Driving businesses to a mobile future

25 Nov 2003

The majority of Irish companies use mobile phones and devices, but Irish businesses that have come up with cohesive strategies to empower workers in the field or in the workplace through defined sets of information are few and far between.

The CEO of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland, John Dunne (pictured), last week told siliconrepublic.com’s conference on mobility issues, Driving the Digital Society, that there is room for innovation in getting Irish companies to make the most out of growing prevalence of mobile phones in the workplace and the home.

“This year is the first year that mobile communications have overtaken fixed-line communications in Ireland, but there are international trends that must be observed. In Finland, only 25pc of the population have fixed line, the rest now have mobile communications. In Latin America, people are going directly to mobile because it is easier to install than fixed line. In Ireland, 94pc of the small to medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] we surveyed use mobile devices. The most surprising aspect of this to me is I don’t know how the remaining 6pc are surviving if they are not using it,” he said.

Dunne argued that text messaging is one of the most underused technology resources that exist in business right now and that new forms of payment technology enabled by mobile phones, such as paying for parking tickets by phone, are the way forward. “The killer app in using new technology will be ASP [application service provider] and we are already seeing customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning being delivered over mobile devices and that’s going to be a great enabler and a leveller for SMEs in the future,” Dunne said. He pointed to important international shifts in the telecoms world and called for greater price transparency from local mobile operators. “I know it’s a complicated game, but mobile pricing in Ireland is the least transparent I know. There are important changes afoot. Eircom is rumoured to be coming back into mobile market.”

Vodafone Ireland’s CEO Paul Donovan confirmed that 60pc of phone customers in Ireland are now using mobile devices. Quoting research from the Commission for Communication Regulation, he said that revenues in the mobile market earlier this year were 46pc of telecoms market revenues in Ireland and that this figure should only increase. “Mobile is fast becoming the largest segment of the Irish telecoms market with 60pc of telecom customers being mobile customers and almost 50pc of telecoms revenues coming from the mobile market,” Donovan said.

He added that Ireland, with 84pc mobile penetration of the population, was one of the most mobile societies in Europe. Ireland, he said, was one of the highest text users per capita in the world and that voice usage on the Vodafone network in Ireland was 40pc higher than the European average. “There are now 100,000 users of Vodafone Live! handsets in Ireland that is a huge adoption and we anticipate a massive upsurge in the uptake of data services,” he said. Donovan went on to say that by the end of 2005, 30pc of the company’s customers in Ireland will have multimedia messaging service (MMS)-enabled phones.

Indicating a growing desire amongst business customers to reduce telephony costs, Donovan said: “Telecoms expenditure is a luxury that must be driven down at all costs and business managers want to see a return on investment from the appropriate technologies. There needs to be a major shift in telecoms and IT spend towards wireless.”

Donovan introduced Gerard Ryan, IT and training director of Galway-based Acorn Life. Ryan said that his company was unique in its business in Ireland in that it employed a direct sales model. “With 200 sales people working remotely nationwide, our business largely depends on how these agents are doing,” he said.

Ryan explained that Acorn Life invested €2m in new systems and laptops for its mobile workforce two years ago to improve field performance and overall sales. “This meant that agents were able to visit customers, provide quotations, tell them about products and get a sale,” he said.

However, Ryan recalled, because the sales force was relying on fixed-line remote dial-up, it meant that often they had to wait until they got home before dialling in and updating orders. “Also, it meant that they couldn’t interact instantly with our systems and give customers real-time quotations that created great frustration among customers and sales people alike … The problem wasn’t one of functionality, the IT was fine. It was a problem of access. We needed something that was mobile and allowed workers to access customer information,” he said.

Ryan was aware of technology trends in the mobile arena whereby laptops could be connected remotely and wirelessly to the internet using GPRS network cards. “Our feeling was we probably shouldn’t do it because not enough people in Ireland are doing it. But we realised ‘this is the best solution for us’ … After a period of talking to a number of mobile suppliers, we elected to go with Vodafone’s GPRS card solution in association with LAN Communications.

“The reliability question was quickly overcome. Sales people can go online quickly anywhere and we know how quickly our sales agents are generating new business. Our information that is critical to us as a business is certainly secure. We managed that by installing a private VPN [virtual private network] that hooks into the GPRS network.

“It proved to be a logical and essential step to take for any business dependent on a mobile team. Sales agents spend less time in the office and more time with customers. Our clients are better informed to make an instant purchase decision and that results in more sales. Our sales team know that if they can close a sale on the first visit, they have a much higher rate of return than if they were to try and do it over two or three visits,” Ryan concluded.

By John Kennedy