How Whistl delivers using technology
Making sure that mail travels from...
Supply Chain Digital interviews Whistl's IT Director Lieneke Happel about how the company harnesses technology.
Making sure that mail travels from A to B requires a much more robust and slick functioning IT infrastructure than one might originally think. Alignment with the rest of the business’s operations is critical, and this is the job of Whistl’s IT Director. After spending 12 years delivering vital business operations and product innovation, working closely with crucial operational, billing and CRM systems from a strategic standpoint, a move to IT Director may not have appeared as a natural step.
Three and half years on and this is exactly what has happened at Whistl. Formerly TNT Post - the UK arm of Dutch company TNT (Post NL) - the now-autonomous business has seen a huge overhaul in the way technology is managed. Guiding the transformation is Whistl’s IT Director Lieneke Happel. Having been involved in the company’s journey since 2004, Happel always believed IT could hold the key to real transformation into a market leader. “I always felt that within our IT functions we could do so much more,” she says. “But I don’t have an IT background and didn’t really know exactly what my criticisms were based on – I recognised that alignment with the business is just so critical. The business just wants IT to work as effectively as possible.
“I was excited about the challenge, yet a little scared at the prospect of running something which I didn’t know what I did or didn’t understand. I said I’d do it for a year as a restructuring sort of focus but I have loved it. The change you can make and the influence you can have is what excites me. You can determine the speed of change within the company.”
Indeed, Whistl now processes 26 percent of all UK mail through its seven hubs and is eyeing up further expansion into parcels and international deliveries, of which IT will play a crucial part. It already sorts four billion items a year through its core sorted, unsorted, international and hybrid services, which allows customers to electronically upload what they want to post with Whistl sorting the printing and delivery. The company also conducts targeted doordrop media and leafleting campaigns with customers, based on careful analysis of client and third party data. Major customers include Sky, Barclays and Aegon.
Keeping it simple
Approaching IT from a customer experience standpoint with a holistic business strategy in mind has paid dividends. “I think two things really help me in my job today,” Happel explains. “One is that I have an overall business view on running IT. I have experience in managing resources and costs that lead to results. The second is trust. The team I work with know that I know the business. “The one bugbear I had was the gap between business and IT. IT is simply a department within the business and the business is simply a series of departments. I immediately had to make this clear. This trust allows me to influence the business decisions a lot more than if I had an IT background.” Even though Happel works in a deeply technical environment, she has always appreciated the need to keep it simple for the benefit of customers and the wider Whistl team. “It is so easy to make things overly complex, in every department of business in fact,” she says.
“Within IT this is even more important because so much is technical and the people are immersed in the detail. It can be tough to lift yourself out and translate your work into how it really impacts others. But this is what I find normal and help to do for the team.” “Once people have something explained to them and they understand, they are willing to be patient and to listen. They are on board, they understand, they don’t criticise. Communication becomes positive.”
The end goal of Whistl’s IT strategy is to make doing business with the company as easy and cost effective as possible. After all, it is still very much a physical company processing mail and parcels.
The management buyout from parent company Post NL has allowed Happel to bring all IT operations into the UK. She explains: “Being such a big company, the strategy and IT solutions they were implementing, although fantastic, were very risk averse and not very open to quick change. We were the new kids on the block, fast growing and agile and it just didn’t match up in cultures and execution.” Since aligning a lot of small unintegrated processes and steering the 42-strong IT team’s focus to the wider business strategy, a lot has happened regarding the frontline services offered.
Whistl now processes 70 million parcels a year to add to the standard mail, while further expansion into international markets has required careful IT planning. “Every country has different distribution rules on how to handover mail, what manifests you need, addressing items, what labels are used, what pre-notifications are required and so on,” Happel adds. “You can see how this impacts right across the business and how IT has to adapt to comply with international ways of delivering mail.” To help customers manage and track their mail’s journeys, Whistl will be launching a new customer portal later this year. This will allow clients to find delivery information and track progress of their direct marketing all in one place on any device, helping them to plan ahead and think more strategically about how they post.
One of the first, and certainly most significant changes implemented by Happel was to bring in expert outsourcing partners to perform and develop key IT functions, enabling the Whistl team to focus their efforts at a strategic level. Happel comments: “I expect my outsourcing suppliers to stay ahead of the game in terms of R&D and innovation so we can provide our customers the best possible front end and back end services. I chose all the suppliers in the knowledge that they all keep abreast of change, so they will always make sure we are using the latest technologies. “For example, Attenda, who provide our vital hosting services and ensure we are online 24/7, are further integrating cloud into the managed service offering.”
Other key suppliers include network experts Link Connect and Vesk, provider of end user services which includes a virtual desktop solution, allowing Whistl customers to work anywhere, anytime and on any device. It is also looking at integrating Microsoft Office365 into its solution. “All three suppliers work as an extension of my team and really know our business,” Happel adds. “I needed companies which were not the industry giants – midsized companies which are focused on building a real relationship and don’t see us as a number on a spreadsheet. “They are often in the office working with us and when glitches happen, which are inevitable sometimes, they get resolved quickly. The biggest complement I can pay them is that I don’t have to worry about what they do. I just leave my service delivery guys to get on with it so I can focus on a strategic level. We can focus on business growth and delivery of quick change with the backing of our partners - this is exactly why having such good suppliers is so important.”
Rising to the challenge
The most challenging aspect for Happel has been finding the right people for her team. It is also the most rewarding part of the job, as Whistl’s engaged and motivated IT unit drives tangible change for end users. “I don’t want people who buy into the tech, I want people who buy into the company,” she says. “I want people to have fun and to be passionate. I want people who have a variety of skills and are not limited by a job description. I like people who can communicate and the reality of our company is we are changing fast and need to be agile. “We very much embrace bimodal IT with multifunctional teams that succeed quickly and I recruit people who get this concept – building the plane while we’re flying. You don’t know how the end product is going to look at the start, but you keep improving while learning what the customer really wants.”
It is this strategic, agile approach while always keeping the wider business ambition in mind which has allowed Happel to drive innovation through IT, leveraging the expertise of partners to deliver the best possible experience for customers. Now, however, is not a time to stand still. Happel concludes: “We must keep learning, keep challenging and keep delivering, and have a lot of fun on the way. I can’t predict the future but what I believe in is if you keep pushing yourself and have fun it doesn’t matter where you end up, because it will be the right place.”
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Driver shortages: Why the industry needs to be worried
While driver shortages are a global problem, with a recent survey from the International Road Transport Union suggesting that driver shortages are expected to increase by 25% year-on-year across its 23 member countries, the issue has very much made itself felt for UK businesses in recent weeks.
A perfect storm of factors, which many within the industry have been wary of, and warning about, for months, have led to a situation wherein businesses are suddenly facing significant difficulties around transporting goods to shelves on time, as well as inflated operating costs for doing so.
What’s more, the public may also see price rises as a result due to demand outmatching supply for certain product lines, which in turn brings with it the risk of customer dissatisfaction and a hit to brand and stakeholder reputation. Given that this price inflation has been speculated to hit in October, when the extended grace period on Brexit customs checks comes to an end, the worst may be yet to come.
"Steps must be taken to make a career in the industry a more attractive proposition for younger drivers, which will require a joint effort from government, industry bodies, and the sector as a whole"
That said, we have already been hearing reports of service interruption due to lack of driver availability, meaning that volumes aren’t being transported, or delivered, to required schedules and lead times. A real-world example of this occurred on the weekend of 4-6 June with convenience retailer Nisa, with deliveries to Nisa outlets across the UK affected by driver shortages to its logistics provider DHL.
But where has this skills shortage stemmed from?
Supply is the primary issue. Specifically, the number of available EU drivers has decreased by up to 15,000 drivers due to Brexit alone, and this has been further exacerbated by drivers returning to their home country during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as changes to foreign exchange rates making UK a less desirable place to live and work. This, alongside the recent need to manage IR35 tax changes, has also led to significant inflation in driver and transport costs.
COVID-19 complications have also meant that there have been no HGV driver tests over the past year, meaning the expected 6,000-7,000 new drivers over the past year have not appeared. With the return of the hospitality sector we understand that this is a significant challenge with, for instance, order delivery lead times being extended.
It is little surprise, therefore, that the Road Haulage Association (RHA) earlier this month became the latest in a long line of industry spokespeople to write to the government about the driver shortage for trucks. The letter echoed the view held by much of the industry, that the cause of this issue is both multi-faceted and, at least in some aspects, long-standing.
So, many in the industry are in agreement as to the driving factors behind this crisis. But what can be done?
Simply enough, outside of businesses completely reorganising their supply chain network, external support is needed. In the short-term, the government should consider providing the industry with financial aid, and this can also be supported more widely with legislative change.
Specifically, immigration policy could be updated to place drivers on the shortage occupations list, which would go some way towards easing the burden created by foreign drivers returning to their home countries. Looking elsewhere, government should also look for ways to increase the availability of HGV driver tests after the blockage created by the coronavirus lockdowns.
Looking more long-term, steps must be taken to make a career in the industry a more attractive proposition for younger drivers, which will require a joint effort from government, industry bodies, and the sector as a whole. As it stands, multiple sources suggest that the average age of truck drivers in the UK is 48, with only one in every hundred drivers under the age of 25. We must therefore do more to increase the talent pipeline coming into the industry if we are to offset more significant skills shortages further down the line.
On the back of a turbulent year for the supply chain industry, it has become increasingly clear that the long-foretold shortage of drivers is now having a tangible and, in places, crippling effect on supply chains.
Drivers, and the wider supply chain industry, have rightly been recognised for the seismic role they played in keeping the nation moving and fed over the past year under unprecedented strain. If this level of service is to continue, we must now see Government answer calls to provide the support the sector needs, and work hand-in-hand with the industry to find a solution. If we do not see concrete action to this effect soon, we are likely to be in for a turbulent few months.
Rob Wright is executive director at SCALA, a leading provider of management services for the supply chain and logistics sector