Working in the field

24 Apr 2003

Leaving aside voice and data communications, the mobile networks are able to offer companies the opportunity to do things that were quite simply impossible a few years ago or at least too expensive.

Sales force automation, fleet monitoring and remote security are just some of the applications that mobile networks are finding.

“In the areas of sales force automation and field service automation companies are seeing rapid return on investment and improvements to their business processes,” says Liz Caughey, partner programme manager at O2 Ireland. “Sales reps on the road normally have to phone the office to check stock availability. This takes up the rep’s time and also that of administration staff. In addition, orders are captured on paper, which are then faxed or posted back to the office where administration staff workers are required to re-key the data into the sales order processing system.

“It is now possible with O2’s network and ability to deliver the right solutions,” she continues “to remove paperwork from the field rep’s activities, provide real-time information to the rep on the road and eliminate duplicate data entry.”

As Darragh Fitzgerald Selby, field sales manager for Vodafone, points out much of this type of work involves bespoke development. In such cases Vodafone works with third party developers to meet clients’ needs. “Our expertise is not in software development,” he explains. “What we bring is a strong relationship with third party developers. We can support, work with and bed down applications for the customer and we will recommend a software developer so that the customer doesn’t have to go searching for one.”

Fitzgerald Selby describes one project on behalf of a client with a legacy application designed around works management where jobs get sent out to field engineers. “We introduced the client to a provider of remote access servers (RAS). All the field engineers were issued laptops with built-in GSM SIM cards.”

According to Fitzgerald Selby, there is a risk of calls dropping while an engineer moves around. While this may not be an issue with voice calls — you simply redial and continue the conversation — it can be problematic with data calls. In such cases, the RAS is able to spoof the application into thinking the connection is continuous until the link is re-established.

Vodafone is also looking at the possibility of electronic signature capture. “We are working with HP on this,” explains Fitzgerald Selby. “It has designed an application that runs on a Pocket PC connected to base by mobile network. When the delivery guy delivers a package he scans its barcode and the details come up on the PDA [personal digital assistant]. The customer signs on the PDA, the driver gets back in the van and puts the PDA in its cradle. A connection is established back to head office where the signature is recognised and the billing cycle is started. There is no further requirement for the driver to submit paperwork.”

Fleet management is another area where mobile networks can contribute. Mobile Planet works with O2 to provide such a service to hauliers and courier companies. Each fleet vehicle is fitted with a box containing a global positioning system (GPS) device and a GSM/GPRS communications device. The GPS system tracks the vehicle and records the data, which can be downloaded in a batch when the vehicle returns to base or over the mobile network. Fleet managers can tell where their vehicles are at a given time and can log where a vehicle has been and at what time, which can be useful if a manager needs to prove that a vehicle was at a pick-up or drop-off point at an appointed time.

“System failures, stock levels and fault information arriving too late can have disastrous financial consequences for business,” says Caughey. “We have solutions that enable clients to monitor temperature levels in remote refrigeration units, monitor and report on stock levels in remote vending machines, alerting facilities for machine faults intrusions or power failures.”

In addition to remote monitoring and telemetry, wireless networks can provide enhanced levels of security as a backup, or indeed alternative, to fixed line solutions. According to Caughey, companies can save money by reducing the number of callouts, patrol frequency and the number of security personnel needed.

The power of SMS (short messaging service) can be harnessed to further a company’s marketing goals. O2 offers SMS broker, a powerful tool for organising marketing campaigns based on text messaging. These can take the form of pull campaigns (where people are invited to send text messages to a particular number), push campaigns (where consumers sign up for text messages related to products or services they are interested in) and voting campaigns such as those used with TV programmes Big Brother or You’re A Star, both of which were supported by O2.

By David Stewart