Recovering inventory for clients

Shareware and wireless technology

Repeat business, referrals, and an end to lost inventory

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When Fred Terlaak, executive vice-president of $8-million Team Logistix Inc., a logistics and courier company based in Austin, Tex., got a call from GTE Mobilnet, GTE Mobilnet was desperate. The huge company had thousands of cellular phones floating around the Houston area that it couldn't recover. Turns out, GTE Mobilnet had gone door to door selling its new cellular phone. Reps had had plenty of phones on hand so they could close deals on the spot, before customers changed their minds. But customers did change their minds. Right after the first round of bills went out, they began calling GTE Mobilnet by the thousands to have their service shut off. The company hired a collection agency to recover the cellular units, but with so many disconnects at once, keeping up with them proved impossible. Even scheduling visits to pick up the units had a dismal 50% success rate. By the time it contacted Logistix, GTE Mobilnet was out close to 50,000 cellular phones.

What to do to stop the loss of inventory? Terlaak decided that he would use a reverse-sales technique. When customers called to disconnect the service, he wouldn't let them hang up. He would kill the deal and immediately dispatch a driver to pick up the unwanted phone.

Terlaak met with a consultant to figure out how Logistix could collaborate with GTE Mobilnet's customer-service department. The consultant recommended that Logistix set up Lotus Development's Lotus Notes, groupware that allows users to share databases and even work on documents simultaneously. When a customer called to disconnect, a GTE Mobilnet service representative would transfer the call directly to Logistix, which had set up a seven-person team to handle incoming calls. The Logistix rep would immediately pull up the customer's information on the Lotus Notes database, confirm the address, and schedule a pickup.

To shorten lag time on pickups, Logistix designed a system to get information to drivers on the road. Terlaak purchased 16 Marco personal digital assistants from Motorola (800-934-4721, prices start at $39 per unit), installed custom software developed by Wireless Mobile Products, based in Marina del Rey, Calif. (310-577-9332), and gave a Marco to each of his drivers. As soon as a Logistix rep would hang up the phone, he or she would send the pickup information out to the drivers (including "watch out for the Doberman") via a wireless network from Ardis (800-662-5328). Whichever driver was in the area would use the pen-based computer device to respond to headquarters. The whole system would allow Logistix to quote pickup times down to the minute. As Terlaak puts it, "Telling a customer the driver will arrive at 10:10 really shows that you value that person's time." And it improved hit rates, which rose to about 85%.

The work Logistix did for GTE Mobilnet paid off. The company's floating-phone problem is virtually over. In addition to the $750,000 Logistix was paid by GTE Mobilnet, the company has referred about half a dozen other companies to Logistix. Terlaak says he's now searching for ways to leverage his new fast-communications procedures. He thinks he might do well in the home-office market, in which (according to surveys he's done) customers are particularly impatient.

-- Sarah Schafer