When David Schmersahl, director of business development for Arch Wireless, was looking for ways to improve his company’s bottom line, he decided to practice what Arch preaches. The Westborough, Mass.-based Internet messaging and mobile information company enables clients to operate more efficiently using pagers and other mobile devices. Yet the company’s 1,600-member sales force continued to operate under a paper-based system fraught with errors.
Owing to Arch’s numerous products, multiple service options and high sales volume, placing orders was time consuming and expensive. Salespeople would either phone in orders to a call center or write them down and enter the information into a computer once they returned to the office. This process often produced errors, causing the billing system to reject more than 10 percent of orders. Rejected orders forced service people, sales representatives and customers into a reverification cycle that cost even more time and money.
Faced with mounting competition from the likes of Metrocall, SkyTel and Verizon, Schmersahl bet that the answer was allowing the sales team to interact with customer information and enter orders while on the go.
That bet paid off, but not without facing a few hurdles. For instance, Arch had to overcome the problem of getting existing data ready for display on screen-and-bandwidth-limited mobile devices. Fortunately, companies today have a variety of options for how to do that.
The techniques for transforming mobile data vary widely in complexity and cost. Companies simply looking to relay text or existing Web-based information to mobile workers, for example, could choose a wireless application service provider (WASP), such as Aether Systems or 724 Solutions. These companies use transcoders (also called Web scrapers) to skim the basic information from a website and make it accessible on a wireless device.
If a company plans to move beyond basic information sharing, however, a WASP probably isn’t the answer. Updating databases, conducting transactions and interacting with CRM applications require a more sophisticated approach?often involving custom programming.
Arch, for instance, decided to make sales-related portions of its back-office data available on the mobile devices. To make sure that the information on the wireless systems was continually up-to-date, it contracted with Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Mobilize and Wellesley, Mass.-based Orchid Systems to extend back-end applications and manage data between the wireless units and the back-office database. Arch found it easier to go with a third-party vendor because the company didn’t have the resources in-house to dedicate to the job.
The Death of Cool
To its credit, Arch had figured out ahead of time exactly why it wanted to use mobile devices. But many companies don’t, according to Becky Diercks, director of Wireless Research at Newton, Mass.-based Cahners In-Stat Group. “Often companies just get the idea that it would be cool to do, but they haven’t really thought it through,” she says. “For a mobile solution to succeed, there must be a legitimate business reason behind it.”
Additionally, a mobile solution shouldn’t be seen as a cure for desktop-based problems such as systems that are outdated or aren’t functioning well. “If you have existing issues to contend with when it comes to the technology you’re using, you’re only going to compound it by extending it to a mobile device,” says Omar Javaid, cofounder and chairman of Mobilocity, a consulting and system integration company focused on mobile computing.
And once you decide on a good use for mobile tools, it pays to design your applications carefully. “You have to deliver very targeted data,” says Hira Advani, director of e-business technology in IBM’s CIO office. “Otherwise, your solution can become counterproductive by tying up the mobile workers’ time.”
Keeping that in mind, Arch decided to deliver only the specific pieces of customer information that each salesperson needs to conduct transactions completely and correctly.
“Each salesperson has a mobile device loaded with a database of customer information,” Schmersahl says. “When they are out in the field, they can configure an order on their wireless device and transmit it directly into our back-end system. They don’t have to pick up a phone to call in the order or write it up manually. We save time and money and our customers get more accurate orders.”
Following the implementation of the mobile package from Mobilize Solutions, Arch achieved an order-entry cost savings of nearly $800,000 annually through call center cost reductions, brought order rejection rates down 90 percent and saved more than $430,000 a year on inventory reconciliation costs.
Do It Yourself
In February, Sears, Roebuck and Co., based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., took a different approach to making its data wireless-ready. It began programming nearly 15,000 Symbol Technologies wireless Palm OS-based handheld computers to perform in-store, browser-based applications such as inventory, price change, merchandise pickup, receiving and replenishment. Unlike Arch, Sears customized its data in-house to make its back-end database perform effectively with the Symbol devices. Bridging the devices required several weeks. But now that those bridges exist, they require very little extra data tweaking.
“The primary benefit is having the information required to do your job at the point your job is being performed,” says Mike LeRoy, director of retail systems for Sears. “For us, it translates to increased productivity, better customer service and better sales because you ensure everything in the stockroom is represented on the selling floor.”
For Sears, implementing the mobile solution went fairly smoothly, although moving some data from the Web to the mobile unit proved challenging. “Some of our webpages that contain processes and procedures had to be reformatted so that they were viewable both on a desktop screen and from the Palm,” LeRoy says.
Never Walk Alone
While Sears worked by itself to bring its applications and data to mobile devices, that approach won’t work for every company. Partnerships may prove the rule rather than the exception, so it’s important to find a partner that can help you achieve your wireless goals, is viable, clearly spells out what it can offer, and can provide the support and training you’ll need postimplementation.
First, be wary of hype. “Don’t necessarily believe a vendor that tells you it can support all devices,” says Adam Zawel, an analyst with the Yankee Group. “It might be able to support some functionality on several devices, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find it doesn’t support all the things you want to do on the device.”
Also, don’t underestimate the task at hand. “The most important step is to make sure you have a partner who can deliver a solution that can be completely integrated,” says Arch’s Schmersahl. “As you [put] piecemeal things together to try and find the right wireless network and the right developer and the right back-end system, the workload becomes quite oppressive.”
Additionally, taking the time to educate workers properly and introducing the mobile solution through a pilot project can improve your chances of success. Sears’s LeRoy, for example, says he’d approach training differently if he had to do it over again. “I would go through an orientation on browser use,” he says. “We did more of a hands-on approach, but we probably should have invested some time up front educating folks in the nuances of working in the browser world rather then assume they were familiar with it.”
Even if you approach a mobile project carefully, problems still lurk. Today’s hot mobile technologies may not stand up to the test of time as their market emerges. Mobile standards are in a constant state of flux. New devices arrive every week.
XML and Java may eliminate the need to format content multiple times for various types of mobile device displays, but whether these standards will survive in the long term is also uncertain. “XML will probably make some of today’s tools obsolete. And it will probably be obsolete itself because it’s not really made for video streaming and those types of applications,” says Cahner’s Diercks. “Its use is somewhat limited.”
The caveats, however, certainly haven’t stopped mobilization in its tracks. According to analyst company Gartner, there are 60 million mobile workers in the United States today. Mobile Computing magazine estimates that 40 percent of all white-collar workers in the United States have a mobility-related component to their jobs. Those numbers mean mobile solutions are primed for growth. And with growth should come standards?and a simpler process for getting data mobilized.
That fact raises a question?is now the time to go mobile, or is it better to wait until the market stabilizes?
“You first need to ask why you want to go to a mobile solution. What would your workers and customers gain from it?” asks Yankee Group’s Zawel. “And second, is this something I need to be a first mover on? Is this something that can wait?”