Business is brisk at York Launch Service. Functioning like a water taxi service for the Sea Transport industry, the company makes more than 100 boat trips per day, ferrying workers between Marina South Pier and bigger vessels in nearby anchorage waters.
Despite the steady business, what had been gnawing away at managing director Mr Kieu Kim Sen’s mind were the old school manual processes in York Launch Service’s operations room – processes that had not evolved since the company was founded in 1993.
“Orders were taken over the phone. Booking details and acknowledgement of delivery completion by customers and payments to boatmen were done with paper and pen. There was minimal use of technology in our processes,” says the 42-year-old who took over the business in 2003.
Manual processes inevitably led to mistakes and disputes. Sometimes the team might forget to dispatch an order on time – it is crucial to get workers to their vessels punctually – as they simply had too many things to manage, he shares.
Winds of change
From the early 2010s, the explosion of mobile technology and disruption of whole industries (from media to retail) planted a seed in Mr Kieu’s mind. However, he was held back by financial constraints and the taxing process of test bedding and implementation.
By 2018 however, he was moved to action, inspired by the results of on-land transportation applications like Grab and Uber. “I saw something in that model. It really eliminates a lot of paperwork,” he says.
Mr Kieu and his operations director Mr Vincent Choo sifted through multiple software vendors before landing on a match with ShipsFocus Pte Ltd, which specialises in maritime shipping digitalisation. The project received financial support from the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore’s Maritime Cluster Fund - Productivity.
In May 2019, they got to work customising an online booking application for York Launch Service, and piloted Book-a-Launch in August with selected customers. Today, over three quarters of their clients have converted to using the application for boat charters.
After further assessment by the Infocomm Media Development Authority under the SMEs Go Digital programme and MPA, Book-a-Launch became one of the first batch of solutions approved under the Industry Digital Plan for the Harbour Craft sub-sector.
Book-a-Launch allows customers to key in their booking details (such as date, time and targeted vessel to reach), eliminating erroneous note taking or overlooked orders by more than 50 percent. Customers will later receive a push notification on the details of their boat – not unlike getting the car plate number of your hired ride.
Operations staff at York Launch Service can view the list of bookings at a glance and locations of their boats via a global positioning system (GPS) tracking function. Information on completed trips is also automatically channelled to the company’s accounts department for swift invoicing.
Strong employee approval
“I have to salute and give credit to my team. Without their eager participation, the adoption would not have been successful,” says Mr Kieu of his operations staff, of whom at least 80 percent are long-time mature employees. For many, this is the first time they are using digital means for operations work.
“They were of course concerned at first that digitalisation would create redundancies, but that’s not at all true. Our intention was to make their job easier and give them more time for rest by simplifying their work process,” he recalls.
Where in the past, a work shift required three people, only two people are now needed for booking operations. The third person is now free to be redeployed to other tasks, such as monitoring and boat deployment.
Convinced of the benefits of digitalisation, the team now frequently comes back with suggestions on ways to improve the application or new functions to include, Mr Kieu jests.
Book-a-Launch, now on version two, is still a work in progress. The company is currently test bedding and working on instant automated invoicing once a trip is completed and a GPS function that shows the boatman only the target vessel for easier navigation.
Sharpening business edge
As an early mover in the harbour craft sub-sector to digitalise, Mr Kieu estimates at least a 10 percent increase in revenue within the first year of adopting the solution. Book-a-Launch also gives York Launch Services a unique advantage when pitching to potential clients.
“We can now differentiate ourselves from competitors. There’s no need to get into a price war with this new angle,” says Mr Kieu who admits they are not the cheapest operator in the market because their fleet of 40-odd vessels are fitted with twin engines for better safety and reliability.
That’s not all however; the forward-thinking managing director hopes that digitalisation will start to attract more young talents to the fold.
While most of the industry is still engaged in manual processes, Mr Kieu insists that digitalising is crucial. “Technology usage is now a natural way of life. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes more common in our industry,” he says.
“We can choose to wait and watch other companies gain success with digitalisation, or we can be in the forefront as the first mover. The choice is obvious.”
The SMEs Go Digital programme is designed to make going digital simple for SMEs.
Under the programme, SMEs can gain access to a number of pre-approved digital solutions to take their businesses to the next level. There are pre-approved solutions for a range of sectors, including environmental services, food services, retail, security, wholesale trade and logistics. SMEs that adopt these solutions can receive funding support from the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG).
New SMEs can take up Start Digital Packs, which are offered by major banks and telcos in Singapore. They can choose 2 solutions from these categories: accounting, HR management system & payroll, digital marketing, digital transactions and cybersecurity.
Visit the SMEs Go Digital programme webpage for more information today.