Boiler manufacturer Ideal has the worst of both worlds when it comes to marketing its products. It sells complex, technical systems which require a great deal of pre- and post-sales support and a high level of two-way communication with its customer base.
Yet that customer base is fragmented: with about 40,000 firms in the UK employing 90,000 qualified installers, most of whom work as sole traders or two-person partnerships. With each of those small businesses typically placing just 30 boilers a year, a traditional field sales force is uneconomical.
Even worse, Ideal's smaller customers most often need rapid access to detailed information when they are away from their base office. On the plus side, a mobile phone is already a key work tool for the majority of installers. So when Wap phones came along, Ideal seized the chance to explore this communication channel by developing a Wap-based heating information service which customers could access at any time or place.
Ideal has traditionally served the small installers through a network of plumbing merchants, with whom it has developed good relationships. Communication through these merchants to installers was primarily via paper-based materials, but this approach does not provide the two-way communication about products that customers need. Ideal knew that if it could find a way to deliver the information small installers needed, it would gain a significant advantage over its rivals.
Electronic distribution through CD-Roms and the Internet has proved successful in other sectors, but research had shown that Ideal's elusive target customer would only use a PC occasionally. However, almost all installers carry a mobile phone, especially on the occasions when they are most likely to need information: when at a customer's house quoting for a job or when installing the heating system.
So Ideal seized on the appearance of Wap phones - which held out the promise of delivering information through a cut-down Web browser - as a technology worth investigating.
Ideal began looking at providing Wap-based services in spring 1999 and, working with BT Cellnet as its technology partner, piloted a live service with a small number of installers in July 1999. Altogether, the project cost of about £130,000 by the time it was ready for national roll-out in September last year.
A key task during the pilot phase was to identify which information it would be most appropriate to deliver through the Wap service. As a result, Ideal has included details of each boiler's dimensions, a number of installation fault-finding aids, spare part numbers, a flue length guide and a radiator-sizing tool. Ideal also teamed up with online directory Improveline. com to provide heating leads to installers who use the Wap service.
Thanks to this project, Ideal is now one of the leading users of m-commerce technologies and is well positioned to move forward with m-commerce developments in the future. More importantly, it established a direct communications channel with its customer base.