Deploying a mobile solution for your field force can be a daunting challenge. But a few proven ideas have emerged. We talked to the experts and found 10 tactics that can help you increase your chances of success.
1. Understand User Needs
“We’ve just seen far too many implementations where someone back at headquarters decides ‘We’re going to mobilize our sales force’ and doesn’t get input or buy-in from [the users],” says Jim Ganthier, global director of enterprise mobility solutions for Hewlett-Packard. “What ends up happening is the deployment doesn’t work and the devices sent out to the field end up sitting there, gathering dust.” Eventually, he explains, the mobile workers simply revert to calling an administrator back at the home office and continuing to exchanging information manually.
Fortunately, this kind of failure is easily avoidable if you start with a thorough understanding of your users. A typical enterprise will have several types of mobile and wireless users, from executives who want access to e-mail and calendars, to a sales team that needs sales force automation with contact management and inventory or sales information, to a service force that may need a ruggedized device and remote diagnostic software.
“It’s important to understand how these people are doing their jobs,” says Wayne Fleming of Optimus Solutions, an IT services provider and member of IBM’s Start Now Wireless Solutions partner program. “What is the environment? How much information needs to be stored on the device, versus how much information can be retrieved from a central location? If you’re in a basement in a concrete building all day you’re probably not going to have very good connectivity, so you may need a device with a larger storage capacity. If you’re downtown working as a courier where you have good coverage, you can use a device that allows the information to be stored on the server.”
Experts advise that mobile systems’ managers invest the time to carefully profile their users to ascertain their device needs, the kinds of data they need to access and whether they’ll have reliable wireless connectivity.
“The standard systems analyst or industrial engineering credo is that the best person to help you redefine or come up with the absolute best system is probably the person who does it day-in and day-out,” Ganthier adds. “Your field force must be proxies for what your customers want. I’ll pick on mobile pharmaceutical sales. Doctors have very short time-attention windows—they’ve got patients they need to help. So what ends up happening [for salespeople] is they’ve got a very small window. When sitting in front of that doctor, the salesperson wants to know the latest information for each drug, when they’ll be available, pricing and probably what this particular doctor has done or has a propensity to do based on past sales.”
That’s good for the sales rep, good for the customer and, ultimately, good for your organization.
2. Ensure Field Force Buy-In
Including the field force in the decision-making process from the beginning is a good first step toward ensuring their ongoing support of the project over the long haul. Successful executives “recognize that it’s better to get workforce buy-in than to shove it down their throats,” notes Jacques Cormier, VP of software solutions at Astea.
Dena Shelley, a sales manager at Astea, thinks that while you may not be able to include every member of the team in the planning process, you should make sure they feel their point of view is being represented. “Get some of the technicians—the lead techs or ones that seem to be mentors to the other technicians—involved in the evaluation and selection process, so they kind of feel like they’re a part of the decision.”
Cormier concurs. “You can’t include a thousand techs in your evaluation, but those thousand techs will respect the opinion of five or 10 people who may have participated in the selection.”
Next, recognize employees who use technology to better serve their customers—whether that recognition is a financial reward or just an “attaboy” in the company newsletter. “In my experience, the technicians want to be recognized,” says Shelley. Technicians are constantly battling the stereotype they were hired to turn a wrench, when in fact most like to show up looking professional and know what they’re doing in the eyes of the customer. If the tools you provide make them look more knowledgeable and capable, they’ll appreciate and use the tools, Shelley says. That attitude will be conveyed to others in the organization. “You see your peers doing something that’s working well and being recognized; you want to do that, too.
3. Get–and Show–Executive Support
A survey conducted by Astea found that nearly one-third of field support personnel believe their technology lags behind the rest of the organization.
“There’s a real disconnect between what CEOs say and what field service perceives,” says Lynn Ledwith, VP of marketing at Astea. Field service people say they are being asked to do more with less and to find efficiencies through technology. Yet the Astea survey found a real lack of commitment when it came to the budget numbers.
Only 50 percent of the field service organizations in the survey had any budget to invest in technology. “So what type of real commitment is there?” asks Ledwith. “CEOs say they believe in technology, [but] they’re not putting their money where their mouth is.” She explains that Astea’s findings echo an AMR survey showing 76 percent of equipment companies’ revenues stem from the sale of equipment, with 24 percent coming from service.
Meanwhile, nearly 50 percent of the profit comes from the service organization. “Yet they’re only spending some 20 percent of their IT budgets to support the service operation,” says Ledwith. “In this kind of an economy, is that really a wise thing to do?”
At a time when new customers are hard to find, the value of retaining current customers increases. If it previously took five sales calls at $1,000 per call to secure a new account, today it could take 15 calls, resulting in an exponential increase in costs.
CEOs need to support their conviction with real technology investment, and if they have already done so, ensure that the investment is optimized.
4. Happy Techs = Happy Customers
Customer satisfaction and technician satisfaction go hand-in-hand, according to many experts.“Customers tend to develop a rapport with technicians that is unique from any other contact with your organization,” says Cormier. “Anybody else in your company may be seen from a more distant viewpoint, but they sometimes feel the technicians are almost part of their company rather than yours.”
Many businesses are leveraging the level of trust built between good service technicians and their customers to find new sales opportunities, empowering the service rep to also initiate sales for products such as supplies and upgrades. Mobile technology can help empower technicians to produce estimates, generate quotes, and even place orders. That not only adds to your bottom line, it increases the service rep’s sense of importance to your organization’s success.
“A technician who develops a rapport with the customer is also in the best place to find opportunities for more revenue,” Cormier notes. “He’s already inside the doors.”
5. Keep Information Secure
Security is a serious concern in the wireless sector. Due to the open and accessible transmission networks, unauthorized users have been known to hack into the network and access sensitive company data or even customer transaction information.
On the WWAN (wireless wide-area network, or cellular network) side, these issues were largely resolved when the networks transitioned from analog to digital, according to Bruce Gustafson, senior manager of global strategy, wireless networks for Nortel Networks. Today’s WWAN networks use secure digital encoding to identify and secure individual RF connections—as much to enforce validity in the billing system as to support user security.
On the WLAN front, today’s standards contain mechanisms to secure the connection. However, many complicated features are turned off by the manufacturer to ease installation. When fully enabled, these systems offer some level of protection, but are still vulnerable to dedicated hackers. Gustafson says new standards and third-party software should alleviate this concern soon.
Once traffic enters the public Internet, established wireline techniques such as VPNs (virtual private networks) are required to support tunnels back to private networks.
Of course, the best technology can fail if not used properly. “It’s important for enterprise IT managers to educate themselves and their end users on the appropriate ways to secure their network,” Gustafson says.
6. Use a Phased Approach
No amount of planning can anticipate every possible problem—or, for that matter, every possible opportunity. Most experts recommend a phased approach to rolling out a remote system, starting with a pilot.
“[A pilot] lets you start with an idea, get some level of validation and then tweak it to make it more efficient, more responsive or to give the sales or service team the right types of tools once you have their feedback,” says Ganthier. “If you’re the type to say to yourself ‘I sit in corporate, therefore I know what’s best in the field,’ I can tell you point-blank that less than 50 percent of those [projects] end up turning into massive deployments.”
But even before piloting, it’s vital to determine what you intend to automate. “Organizations need to take a step back to define their desired outcomes and how the level of mobility will improve the business and mission-critical applications,” says John P. Lymberopoulos, managing director of strategic development for Sprint’s Mobile Computing Services Group. “Mobile strategy must be based on defined business requirements and its impact on security management, data management, policies and procedures, fault management and performance management,” he adds.
“Reactively and/or tactically mobilizing a function of your business does not necessarily make you a mobile-enhanced, competitive enterprise,” he continues. “Just as in the 1990s, developing a Website did not establish you as an e-commerce company. The importance of deploying a mobile strategy based upon business requirements, ROI and, most importantly, total cost of ownership, will reap grand performance, customer service and growth rewards.”
In a hurry? Ganthier adds that a phased approach doesn’t necessarily add an inordinate amount of time and expense to the implementation. Some vendors offer a fixed-price deployment wherein you know exactly what you’re getting, how much it’s going to cost and how long it’s going to take.
7. Train, Train, Train
Like many technology applications, training can make or break a mobile project. Learning to work in a mobile environment, “you have to get used to working in a different culture,” says Optimus’ Wayne Fleming. “The things you’re going to do as a mobile worker aren’t nearly the same as those you’ll do while sitting behind a desk, or even a mobile worker in the past who had a laptop. More than a difference in the technology, it’s a cultural difference, a difference in the manner in which you’re going to go through your day.”
Fleming advises field forces to learn such nuances as the etiquette of instant messaging, or how to retrieve e-mail on a mobile device. Mobile workers also need to comprehend the boundaries of what a computing device can do for them. “It is the most important part of the education process. It’s not going to be as powerful as a desktop computer or access to a mainframe, but you should be able to get all the information you need just in time to do your job, whatever that job may be.”
Many different kinds of approaches can work, depending on individual circumstances. Many businesses designate a handful of technicians as early adopters, educate them and then set them up to formally disseminate knowledge to their colleagues. In other words, you should train the trainers. “Another thing is not to make them feel too overwhelmed,” advises Shelley. One approach she suggests is weaning them off their old habits by gradually introducing the new solution. “All they do the first week is record their time or record a certain amount of the information, then the next week they record a little bit more, and so on.”
8. Think Killer Enablement, Not Killer App
Don’t automatically assume that a killer app is the answer, says HP’s Ganthier. Think of “killer enablement” instead—a suite of offerings as opposed to a single magic bullet.
“If you think back to the mid to late ’80s, what really helped the PC to take off initially was a killer application,” Ganthier explains. Some people say it was spreadsheets, some people say it was word processing, but there were one or two applications that really helped the PC explode.
“In the mobility space there isn’t really one killer application,” he says. “What we’re finding is it’s a suite of applications or other items. I’ll give you a real-world example: Health inspectors go out to a particular restaurant and have to lug books of codes with them. They write everything for their inspection report by hand and then go back to their office and input the information into a computer system. Then, if it’s lucky, the restaurant receives a response explaining whether or not they passed in two weeks.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we gave them a bunch of mobile devices that had all the codes and everything else they needed? They could perform the inspection right there on the spot, and with a portable printer they’d have the capability of printing a passing grade so the owner could hang that on the wall and continue doing business within a 45-minute window as opposed to a two-week window.”
In essence, look for a suite of technologies that, when pulled together intelligently, can add high-octane productivity, efficiency and responsiveness to the workers in the field. Look for combinations of your CRM and ERP solutions to start.
9. Strike Up the Bandwidth
Determining the necessary bandwidth for wireless starts with understanding the size of each individual data object, according to Amit Bendov, senior VP of product marketing at ClickSoftware.
A sample service call, for example, might require three types of data:
1. Simple text fields require nominal bandwidth and can almost be unlimited.
2. Long text fields (e.g. customer history) can be sent reasonably fast, but usability is more important than bandwidth on devices with small screens.
3. Transmitting graphic objects is where the quantum leap comes, requiring 10 times the transmission time of text. On the other hand, a picture tells a thousand words. Evaluate how much additional information a picture provides and how frequently it’s used.
In fact, how much of the data will be used is a general guideline to determine what should be transmitted to a mobile tech. “When bandwidth, transfer rate and coverage are all precious, information that is used only 20 percent of the time may not be worth it,” Bendov explains. “The cost of transference is still high, but the real cost is the downtime for the service workforce.”
Also consider how frequently different datasets must be transferred. Many managers envision doing everything wirelessly from the start. This is a long-term goal. First consider how much information you could be transferring and how long a technician may be waiting for it. In addition to the cost of data transfer, the big issue is the 30 minutes lost per day—enough time for another service call.
Gathering and uploading data at the point of service can provide additional value, but there is a difference in the value it provides. In addition to the transferal of the information, consider what you do with it.
“This isn’t to say that transferring information wirelessly isn’t worth it. What we’re saying is this technology—with its current limitations in terms of bandwidth, transfer rate and coverage—requires great discretion in terms of what information to send, and the frequency of updating the information,” Bendov concludes. “Not all information must be treated the same. Evaluate the value of transferring information based on how it helps make better and more effective decisions in the field.”
10. Keep ’em Covered
There is not much point in deploying a mobile solution if the workforce is unable to stay in touch because there’s no signal. You need to continually look at the availability of coverage in the areas where your field force operates.
Stay open to options, Ganthier suggests. While wireless is sexy and may be vital for some applications, he recommends embracing the principal that not everything has to be wirelessly connected. Sync mode is still a very viable solution for most road warriors.
“You don’t always need wireless coverage,” he says. “One of our most successful deployments is a company out of Mexico City. There are literally thousands of salespeople, on foot, on bicycles, on small motorcycles, who have Pocket PCs. They go around and do sales or collections, and once they’ve collected [money], they enter the information in the Pocket PC. When they get back to the office, they put the device in the cradle and it goes into sync mode—inventories are updated, credit reports are updated, the whole nine yards. They don’t have wireless deployment, but you know what? That implementation has helped them increase their inventory turns, helped them increase their collectibles and most importantly, given them a real technology-based differentiation from their competitors.”
Larry Tuck, former editor-in-chief of CRM Magazine, is based in Southern California.