A quick guide to free routing software

August 22, 2018

How free software can help your delivery business, and when you might need something more

I love free software. That’s the beauty of the Internet. I personally use a host of freebies every day: Chrome for surfing the web; Gmail, WhatsApp, and Instagram for keeping in touch; Google Docs, Dropbox, and Evernote for keeping organized; Spotify and Youtube for entertainment.

While most of the software listed above does indeed offer a free tier, there is also the option to upgrade in order to access expanded features. You can pay for more storage in Gmail and Dropbox; you can enjoy content ad-free and offline with a premium account on Youtube or Spotify; and you can promote your posts to a target audience via Instagram ads.

As a business owner, I’ve found that free software usually works well in the very beginning when you have rather simple needs — a few dozen orders a week, for example. But as your business scales, so does your order volume, your data, and your customer’s needs — and that’s when premium features or paid accounts become necessary.

The same goes for route planning tools for delivery businesses. We’ve spoken to hundreds of businesses who have a growing customer base and are therefore ramping up their delivery operations. They come looking better solutions that will help them deal with an increasing volume of orders (e.g. I used to make just 20 deliveries a day. How do I deliver to 100 places in day?) and increasing customer demands (e.g. My customers are asking for 1-hour delivery time windows and they want to be notified when deliveries are made in real-time).

In the early days, many businesses start off using pen, paper, and a map to figure out some basic delivery routes. Some use spreadsheets while others have gone online and found free software like RouteXL, OptiMap, SpeedyRoute or Mapquest — helpful freebie software for sure, but helpful only to a certain point.

Here are just a few limitations of free route planning software:

Limited stops per optimization
Many of the free services limit the number of stops you can optimize. (RouteXL: up to 20 stops; SpeedyRoute: up to 20 stops; Mapquest: up to 26 stops; and OptiMap: up to 100 stops). Some sites also only allow you optimize a certain number of routes within a 24-hour period.

One vehicle optimization only
Most of the free services only allow you to optimize routes for one vehicle, except for SpeedyRoute, which allows you to route with four vehicles. Once you have more than one delivery vehicle or delivery route, you’ll need to find another solution.

Difficult to use
I’ll be honest: a lot of the free routing software out there is really hard to use and not-so-pretty to look at. In this day and age, we consumers have higher expectations on how software should interact with people and lower tolerance for poor design. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Try them out yourself. Was it easy to use? You be the judge.

Delivery time windows
Who hates sitting around waiting for a delivery all day? It’s shocking to admit, but most delivery companies — including industry leaders UPS and FedEx — still provide their customers with 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. time windows, forcing people to wait around all day for a delivery. In this new era of delivery, if a customer requests a delivery to be made between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., delivery companies have access to the tools to accommodate this request. Setting delivery time windows for stops is not available with most free routing software, but a paid subscription will most certainly have it.

Mobile app for driver
Route planning only gets you halfway there. Your delivery driver now needs to execute on those routes and deliveries. For that, you’ll need to equip your driver with the right tools in order to provide the best possible delivery service for your customers. Easy access to the routes, as well as any delivery instructions and notes are vital for this. Drivers need to also stay accountable to you (the business owner) and to their customers with some kind of proof of delivery — something you certainly won’t get with freemium software.

Customer support and SLAs
Free software means the person who built it isn’t constantly updating the software, providing attentive customer service, or any kind of guarantee that the service will always be available. When you pay for something, most software companies have Service Level Agreements that help to guarantee that the software will always work — and if it doesn’t, you’ll be sure the team will be in touch to make reparations.

. . .

So here’s my two cents:
If you’re just starting out, free routing software is amazing. You should take advantage of it for sure. Just know that when your business starts to grow, you’ll need something more robust, more flexible, and easier to use. In the age of Amazon Prime, your customers are expecting a lot from you. When the time comes, make sure you’re ready to deliver.