Our sales staff need timely customer data

How to equip a mobile salesforce with cost-effective real-time information

New Asset  
I am a sales director of a small manufacturing company. I would like each of our 10 travelling sales representatives to have access to "real-time" customer data while on the road. Is there a cost-effective way of doing this via mobile devices?




Work out exactly what functionality you need

There are a number of ways of doing this, ranging from creative use of your existing technology without any further capital outlay, to the purchase of a fully integrated salesforce management system. For most businesses, the answer will fall somewhere between the two extremes.

The best approach to finding the right product for you is to consider, first, what particular business improvements you wish to achieve with the new system.

You might be looking to reduce costs and increase efficiency by cutting the amount of time your salespeople need to spend in the office. You might want to simplify the administrative process. Or your main goal may be to increase sales by making sure your people always have the latest information in front of them when they are with a customer.

Second, think about the logistics of what information your sales team will need to access - in particular, how much data they will need and how often they will need to access it.

If, for example, they only need to see simple customer information - contact names or recent orders on a daily basis, the most cost-effective solution may be to have an office-based administrator processing and providing it via simple technologies such ase-mail-enabled mobile phones or personal digital assistants, text messages and voicemail.

If their demands for data are greater or more regular, and you want to substantially reduce the need for trips into the office, consider issuing laptops with web and systems access via GPRS (basically a dial-up service over a mobile phone network) or public wireless Lans (a broadband-style service available at specific locations such as service stations).

Cost-effectiveness is as much about affordability as basic price, so consider whether you can wrap the upfront costs of hardware and applications into ongoing costs. This way, a tailored off-the-shelf salesforce system could cost less than £50 per user per month, depending on the length of the contract.

In short, there is no reason to be daunted by implementing a system like this. Choose a supplier or partner you are confident can deliver on both the mobile and the fixed elements of the system and on integrating the two, and in no time your sales team will be wondering how they ever managed without it.

Mick Hegarty, general manager, ICT, BT Business


Beware wireless products that are location-dependent

The ability to access real-time data on the main network will depend enormously on where the salespeople are working when they need it. This is because there are a number of technologies available and not all will be available in all places.Wi-Fi hotspots, for example, will offer good performance but limited availability.

3G networks are ideal where salespeople are travelling in areas such as the Thames corridor, but if they are going further afield, you may have to resort to a Bluetooth connection between the laptop and a GSM mobile phone. And even that will not cover the whole of the UK.

If they need to travel outside the UK, you may need a range of solutions, which will increase the ongoing support overhead.

The next issue is the amount of data that needs to be pushed down the line to the salesperson. The proposed solutions will not provide the same bandwidth as you have in the main office, so the application should be written and work accordingly. This may mean developing a client-server or web browser application.

And remember, once they have access to real-time data, they may want support at any time of the day to get access to it.

Trevor Lucas, managing director, TAL Computer Services


Real-time data needs an internet connection

Real-time customer data can be provided via a web portal or a virtual private network (VPN) connection to the company's network. Both need an internet connection.

But if "real-time" data is not essential, then downloading it several times a day might be enough and more cost-effective.

A number of technologies deliver mobile internet connectivity, but subscription to a service provider is usually required. With a mobile phone system, GPRS is the most common product, providing a theoretical 56kbps - equivalent to a landline modem.

The latest technology is 3G, which can provide a downlink speed of 384kbps and a uplink speed of 64kbps. But 3G is not available in all areas and will fall back to GPRS.

An alternative is Wi-Fi, which is available at increasing number of public hotspots. Most use 802.11b, which runs at 11mbps, although this depends on signal strength. A less common alternative is Bluetooth, which connects at 723kbps.

Mobile devices range from internet-enabled phones and dedicated e-mail/web client devices to PDAs and micro/mini laptops with VPN access. Connectivity will either be built in or come via a plug-in card.

Mike Hudd, technical director, Netcel


System flexibility will bring you handsome returns

The challenge is getting real-time data. Most firms do not do real-time, but set a one- or two-hour standard so that data is no more than a few hours out of date.

First, review what information is necessary and how often it changes - that will determine the type of device you need. A mobile phone is the most likely device; ask for one with Bluetooth and GPRS. Your mobile supplier can explain these terms in detail.

You then need devices to input and review the information. You will also need to put the vital information in one place where it can be downloaded by the mobile devices and accessed by the salesforce and the office team. This bit is more complicated but a good supplier will be able to help you.

It is worth keeping the system as flexible as possible. Set it up properly and you will be able to do e-mail on the move, share contacts and set up meetings, making for a glowing return on investment.

John Coulthard, head of small business, Microsoft


Deal with three key issues for a mobile phone strategy

My recommendation would be to roll out a Windows CE-enabled mobile phone, such as a GPRS or 3G device. Such devices can access data across a secure VPN in real-time. Key issues are:

  • The user interface. Typically it is small, so consider screen resolution and keyboard size
  • The application interface. Check that the interface fits the device screen
  • The application performance for the field salespeople. Will it be too slow?

Mike Lucas, regional technology manager, Compuware

Got a question?

E-mail your SME Focus strategy clinic questions to Computer Weekly. Please put "SME strategy clinic" in the subject line.

[email protected]


BT Business








TAL Computer Services


Read more on IT strategy