Inside the armoury of a road warrior


16 Mar 2006

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“Work isn’t somewhere you go; it’s something you do.” This maxim is becoming increasingly relevant as advances in broadband technology enable workers to skip the traffic jams on their way to the office and work from home or on the road. Remote access technology can significantly alter the way firms operate, offering greater flexibility and enhancing the productivity and happiness of on-the-road sales people.

At least that’s the theory. Not everybody has read the manual. “You’d be surprised how many firms still have email being sent to a specific mailbox,” says Chris Handley, head of business products at Vodafone.

Despite such a proclamation, adoption of mobile strategies and the technologies to make them work is growing at pace in Ireland. Companies relying on proactive sales strategies in particular can save time, money and hassle with a well thought-out, clear communications strategy.

Tim Murphy, managing director of Strencom, believes salespeople can save 25pc of their working time by using laptops or PDAs to access and update information from the company’s customer relationship management (CRM) system. “It reduces the administration work salespeople have to do,” he claims.

Orlagh Nevin, head of business services at O2, outlines how SMEs are using the current crop of technologies. “You are looking at three things: the type of devices they’re using; the type of connection they’re using; and the applications they’re using.”

The mobile devices are typically laptops and PDAs. Connections vary from traditional ‘plug ’em in’ internet connections to wireless GPRS and 3G. According to Nevin, the applications distributed workers are getting the most advanced benefit from centre on CRM functionality, particularly sales force automation and automated service engineers. Still first among applications, however, is the humble email.

“At the moment email is a big operation so BlackBerry is one of our biggest sellers as a remote working tool; then you would have data cards and Xdas because data cards can be used with laptops and there’s a huge laptop market out there who want to have that mobility. The great thing with a BlackBerry is you don’t have to request your emails, they arrive as they come in. With a laptop you have to power up and log on. A lot of people will have both.”

“The most important application for SMEs is still email,” agrees Murphy. “With something like a BlackBerry you can receive all your emails on the road; that’s the most widely used application out there.”

“Order inquiry and sales force management are the two biggest applications in addition to email,” adds Handley. “Salespeople use it for order and purchasing inquiries, sales force tools — such as Salesforce.com — and CRM-type applications.”

Sales is not the only department that derives pleasure from the deployment of these devices. Service engineers are another group that benefit, says Nevin.

“Automated service engineer applications ensure engineers are in the right place at the right time with the right tools to fix the right equipment,” she says. “They allow a company to plan an engineer’s route and also the spare parts, tools and information they get for that day’s jobs.”

Apart from planning, it also helps with billing. “If an engineer goes out to a company to fix a photocopier, they know when the job has been completed and the bill can go immediately. The engineer can then go on to the next job,” says Nevin. “If he has a PDA he can get a signature from the customer saying ‘job completed’ or ‘cost accepted’. That will get transmitted across via GPRS or 3G and then the customer’s account is updated in the database and billing can be done immediately.”

With the right service provider SMEs can have it set up so that billing is sent out automatically once the customer’s signature is obtained by the engineer. “It depends on the back-end system,” explains Nevin, “but a lot of companies would have an end-of-day trigger to accept the automated cycle and post out, or else they might do it manually.”

Integration of the communications technology with the company’s CRM software is where the real time-savings can be made. “Once you have access to the internet it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the office, at home or in a wireless hotspot, or what type of connection you have, you can browse your CRM system live,” remarks Murphy.

Instead of an engineer or salesperson sending back information which must then be updated by somebody else into the database, many devices now offer front-end use for the remote worker. Not only can engineers access the client’s information, they can also make changes to it which will automatically update on the main system without the need for an office-based intermediary or without them having to traipse back to the office after a day of sales to input the information themselves.

“We’re seeing companies using PDAs for ordering, whereby you have a rep calling around and taking an order from a customer there and then,” says Murphy. “The rep can then go back to his car and connect using GPRS or 3G and the order gets automatically pushed up to the ordering system. In most cases it’s shipped the same day and the customer will have it the next morning.”

CRM access also allows reps to make decisions about who to call to and what orders to take. “The last order the client made can be seen and possibly some of their updated credit details. If their account is not in credit the rep can decide not to visit that client today.”

The process allows reps to decide who to try to sell to, based on accessible past sales history, and also what and when to try to sell. As Handley explains, reps can access the company’s database to see what’s in stock and therefore make clear-cut promises to the client about availability and delivery of items.

“Somebody on the road selling widgets can query how many widgets are in stock, can place an order for a widget and confirm that order has been received in a matter of seconds,” he says.

The customer benefits directly as well when consulting with a rep. “The rep can update the status of an order for a customer: if the customer calls them and asks, ‘Has my widget arrived yet?’, they can track the shipment and tell the customer when the product will be delivered with a high degree of certainty and without relying on somebody in the back-end to look that up for them.”

Another advantage Murphy points out is it actually reduces communications costs. “The rep isn’t coming out with a piece of paper and ringing the office in Dublin or wherever, or is not faxing it through to them. It cuts down hugely on the cost of inputting an order for a company. It also cuts down on mistakes because if you get a fax in from a rep for an order, the handwriting mightn’t be great or the fax quality might make it difficult to read and wrong orders ensue.”

Cutting down on phoning and faxing saves reps time, which could be used more productively, according to Murphy.

The cost of a one-man office

While the benefits are clear, rolling out these projects can seem daunting for SMEs. The first thing to realise is the cost isn’t prohibitive, says Murphy.

“Smaller companies can now compete better with their larger counterparts with this technology. With some of these applications you can have a one-man office for perhaps €80-€120.” The cost for bigger SMEs can rise to just a few thousand.

Handley says companies that plan mobile strategies from the off are more likely to do it well. “The biggest indicator to judge whether a company will be successful in rolling this out or not is if they have developed a mobile strategy. Some companies deploy this technology as an afterthought; they’ll make all the architectural decisions regarding the company networks and what types of solutions they want to provide to their employees, and then later they’ll say, ‘It’d be great to have mobile access to that as well.’

“That’s not to say companies can’t enjoy the benefits of mobility even if it wasn’t planned for; it’s just more likely they’ll run a backup system that doesn’t support that type of access.”

Rollout of this type is best accomplished in a staggered manner, suggests Nevin. “If somebody had 50 to 200 people in their mobile workforce we’d initially go with a 10-user trial for perhaps a month or two to get feedback on what were the processes that need change, what were the obstacles, what did the user find worked, did they need screens changed and so on. Once we’ve captured this information for the 10 people, we’d implement a rollout process. For 50 users we’d have that in place within a couple of months.”

The logic is to get high-profile people in the company to buy into the concept. “What you want is advocates within the business,” she says. “People who say, ‘Yeah, it’s great. I’m using it. It does exactly what it says on the tin.'”

Murphy recommends companies identify what they want from their mobile strategy. “Managers have to ask a few questions: Firstly, what applications do they want to give out to their workforce? The obvious one is email and the next would normally be access to CRM.

“Secondly, what applications can the service provider give us? The client is not always aware of what else may be available and affordable, for example intranet, voice over IP and videoconferencing.

“Thirdly, how do I roll it out? A rollout plan doesn’t have to be a 20-page document; it can be a one-page road map on where they want to be in a year’s time.”

Smart hardware

Laptops are still the most common form of remote networking device, although handheld PDAs are getting a grip on the market.

“Laptops are still the most common,” says Handley. “More companies are buying laptops than desktops. That flexibility is already being ingrained in the company.

“We are also seeing a very steady and predictable increase in the number of PDAs out there. BlackBerrys, pocket PCs and smart phones. In the SME segment, that penetration is increasing faster than in other segments.”

Nevin adds: “Initially from a comfort zone people may go for a laptop with a GPRS or 3G card. That allows them from an implementation point of view to use the same system they would back in the office.”

With 3G data cards, laptop owners can access the new high-speed network without forking out for another mobile handset; they just plug the card into the laptop to roam. Where there is no 3G coverage, it will automatically revert to GPRS.

“The great thing about these applications is you can have some people using PDAs, some people using laptops, some people using other mobile devices but it all depends on what they’re comfortable with and what they need,” Nevin explains.

Murphy concurs that most companies would have an element of PDAs in them, be they BlackBerry, Palm, Pocket PCs or other mobile devices. “It may be that the principal in the company has one and uses it for email only, which may not be using it to its full potential, but in most companies there would be an element.”

Making those connections

The type of connections SMEs choose to facilitate this kind of networking can vary from company to company. According to Nevin, standard GPRS is acceptable for most types of work. “With a lot of these applications you’re dealing with small bursts of information; it doesn’t need a huge bandwidth.”

Handley disagrees, stipulating that 3G is the only way forward for SMEs. “To use a VPN [virtual private network], because of the bandwidth requirement, you really do need something along the lines of 3G in terms of bandwidth available.

“VPNs have been there for a while and there were some customers who tried to deploy them with a 2G or GPRS network and just found they were encountering time-outs. It was an unacceptable experience. Since we’ve deployed the 3G network that has changed radically and we’ve seen a huge uptake in terms of the number of cards deployed in exactly that type of functionality. About 384Kbps is sufficient to support adequate VPN connections.”

Vodafone plans on rolling out HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access) within the next year, which will operate at speeds of 1.2Mbps. “The future plan is to deploy HSDPA, which is the next evolution of 3G and will initially provide speeds that are three to four times faster than 3G and within a year of deployment will be seven to 12 times faster,” concludes Handley.

By Niall Byrne