Suppliers latch on to mobile possibilities

You would no doubt be very keen for your company’s representatives to be equipped with technology that allowed them links back to...

New Asset  
You would no doubt be very keen for your company’s representatives to be equipped with technology that allowed them links back to your customer information database. However, despite the fact that, technically, this scenario is possible, is it right for your business? Gary Flood reports.

 

In the era of the mobile phone, the laptop, the personal digital assistant (PDA), specialised communications devices for the enterprise such as the Blackberry and now the WiFi ‘hotspot’, it seems the needs of mobile computer users are well catered for. Plainly, there are many devices and oodles of bandwidth out there for companies to use, so why shouldn’t we be as wireless as possible?

The reality is that not all of these solutions are as cheap, or easy to implement, as they first appear. This is especially true for business of your size and type, where budgets always need to be watched hawkishly even at the best of times. And this comes into even sharper focus when the issue is a mobile solution for customer management.

The idea behind mobile solutions is simple – and appealing. The guys who come to install that new Sky+ box you’ve bought use handhelds to read information about you and your account before they link you up (or trample your rosebushes installing the dish).

Wouldn’t it be good if your company’s representatives (be they buyers, salesmen or engineers) were equally well equipped with technology that allowed them links back to the main database of your company at all times? Of course – but until recently such a solution would probably have been out of the reach of your company and most smaller companies. Now a range of mobile offerings are coming on stream that may help bridge that gap. It’s a gap most of us will recognise as needing filling, claims John Coulthard, head of small business at Microsoft UK. “No one wants to have to get back to the office just to check on something before you go in to see the client. It’s a much better use of your time to stand outside and check if there are any recent emails associated with this customer just before you go in, or log on to their office to process the order at once,” he says.

Integrated functionality

Microsoft last month launched an aggressively priced solution in this very space. For £70 a seat, users of the new Small Business Server are being offered an add-on which offers mobile access to Outlook and Exchange, with a firewall and SQL Server-enabled version available at double the price. “Before, companies had to assemble all the bits and pieces, to deal with all the forms of mobility users want, such as smart phones, PDAs, and now WiFi. This package offers small businesses a way to integrate all that functionality without doing any integration,” says Coulthard.

Not to be outdone, IBM has launched its own new offering to tempt you onto the mobile customer management route. This ‘start kit’ version is based on IBM’s WebSphere Connect Manager middleware and offers a wireless LAN based around five access points in your office or warehouse and a virtual private network (VPN) for safe communications for an SME of 30 users, according to Peter Mettler, its European Sales Manager for Wireless E-business. The entry level price is £16,000 “This will be an ideal platform on which an SME can deploy either sales or field force automation software, or to at least start down the customer management route through access to company emails wherever staff are,” he says.

System selection should not be based totally on the price tag; you should also consider how much you feel you need (or want) to look after these systems yourself, as it is entirely possible that your business may not have the internal IT resource to adequately manage a new fleet of devices and remote workers, let alone new (or extended) applications like customer management.

This is where partners, in the form of either your existing value added reseller or perhaps a new hosted supplier, may be a better option, says Amy Ariel, vice president of marketing for a US-Israeli specialist in the mobile applications field, Orsus. She sees the current market split into mobile field service applications and an emerging trend in mobile CRM solutions.

New functionality
In either case it may be worth you talking with your existing communications suppliers, as they may be only too willing to offer to add new functionality on to your package.

One recent example of this is Hewlett Packard’s link up with Microsoft and Vodafone to launch ConnectAnywhere. This service provides companies with 10-500 employees real-time connectivity to their company’s server from a variety of mobile devices. The service costs from £2 a day inclusive of airtime, all equipment and related services (based on a 40-user system, including airtime and data volumes of 10 Mbytes per month). “A hosted solution can end up costing only a few pounds a month, with someone else providing all the equipment and network infrastructure for you,” Ariel says.

At the same time, a variety of routes to mobile customer management are open. You may want to look at the mobile-enabled versions of the main CRM packages of either a Siebel or a more mobile-oriented supplier, such as Pivotal. You could work with a value added reseller (VAR), which will want to use the base technology of a company like an Orsus or an iAnywhere to deploy a package like a Salesforce.com. Or you may engage on a carrier-supplied offering like ConnectAnywhere or similar offerings from companies such as BT and O2.

At the same time technology suppliers, for example SAP, are linking with makers of specialist handhelds – in SAP’s case Sharp – to offer solutions for mobile applications used in the warehouse and beyond. Given the renewed interest in your type of business from the big CRM technology suppliers, a raft of new mobile products and applications will be available for you to evaluate.

“The maturation of technologies like GPRS and soon 3G, as well as WiFi, mean that now is a good time for a pilot mobile customer management solution. It’s no longer bleeding-edge technology and the smaller firm can usually take advantage of the fact that it’s been tested out in larger environments,” says Ariel.

Another option is for you to investigate is a mobile email specialist like Blackberry. There are some intriguing positives suggested for this approach – the company cites data from US market research that suggests that employees can claw back 53 minutes of work time a day by being able to send and receive emails on the move. You should realise though that mobile customer management will always be more than just about dealing with email; it may be better to see such an application as a way to extend systems like accounting and marketing out to your sales force, for example.

Rational approach

One example of a company taking a rational approach to the subject of mobile solutions is Cosalt, a UK supplier of safety and protective clothing for the maritime market. The 130-year-old Grimsby-based firm has recently added contact management and thin-client based remote connectivity to its national workforce, explains IT manager Jason Belcher. Cosalt is moving toward a full CRM system, but as yet sees no need for a mobile solution. But he adds: “I can see how we would want to move to that once we have this bedded down. It would be very useful for information to be two or three clicks away even if you’re out on the North Sea visiting a client.”

But as with all projects, the first step has to be to ensure the system is fully tied in to business goals. “We’d always recommend pilots, where you identify some key deliverables that can be used to build on for more success,” says Orsus’s Ariel. “The number-one reason for systems’ failure in this field is lack of user acceptance of this new way of working, so do a test first before going for anything like a dedicated vertical solution.”

The conclusion is clear: mobile customer management may be both nearer, and less expensive, than you first thought.


Useful web links

Orsus: Its main website is www.orsus.com, but go to www.orsus.com/pdf/-mobilesolutions_5 keyfactorsWP.pdf for an interesting white paper called ‘Selecting an Enterprise Mobile Solution: Five Key Factors to Consider When Choosing Software’

Microsoft: www.bcentral.co.uk
IBM: www.ibm.com/wireless
BT: www.insightexec.com

Case study – Baxa

One firm that has recently successfully turned to a mobile customer management system is Ascot-based medical supplies specialist Baxa (www.baxa.com).

The company is the European end of a large US company, but isn’t using its parent’s infrastructure to manage its local operations, according to Jonathan Boldero, its European sales and marketing director.

The company supplies a range of medical devices into hospital pharmacy departments and has 27 staff at its main office, three other mobile users in the UK plus four wireless users in Denmark, two of which travel elsewhere in Europe, says Boldero.

“We have effectively three bases we need to keep connected,” he says. To keep what he calls that communication ‘spine’ in place Baxa has installed a CRM package, called Prospect from a company called ProspectSoft, running on Sybase subsidiary iAnywhere’s platform.

“This means no employee is accessing any data older than one hour,” he says. All significant conversations with customers are recorded, offering sales staff on the road a summary sales ledger of all transactions with the relevant client and even a company-wide complaints system. The emphasis is on making sure the mobile worker has the information he needs, but Boldero says he didn’t need to make a huge investment to get there.

“As a small company we can’t offer the five-star level of service we need to without this kind of capability,” he adds.

Click here for SME supplement homepage Part Two >>

Click here for SME supplement homepage Part One >>

Click here for Part Two of the SME supplement >>

BT SME Month >>

Read more on IT strategy

SearchCIO
SearchSecurity
SearchNetworking
SearchDataCenter
SearchDataManagement
Close