Feature: Always connected, always mobile

Technology that keeps field staff in the field is boosting service, sales and efficiency

Many organisations have workers who spend most of their time on the road, providing sales and service to customers.

But managing these workers is hard. Head office has to be able to assign jobs to them, communicate with them, extract all kinds of data from them about their activities, interactions, costs and sales.

For the field staff themselves, such technology can deliver applications that would otherwise only be available in the office. It can allow them to go straight from home to a client site rather than stopping in at the office to pick up a job sheet. It can also allow them access to CRM information before they walk through that client’s door.

Gen-i’s national mobile manager, Joe Caccioppoli, says there are several components to enterprise mobility and several ways of delivering mobile applications. Connectivity is one component. Gen-i offers a laptop application called Corporate Anywhere that allows easy, and secure, access to a range of connection options from one interface. Users can connect to mobile broadband,

wi-fi, global resources via iPass or, heaven forbid, dial-up access. The charges for those connections also arrive on a single bill for ease of administration.

“Giving people a choice of connection technology is key,” Caccioppoli says.

He says people have been looking for the next killer mobile application after email for years, but this is really about mobilising the applications people are already using, so they can access information remotely to make smart decisions, improve customer service and boost sales.

There are three broad ways businesses are choosing to mobilise their existing applications. The first is through delivering the application to a web browser, but this can be problematical depending on how the application displays on the screen, especially when delivered to smartphones.

The second method is to build a mobile application that extracts and updates data in business databases. This, according to Fusion5 account manager Ludy Colenbrander, delivers applications that are easy to use on small telephone screens.

The final way to deliver applications is through thin client technology such as Citrix. Caccioppoli says Gen-i has several customers delivering SAP sessions via thin clients.

He says New Zealand has a unique productivity challenge and the traditional Kiwi way of dealing with this has been to work harder. However, with most statistics now showing we are among the hardest working nations on Earth, asking for more is becoming untenable in many organisations.

“It is generally accepted in business that organisations need to look to technology to increase output,” Caccioppoli says.

Colenbrander, speaking at last week’s Oracle User Group meeting in Rotorua, says for many organisations, the solution is a smartphone rather than a laptop. He gives the example of one client that services ATM machines. Two years ago that company equipped its engineers with laptops but found start-up time and battery life a challenge. Laptop theft was a deal-breaker.

Fusion5 built an application for the BlackBerry to deliver the required functionality. Now, a call from the bank is escalated to an engineer remotely, with jobs allocated, responses made and reporting, such as parts that needed replacing, achieved in real time.

Fusion5 partners with both Vodafone and Telecom’s Gen-i.

The ability of smart devices such as the BlackBerry to read barcodes extends that functionality into other areas of business pain, such as stocktaking, Colenbrander says.

Applications can include order taking and processing, status notification, work carried out, chargeables, time reporting, client status review, analysis of unresolved issues and integration with ERP systems.

Security is also improved as BlackBerry traffic is already encrypted and a stolen or missing unit can be “killed” remotely. Data is kept on the server rather than on the mobile device itself, Colenbrander says.

Another Fusion5 client is Civic Contractors, which removes graffiti in Auckland City, under contract to Auckland City Council. Staff used to receive daily jobs on paper at the office every morning. They were equipped with paper report forms on which to log new “tags” they encountered during the day; this data was then entered into the database once staff returned to the office.

Civic Contractors saw an urgent need to increase efficiency to ensure its service level agreements with Auckland City Council were met and the contract retained. The company decided to invest in mobility, specifically Fusion5’s Envisage Support Centre Management software.

Now, council staff log graffiti complaints from the public, which are then entered into Envisage interfacing with a BlackBerry server.

Colenbrander says Civic Contractors also chose to invest in BlackBerry platform for the numerous other reasons: mobile staff can open a new job instantaneously and report on work carried out in real-time; before and after photos can be taken with the BlackBerry and automatically added to the database — and associated with the correct job — and are accessible to council staff and police. Cellphone coverage is not an issue either due to BlackBerry technology as it will automatically update when coverage is re-established.

Colenbrander says BlackBerrys are causing some companies to re-think providing mobile staff with laptops. They are smaller, lighter, have longer battery life, are less prone to theft and are cheaper than laptops as well as offering a better real-time interface with centralised databases.

Another development pushing the phone into the business limelight is unified communications (see below - “Colorite takes unified communications mobile”).

“Mobile unified communications will be one of those services that will deliver real business value,” Caccioppoli says. “It is a key new wave of products and services.”

Yet another is mobile video-conferencing. Caccioppoli says with new high speed mobile networks, such as the one Gen-i’s parent company, Telecom, plans to roll out by the middle of next year, video-conferencing can move off the LAN or WAN and onto the mobile device. He says, however, that this is one mobile application where the laptop is superior to the smartphone, due to the size of the screen.

“Mobile [phone] video-conferencing has been a flop globally,” he says.

Colorite takes unified communications mobile

Unified communications is extending its reach to embrace mobile devices and deliver the same connected experience outside the office as inside, with functionality such as presence, call forwarding, access to directories, CTI (computer-telephony integration) screen pops and more.

Local unified communications software developer IPFX, based in Auckland, this month launched IPFX Mobility, which takes IPFX’s Dimensions software-offering mobile. One user of the beta version of the software has been print and packaging company Colorite Group.

Colorite implemented IPFX’s software in 2005, first in Auckland and then more broadly within its own offices and in the offices of companies it has acquired, both in Auckland and Christchurch. The system was easy to roll out as provisioning of phone accounts (adds, moves and changes) is managed centrally, says Colorite’s systems administrator Philip Parkinson.

In 2007, Hamilton acquisitions Milestone and Tintz Digital, which were merged into a new branch of Colorite, also came onto the system.

The move to roll out IPFX’s new mobile suite, Parkinson says, will allow some deskphones to be phased out. Presence was a big key in choosing to adopt the technology, he says, and also its ease of use operating through a familiar Outlook interface.

“The main benefit is customer service” Parkinson says. “They either get straight through to the person they are after or get informed about when they will be available. We’re not wasting their time”

The software not only keeps the client informed, but the user as well. It can send call alerts, for instance, when a call is made to a desk-phone so the user can decide whether to take the call or not. Users can be desk-based, fully mobile, or a hybrid of both, IPFX’s Paul Todd says.

Colorite offers three different styles of phone to users: a Nokia block, Sanyo clam or a Palm smartphone, as well as Telecom’s Okta dual mode phone.

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