Productivity & business software for truckers
Not so long ago, there was a simpler time when managing the business of truck ownership could be accomplished with little more than a telephone, a Rolodex and an adding machine. Then came the tech revolution. Now everybody from our customers, to the government regulators, and even those of us spending time in the office, all have had our expectations raised to a point where computer automation of business is all but mandatory. While computers are the vehicle for this automation, software is the important fuel that makes it all possible.

by Tom Kelley

Business software for truckers can be loosely divided into two categories. The first group of programs are generally referred to as “productivity” software, including contact management, accounting, e-mail or even word processing. The other group is made up of “trucking specific” programs designed specifically for duties such as fuel-tax calculations, routing or maintenance scheduling.
While the “productivity” software could be used to perform many, if not all, of the functions performed by the trucking software, the specialized trucking packages typically will integrate features found in separate productivity programs, without any unnecessary features. It’s sort of like retail shopping; you might save some money if you go to several stores in a shopping district, but you’ll save a lot of time if everything you need is together in a convenience store.
Because there is an entire industry built around selling and explaining the consumer and mainstream business productivity software, we’ll only highlight this side of the software world, giving the casual user an idea of what to look for when setting up an office. Most of our focus here will be on those companies supplying industry-specific software for truckers. Before we move onto the specialty software though, there are a few issues that apply no matter which software you choose.

An important software-driven consideration turns us right around to the hardware side of computing. With very few exceptions, nothing about software has ever become smaller in size or less demanding on hardware. As such, any hardware purchase considerations should include some amount of “headroom” beyond the immediate needs of today’s software packages. Just as with traffic, it’s better to have more room than you absolutely need, things just move faster that way.
A frequent avenue of expansion is the concept of creating a computer network. Before you start to think networks are only for huge fleets, think again. Even if you only work with one computer, a network will allow the addition of data storage as easily as plugging in an extra phone. When looking at any software package, network compatibility is an important consideration.

Another concern with any computing operation is security. No matter how advanced your software or hardware may be, a lapse in judgment can still bring down a system whether large or small. Computer virus attacks have been in the news several times in the recent past, and the sad truth about every attack is that common sense would have stopped the virus dead in its tracks. Four simple words, “Don’t open e-mail attachments,” are quickly becoming the most important thing everybody should know about computing. Certainly, there are some attachments that will need to be opened, but if you don’t know exactly what something is or why it was sent to you, don’t open the attachment!

Productivity software
With that said, let’s move on to the productivity software recommendations. Every well-equipped office needs these four basic programs:

  • Contact management/Personal information manager
  • Word processing
  • Accounting
  • Internet/e-mail

Contact management
Perhaps the most valuable use of computer technology is the ability to store and organize information. A contact management program or personal information manager will keep track of all of the phone numbers, faxes, e-mail addresses, mailing addresses and other data we typically collect from customers, vendors employees or friends.

The more advanced contact programs will also keep a schedule along with records of what interaction you’ve had with any given contact. For the small-business operator, the range of contact programs goes from the directory and calendar in the Palm Pilot on the simple end of the scale, up through integrated task/contact programs such as ACT! for the growing business, up to enterprise-capable “Customer Relationship Management” packages such as Goldmine.

Word processing & office suites
Finally on the productivity side of software, a word processing program is valuable for composing any written documents you use. At one time, most word processors were stand-alone programs, but today, the two most common have been integrated into “office suite” packages that include other applications such as spreadsheets, databases and presentation software. Between Microsoft Office and WordPerfect Office, there are pros and cons to both suites. Microsoft has more of the market, so you’ll likely find it in more computers, but it tends to be a little heavy and unwieldy. WordPerfect may be harder to find, but it’s a bit more flexible and adaptable.

Once you’ve organized your Rolodex, Day-Timer and that pile of business cards into a contact program, the next most valuable software automation project is the accounting necessary to keep your business running. Let’s face it, none of us like accounting; otherwise we’d be accountants and not truckers or truck writers. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam and our bankers won’t let us go very far in business without at least a little accounting. If money is no object, it’s a simple matter of hiring an accountant to pay our bills, do our banking and collect our fees. But with the hourly rates for accountants these days, it’s better to reserve their services for final review of your taxes and providing a reality check for major transactions.

Fortunately, there are many user-friendly accounting software packages out there that will make financial work as painless as possible. Intuit, the developer of the popular Quicken and QuickBooks programs, makes the learning curve an easy step by duplicating the paper world in its user interface. If you can write an invoice or check on paper, you know almost everything you need to run Quicken or QuickBooks. If it’s just you and your truck, Quicken Home & Business will do the trick, but if you have any employees, you’ll need to use QuickBooks.

The good part about the Intuit products is they all use a shared data format. As your business grows, anything you’ve done in Quicken will automatically import into QuickBooks. Better still, come tax time, your accounting data will plug directly into Intuit’s TurboTax tax preparation software, which also is compatible with the Intuit Tax Pro software used by many accounting and tax-prep firms, so a quick professional review of your books will be easier and will likely cost a bit less. While many other suppliers offer accounting packages for businesses of various sizes, Intuit is one of the few that covers the entire range.

With your contacts and accounting organized, it’s off to the Internet. Although the Internet provides the potential to be less than productive, it’s also a valuable tool for communications and research. Let’s say you’ve landed a contract to haul HVAC air handlers from Los Angeles to Chicago on your drop-deck trailer, but you sure can’t afford to come back empty. Some quick research on the Internet would tell you construction equipment is a big part of the Midwest’s manufacturing economy, and the West Coast is still gobbling up “yellow iron” as quick as it can. Voila! You’ve found a likely load home for every load out.

Aside from the odd virus-laden attachment, e-mail is also an important communications tool. Unlike voice mail, snail mail or catching somebody at their phone, e-mail is quick, concise and insensitive to time zones or time of day. There are any number of approaches to Internet access and software, but it’s best to leave the online services and free accounts to the kids.

Your best bet is to choose an Internet service provider with nationwide dial-up access and use a browser with an integrated e-mail “client” program. While Microsoft makes a number of fine products, the virus creators typically aim their efforts at these exact programs. As such, in my opinion, Netscape is probably the best choice here. It’s free and it has business-level functionality built in.

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