Starting from scratch

EVER grow weary of hearing “your call is very important to us…” as your important call is placed on indefinite hold?

Ever get tired of unreturned phone calls?

Ever get upset when the order you placed was late, wrong, or damaged when it arrived?

The folks at Aurora Parts & Accessories have, which is why they kept these things in mind when they did something people in the parts business rarely get the chance to do — design a parts operation from the ground up.

The company, which acquired the Wabash National parts operation two years ago, is utilizing integrated computer technology to drive many of these common complaints out of its warehouse part business.

Thanks to caller ID, an automated call distribution center, voice-over-Internet phone system, and computerized databases, Aurora personnel can return phone calls even when customers don't leave a message. And it is only one example of how the new Aurora warehouse in Lebanon, Indiana, is using technology as a tool to provide better service to its customers.

The system alerts management when the company receives phone calls that are not answered in time.

“Customers who end their calls before they are answered are shocked when we call them back,” says Mike Mastin, vice-president and general manager of Aurora Parts and Accessories, a subsidiary of Aurora Trailer Holdings LLC of St Louis, Missouri. “We tell them we understand that they had tried to call us and we ask them if there is anything we can do to help them. It's just an extra step that lets the customer know that we value them. And since we now know that someone tried to call us, it puts the responsibility on us to return their phone call.”

Getting started

The young company seemed to be in an ideal situation to establish a high-tech parts operation:

  • It was formed by an experienced management team.

  • An established business — the Wabash National parts operation — became the foundation of the new company and provided the start-up company with additional credibility in the marketplace.

  • The new ownership group includes Derek Nagle, president and CEO, Mark Old, vice-president and CFO, Mastin, and other senior management members. Aurora is backed by Jefferies Capital Partners, a private equity group, and had the financial resources to acquire the bricks, mortar, and technology and to hire the personnel a company of its type would need.

Derek Nagle, president and CEO of Aurora Trailer Holdings, has 35 years experience in the trailer business, much of that time with Fruehauf. He also was one of a triumvirate that led Wabash National following the departure of founder Jerry Ehrlich.

“If you look at all the areas companies in this industry can operate, there are seven — truck equipment, trailer manufacturing, new and used trailer sales, parts, service, rental, and leasing,” Nagle says. “We took a look at all of those areas and asked ourselves where it was that we could succeed with our expertise. We wanted to be a national company.

“Trailer service and repair business did not enter our plans because its growth is restricted by labor and the number of bays you have. We selected the areas where we believed we could succeed, and we have been pleased with what our people have been able to accomplish. I haven't seen the type of technology we have been using anywhere else in our immediate industry, and I think what we have compares favorably even with the systems truck manufacturers use in their parts operations.”

Readymade foundation

The areas of the industry Aurora chose to pursue were parts sales and trailer rental and leasing. The company was able to become an established player in both areas when it acquired the Wabash rental and leasing business along with the company's wholesale parts operation in 2003.

For the first year of its existence, Aurora Parts & Accessories conducted business from the Wabash warehouse in Lafayette, Indiana. Although that facility, at 300,000 square feet, was not much smaller than Aurora's new parts distribution center, the floor-space was divided between five different floors.

“We had two freight elevators to make things work,” Mastin says. “With everything on one level here, we have no excuses for not being efficient. It's so much easier now. When we moved in, our big challenge was to be sure we had an attitude of customer service. We had to work hard at our previous location. It was important to continue working hard. Moving into a more efficient facility is no reason to work less.”

Aurora moved into its new location in November 2004. The company selected Lebanon because the city is closer to Indianapolis (about 20 interstate miles north).

“Indianapolis is strong in logistics,” Mastin says. “It would be to our advantage to be near there, but we didn't want to move so far from where we started (Lafayette, Indiana) that we would risk losing many of our employees.”

Making the move

Last year was a challenging one for Aurora. The company, while still establishing itself in the marketplace, spent the year making decisions about the infrastructure of the new location while simultaneously working on the building.

“We wanted the move to be transparent to our customers,” Mastin says. “We announced in March that we would be moving, knowing that it would be November before the building would be ready for occupancy.”

Aurora's last day in its old location was Friday, November 19. The company closed the week of Thanksgiving, during which time it packed, shipped, and unloaded 228 trailer loads of inventory. Everyone was able to observe Thanksgiving on Thursday, and still have the computer system operating Sunday afternoon and the entire inventory in place before opening for business Monday.

Aurora moved into a building that has 306,000 total square feet, including 15,000 square feet of offices. Not including the office area, the clear-span structure has 36-ft ceiling height — providing Aurora a whopping 10.5 million cubic feet in which to store inventory.

“It's not very often that someone in the parts business gets to start with a clean slate,” Mastin says.

Storing inventory

The size of the warehouse, combined with the racking system the company installed to take advantage of the ceiling height, enables Aurora to meet one of its objectives — to have its entire inventory stored inside.

The warehouse is designed to allow inventory to flow through the building — receiving on one end of the building and shipping on the other. Two bridge cranes currently move some of the inventory through the building, but the crane system can be equipped with as many as nine cranes.

With the freight elevators no longer shuttling parts between levels, Aurora invested in a fleet of electric-powered forklifts. By purchasing backup batteries, Aurora can avoid the downtime associated with charging the batteries. One set charges while the other batteries power the forklifts, providing the three-shift, around-the-clock operation with the material-handling equipment it requires.

Aurora has divided its warehouse into 12 zones based on the physical characteristics of the part, such as its weight, length, and overall size. These characteristics combine to determine in which box, if any, these parts will be packaged.

Landing gear represents a major portion of Aurora's business. They have their own zone in the warehouse, as do parts that are sold as kits.

Handling the calls

But while the warehouse is laid out efficiently, it is the front office innovation that gives the warehouse a reason to move quickly.

The company's national network of more than 260 dealers generates approximately 600 telephone calls per day. A staff of 13 people handle the calls, each routed to individual staff members by the automated call distribution system.

The staff is divided into three groups. Customer care handles most of the calls, while the technical services group fields the more time-consuming calls. A third group handles drop shipments.

Parts for old trailers, along with requests for special fabrication, are examples of the types of calls the technical services group handles.

“Sometimes it's as simple as getting the VIN number,” Mastin says. “We have a pretty good handle on the parts that went into older Wabash and Fruehauf trailers.”

Customer support personnel log onto the system as members of the individual groups. Senior sales representatives, sales managers, and general managers also can log into the system under a general log-in. They can take these calls when the volume is more than individuals in the three groups can handle. Very softly, periodically during the course of the day, the telephone of these senior employees tells them that a call has not yet been picked up.

Analyzing the results

The phone system captures data that management can use to improve service. Among the information recorded: total call volume, length of the calls, time of day, and calls handled by each employee.

“The system has really helped us adjust our staffing so that we have the most people in place when our call volume tends to be highest,” Mastin says. “We get really heavy call volume between 12 and 1:30. By knowing this, we can adjust our lunch schedules accordingly.”

The system also reports the number of dropped calls that come into Aurora. When that number reaches a sufficient level, management can make an informed decision about hiring more people to handle incoming phone calls.

The system generates an e-mail every time a call is not answered. The e-mail goes to the customer care manager. It is this e-mail that triggers the follow-up phone call to the customer who did not get through.

“The caller ID is not sufficient to give us the name of the individual who made the call,” Mastin says. “But we know our dealers, and we usually have a pretty good idea who made the call. If we can't, we ask to speak to the parts manager.”

Help from cyberspace

Aurora recently enhanced its Web site in an effort to provide additional support to its customers. The site is averaging 57,000 hits per month. It provides a significant amount of information about parts and accessories, and it enables customers to place orders at their leisure.

“We don't consider it to be a sales tool for us to use. It's really a tool for our customers,” Mastin says. “A large percentage of our orders now come to us over the Web — particularly after normal business hours. This makes a lot of sense to us considering how busy the average parts manager can be during the day. Placing orders with us is just one thing a parts manager has to do. There are a lot of other things that compete with his time. The Web makes it possible for him to place orders at his convenience — not ours. And our customers are taking advantage of that. The site generates a lot of orders after 5 pm and during weekends.”

Mastin says that parts managers use the shopping cart feature of the site throughout the day. Once the day is over, they then complete the order and submit it through the Web. They also can access the status of any open orders they may have with Aurora.

Changing the mix

Aurora is finding that the Web can accommodate a lot of the routine ordering, leaving the more complicated calls to human beings on the other end of the telephone line.

“Online ordering is becoming a key tool for a lot of our customers, and it is changing the nature of the telephone calls we receive,” Mastin says. “Since we introduced online ordering, the average length of the phone calls we receive has gone up.”

Even with 57,000 hits per month, the volume of calls coming into the Aurora facility has remained strong, Mastin says. However, the online system is showing it can handle routine commerce.

Online orders go directly into the company's computer system, triggering two events — filling of the order and generating an e-mail that lets the customer know that the order has been received.

The computer system contains data that makes it easier for the customer to place an order and to receive it. Aurora works with its regular customers to cross-reference the customer's part number. Beyond that, if the customer supplies Aurora with the bin number where the customer stores a particular part, Aurora includes that information on the packing slip. This enables the customer to use the packing slip to more easily stock the part once it is received.

The DSTWare computer system performs a wide range of additional tasks, including automatic faxing at night, invoicing, and order confirmation.

“The system really puts a lot of information at the fingertips of our customer care group,” Mastin says. “We try to answer as many questions as possible during the customer's first call. Because so much information is there, we have been able to substantially reduce the number of times we have had to call customer back because we didn't have the information the first time.”

Delivering the goods

The Aurora product mix contains approximately 20,000 part numbers, although not all of the parts are stocked items.

“We continue to monitor our inventory,” Mastin says. “Should we stock more of this item? Are there items we should delete?”

Many Aurora customers place weekly stock orders. The company contracts 46 full-time drivers who deliver those orders throughout the United States and Canada.

The warehouse operates three shifts. The first shift, which works from 6 am to 2 pm, handles the bulk of the receiving. The second shift, which comes on at 2 pm and leaves at 10 pm, also receives incoming shipments and prepares orders for the third shift. The third shift, on duty from 10 pm to 6 am, fills the orders.

“By limiting our receiving from 6 am to 6 pm, shipping and receiving do not compete with one another for aisle space,” Mastin says.

The warehouse gets parts from the receiving dock to its proper location on the shelf in 90 minutes.

“Having the part in receiving is not good enough,” Mastin says. “We have been focusing on reducing the amount of time that the part is not available to the customer.”

The same holds true on the shipping end. Customers who call in by noon have their orders shipped the next day. Typically the third shift has the order picked and in the trailer for shipping the next day.

“Our internal goal is to have everything ready to go by 10 am,” Mastin says. “We have a 99.8% on-time departure rate for our trailers.”

What they want

In spite of its use of the latest technology, parts remains a simple business, Mastin says.

“According to a speaker at a logistics conference I attended, none of the things we are doing are what the customer is really interested in,” Mastin says. “They notice when we do any of three things — break it, lose it, or send it to the wrong place. If we do our job, we shouldn't get noticed.”

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