Mobile applications: Taking mobility beyond email

Mobile applications that improve worker productivity will need to be extended to mobile devices following the success of mobile email.

Today's competitive businesses have no choice but to be mobile. According to the Gartner Group, by 2005 a full 45% of U.S. workers were already mobile, accessing general and process-specific business data through mobile devices and wireless networks. It is evident to anyone in business today that that percentage has gone up significantly since 2005, and it is expected to continue its upward trajectory as sales, management and field service personnel increasingly demand the ability to access data and processes while on the road. It seems fair to say that if your business isn't mobile, one of your competitors is -- and they could quickly win a competitive advantage by besting you on that front.

Handheld wireless devices such as the BlackBerry have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, and the ability to access email anytime, anywhere has been a major boon to productivity for companies that have deployed these devices. But as mobile employees have become increasingly accustomed to having instant mobile access to their emails, they have begun to ask why they cannot access other company data and processes just as easily. Even the laptop -- until recently mobile employees' most important tool -- has begun to seem cumbersome and inhibiting by comparison.

The challenge, of course, is that handheld devices are not really meant to be equivalent to desktop or laptop computers. They do not have the memory or processing capabilities of more robust computing devices, and their screens and keyboards are much smaller and more limiting. When companies try to make their enterprise applications available on mobile devices, the projects often become expensive and complex. Most enterprise applications were not designed to be used on mobile devices, and their interfaces and tools cannot easily be scaled to be usable and practical on mobile devices.

The good news is that, in most cases, mobile users do not really want or need access to the full range of enterprise applications maintained by their business on their mobile device -- in fact, within a given application, they seldom need access to the full depth of available data and features. What they need is access to a subset of data and processes that are most commonly used and beneficial when working in the field, delivered via an interface that is intuitive and usable on a mobile device.

Service and sales are the two key areas in which most companies are seeing the greatest benefit from providing access to more than just email on handheld devices. For service agents, the ability to access customer profile data, history and complaint details translates directly into a more efficient use of their time, more informed and personalized service, and the ability to arrive at each service engagement better prepared. Giving service users the ability to easily change the status of service incidents, escalate them and access service knowledge bases through mobile devices allows for better collaboration between field and in-house teams and permits faster resolution of customer issues.

Similarly, enabling salespeople to access rich prospect and client information on mobile devices can facilitate a more targeted and informed sales engagement. Well-equipped salespeople who are able to access product data, cross-selling and up-selling alerts, and deep client profile information can accomplish more in each sales meeting and accelerate the sales cycle. Rather than waiting till they return to the hotel or office to enter meeting notes, submit orders and take care of follow-up tasks, salespeople with access to the right features and data can perform these actions on the spot. The ability to walk through quoting and ordering processes with the client reduces error and the need for future requests for clarification. Meeting notes and reports can be submitted immediately, keeping management up to date for pipeline forecasting and keeping salespeople on top of their deal documentation while the memory is fresh.

All of these sales and service features are commonly part of a customer relationship management (CRM) system, making CRM one of the primary applications most businesses need to make accessible via handheld devices. While the typical CRM system is a broad- and deep-featured suite of tools, only a subset of these tools and data fields is of high relevance and utility to sales or service users while in the field. Many CRM vendors offer versions of their CRM systems specially designed for deployment on mobile devices, saving IT teams the time-consuming and often costly effort of figuring out how to extend CRM data access and functionality to handheld devices while still ensuring adequate data security. The best of these systems are device-resident applications (as opposed to less responsive older models that used cumbersome Web browsers to access data) with intuitive interfaces that offer fast access to data and tools regardless of whether the user is in a wireless coverage area.

When planning CRM deployment to handheld devices, it is important for organizations to bear in mind that there are no hard-and-fast rules for what mobile sales and service users will need access to on their mobile devices and, thus, no perfect out-of-the-box solution that will fit every company. System flexibility is therefore of high importance -- even with specially tailored handheld applications. Involve end users in system requirements -- gathering and testing is critical to delivering the most usable and helpful mobile tools. What IT teams may consider information of secondary importance might be of significant value to sales users. One of our clients in the insurance industry, for example, learned from its sales users that being able to see a client's birthday on a mobile device and sending birthday wishes could go a long way toward impressing the client and deepening the business relationship.

While the benefits of mobile access to data and tools certainly include productivity increases, cost reductions and improved employee satisfaction, ultimately, organizations must remember that it is the client experience that is most affected by more effective mobile sales and service employees. Personnel empowered by the right information and tools can offer clients a more rewarding, responsive and satisfying experience. When a large financial services customer of ours talked to its clients about where they wanted to see branches, for instance, the clients said that they would prefer to transact at their own place of business, not a retail branch. Making its CRM system available on its users' mobile devices enabled the company to offer this service, cementing client loyalty and differentiating itself from the competition.

As businesses look for ways to stay competitive and increase productivity, providing CRM access to mobile employees is a strategy well worth exploring -- one that can benefit the company, the employee and the customer alike.

About the author:
Bruce McIntyre is Senior Vice President of Operations at CDC Software, a leading provider of enterprise software applications designed to help organizations deliver a superior customer experience while increasing efficiencies and profitability. CDC Software's numerous enterprise solutions include Pivotal CRM and Saratoga CRM. Both Saratoga CRM and Pivotal CRM offer specialized customer relationship management solutions for mobile devices. For more information visit: www.CDCsoftware.com.

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