demo for you to validate their data connectivity and update frequency.

2. Dynamic Delivery Times, ETAs, And Status Updates

To be meaningful to your business, ETAs and status updates need to change with every data point.

What to Look For

Updates must be responsive to current conditions to be useful. These include:

  • traffic patterns and weather
  • social events (protests, police activity, etc.)
  • road or port conditions

These “core” data points should then be enriched. Layering on road constraints (for example, maximum height or weight of a vehicle) and driver hours of service will make your predictions accurate. And they relieve your staff from manually adjusting for these factors.

Of course, your team won’t be checking these alerts 24/7/365. Access to configurable email, SMS, and push notifications ensure your internal and external teams can manage expectations.

Supply chain interruptions happen. They’re inevitable. Arming your team with the latest shipment status empowers them to handle these events quickly and efficiently.

What To Ask

To reduce fines and improve event management, your visibility vendor must offer real-time notifications. Specifically, ask how you can set up custom notifications based on events that matter in your supply chain. These may include:

  • running late by shipment, container, truck, vessel, rail car, etc.
  • departure from stop
  • excessive dwell time
  • temperature out of range

For maximum insight, consider creating a custom geofenced threshold. Instead of an arbitrary circle around a shipment’s location, a custom solution incorporates weather, traffic, and local geodata to create reactive geofences. This approach improves accuracy dramatically.

3. Predictive Analytics

The real value of data comes when it’s put to good use. Analytics enables you to leverage your data to its full potential. And predictive analytics offer accurate arrival, pickup, location, ETA, and delivery information.

What to Look For

It’s not just the metrics—it’s how granular the data feeding these metrics is.

Dwell time indications that don’t, for example, specify the customer and location are of little use. Yes, your staff will have a leg up knowing there’s an issue. But they’ll still need to investigate before they can start resolving the matter.

Key shipment metrics you should have access to span:

  • delivery on-time percentage
  • late percentage
  • dwell time
  • tracking success

All these metrics should be broken down by location, lane, customer, supplier, and/or carrier. Most importantly, they should be configurable so you can focus on the KPIs that matter most to your business.

What To Ask

To transform data into actionable insights, real-time visibility platforms should identify patterns and represent them in dashboards. Ask the vendor if a dashboard is available without extensive professional services. The distinction between “available” and “possible” makes all the difference.

A clean dashboard is not only useful but also a good sign all data is normalized and collected in a similar fashion. And, of course, this interface will help you establish benchmarks to spot opportunities for reducing delays and costs.

4. Coverage Spanning Key Modes And Multiple Geographies

Global supply chains, by their very nature, require a real-time visibility solution without borders. A visibility provider must fit into a larger and multimodal context designed to create a more connected, secure, and predictable shipping experience.

What to Look For

Worthwhile visibility solutions eliminate blind spots and guarantee your data quality remains consistent. In order to achieve visibility into a global supply chain, look for a solution that spans your most important transportation modes and nodes.

A visibility vendor that can grow with your business will cover:

  • Ocean – Tracking at the container-level with integration to vessels and ports
  • Rail – Tracking class I, II, and III rail shipments
  • Truckload (TL) – Managing and tracking all truckload types including drayage
  • LTL and vLTL – Managing and automating the end-to-end LTL and vLTL lifecycle
  • Parcel – Connecting to all leading global parcel capacity providers
  • Final Mile – Managing and tracking pickup and delivery appointments and accessorials

Don’t limit yourself to a vendor that accommodates only the modes you use today. Think of multimodal vendor as an investment in future-proofing your supply chain.

What to Ask

It’s not just servicing multimodal that matters. Ask the vendor to confirm modes cover multiple geographies seamlessly.

From a regional standpoint, many visibility solutions are active in either North America or Europe, but rarely both. If you’re forced to choose one or the other, you can’t maintain real-time visibility as your global footprint expands.

A vendor may offer a “custom solution” for international tracking. While this may seem like willingness to meet your needs, it’s usually a tell-tale sign they lack global experience. Industry characteristics, technology options, and carrier needs vary wildly across regions.

5. Flexible Implementation and Integrations

Like any project, the vendor’s implementation should place your business process front and center. They should balance your needs with a methodology that allows them to work quickly to ensure a faster ROI.

The good news is that every vendor you vet will agree with this notion. But finding one that lives up to this approach is another matter entirely.

What to Look For

Don’t let a visibility vendor reassure you that implementation is covered without showing you the details in their SOW or proposal. Consider these factors when evaluating the vendor’s implementation capabilities:

  • implementation cost (both in dollars and demand placed on your team)
  • timeline from kick-off to go-live
  • access to dedicated support coordinators and consultants

To achieve the best results, ensure the visibility platform integrates with your TMS. The vendor should also provide a portal where you can view and act upon your visibility data.

What to Ask

Your team responsible for implementation may greet your enthusiasm for a visibility vendor with a healthy dose of skepticism. They’ve heard tales of “easy implementation” and “support for your tech team” before.

Dig into the vendor’s implementation support details—from hours available to technical expertise—to ensure they work for your organization. New technology requires a learning curve, even for experts. You should ask:

  • What are the hours of support, both for my implementation leads and end-users?
  • What’s the process and cost when support is needed off-hours?
  • Are phone, email, and chat support available?
  • Where are customer service agents located?

You’ll also want to ensure your tech experts and business analysts feel comfortable with the vendor’s process. They will want to know:

  • What type of self-service materials, such as tutorials, are available?
  • Can developers review code samples, SDKs, and API documentation now to ensure it meets their needs?
  • Is a Customer Success rep who’s focused on uncovering the most value, not upselling, assigned to our account?

Bottom line: Seek a vendor that demonstrates their success is dependent on your success.

Finding a real-time visibility solution that meets all five points is critical. Each plays a pivotal role in helping you improve customer experience, reduce costs, and improve operations. Requiring every vendor to answer every question is your best bet for a successful real-time visibility solution.

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