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CHEP, a leading provider of pallet and container pooling services, has upgraded its on-line customer interface system to enable customers to better manage their accounts with less time and fewer resources.

Portfolio+Plus, CHEP's on-line portal, now gives customers the ability to submit service requests, perform on-line corrections and reconciliations, and generate reports, all without the need to interact with a CHEP representative.

"We worked closely with our produce customers to determine their needs," Tim Smith, vice president of new business development for CHEP, told The Produce News Feb. 12. "We found that ordering pallets and printing invoices were two of the key points for our customers. We wanted to give them the ability to better manage their accounts without having to add staff to do so. With the enhancements to Portfolio+Plus, they can review transaction summaries, look at shipments of pallets and containers, and submit inventory on-line to get the pallets off the books quickly. They can more quickly reconcile areas where there is a reporting issue. And they can pull a report out of Portfolio+Plus, match it up with bill of ladings and come up with unreported transactions, which is a huge time savings."

Mr. Smith added that Portfolio+Plus also gives customers the ability to self- correct. "In the past, customer would have to call CHEP, and since we are a field-based organization, there is the risk that employees are in the field servicing other customers, which can be a source of frustration. We wanted to give our grower customers the opportunity to do the self correction," he said. "Customers indicated that they wanted the power to better manage their accounts. This has gotten good feedback so far."

In developing the enhancements to Portfolio+Plus, Mr. Smith said that CHEP looked to address five key areas: cost; cycle time; balance (or the number of pallets on hand); flow-through rate; and growth component, which measures the business against prior years. The enhancements allow customers to easily mine the data to better evaluate their businesses.

CHEP believes that Portfolio+Plus is ideally suited for its nearly 1,000 produce customers, many of which are smaller operations that do not have additional resources with spare time that can manage something that may be viewed as a non-core competency.

"We feel that Portfolio+Plus is tailored perfectly toward the small customer that in the past has had inconsistency in managing the program because they are too busy harvesting their crops. So it's an absolute home run for that customer set," said Mr. Smith.

In addition to the enhancements to Portfolio+Plus, CHEP is investing $200 million over the next three years to upgrade the quality of its pallet program, which will include repairs to the existing pool as well as increasing capacity. Mr. Smith said that it is a combination of capital and operational investment.

The investment is designed to help increase the overall health of the pool, which currently has 73 million pallets and 90 service centers, and put a process in place that reduces variability, and has the backend data that can identify problem areas and areas of success.

"Upgrades to pallets were based on feedback from customers," said Mr. Smith. "We do various customer surveys, and we looked at emerging automation. As companies go to [automated storage and retrieval] systems, we are prepared for that. We are looking to deliver ongoing performance with significantly reduced variability in the throughput."

Mr. Smith believes that further efficiencies can be realized with Portfolio+Plus. "We're celebrating the success of Portfolio+Plus, and I think that's good, but I also want to look to the future and see what else it can do. I feel like what we offer is the best in the industry compared to what others are doing. But I think vendor management is an opportunity to explore. [It has the potential to] take the customer out of the pallet-ordering equation."

The enhancements to Portfolio+Plus and the investment in the pallet program are part of CHEP's Better Everyday initiative, which was launched in the fall with the goal of being more responsive to customers' needs and increasing the ease of use of CHEP's products.

"We're just really focused on getting the customer to have a bigger say as we look at our strategic initiatives in the coming years," Mr. Smith said of the Better Everyday initiative.

(For more on packaging and equipment, see the Feb. 22, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)