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Building a Customer-Facing BlackBerry Application
By Jeff Goldman
Sykes Assistance Services, the Canadian division of Sykes Enterprises, provides white label roadside assistance for approximately 60 percent of all cars sold in Canada. "When you buy a new car, it comes with a comprehensive roadside program for the life of the new car warranty... and that's serviced by us," explains company director of client relations Drew Lidkea.

Lidkea says the idea of developing a customer-facing BlackBerry app came to him during a recent winter when the entire country was buried in snow. "As you can well imagine, our call volumes in the contact center were going through the roof, so I was trying to think of alternative ways for customers to get through to us to request service if they don't want to have to wait on the phone," he says.

And while some of the company's clients were in the process of developing vehicle telematics solutions to automate dispatching from the vehicle itself, Lidkea says it was a natural progression to look at doing something similar for smartphones. "We know that a large scale of the demographics that we service are all smartphone (if not all BlackBerry) users," he says.

At the time, Lidkea says, he was already in the process of building a web site that would allow customers to request assistance online -- so it seemed most logical simply to look for a way to mobilize that solution. He started, he says, by putting out an RFP seeking Java programmers to build an app. "Java programmers are not an inexpensive bunch, to say the least, so the pricing came back as pretty significant," he says.

While that wasn't necessarily a deal breaker, Lidkea says he happened to come across an announcement that Kryos Systems was adding GPS support to their offering. "It fit the bill for exactly what I was looking for -- we can use their Velocity platform, which takes our existing web application and, with minor tweaking and zero Java programming, ports it onto the app itself," he says.

The simplicity of Kryos' offering, Lidkea says, was a key selling point. "I was able to utilize our existing back end infrastructure and our back end web services that we had already built, so I didn't have to do any extra database programming or anything like that... and it was a fairly low cost solution relative to hiring programmers or outsourcing a full standalone app," he says.

Lidkea says another strength was the fact that Velocity works with all BlackBerry devices, and all versions of the operating system going back to 4.2. "It reads which device it is and which OS it is, and does the translation for us," he says. "I don't have to write 16 different apps, and then maintain 16 different apps... and that's a huge advantage."

Once a user has registered the manufacturer-branded app, the functionality is straightforward -- the user simply opens the app, then selects the type of service required. "We turn on their GPS in the background as soon as they turn the app on... and we collect where they are, what they need, who they are, and validate all of that -- and then it goes into our contact center," Lidkea says.

And once that information is received, notifications are forwarded to the customer telling them the ETA of the tow truck or service provider, and linking to a screen in the app that allows the customer to confirm the arrival of the truck.

Ultimately, Lidkea says, using Velocity rather than hiring programmers to build a standalone app probably saved Sykes as much as 50 percent in costs, and certainly sped up the deployment process -- the only thing that slowed down the release, he says, is the fact that it opened up so many options in terms of the functionality of the application itself that several business decisions had to be made.

The company is currently piloting the BlackBerry app internally, with the aim of launching a limited pilot with a single vehicle manufacturer over the summer, then releasing the solution across all brands in late summer or early fall. "For the manufacturers, this is a real new opportunity... a new touchpoint for them with their customers," Lidkea says.
 
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