In the beginning was the cell phone. It gave employees in the field unlimited access to the home office and customers. Then came beepers and pagers and car phones. But all of these technologies pale in comparison to the wireless handheld. It has automated the sales and service process to such a high degree that working in the field may never be the same.
"Field employees need instantaneous access to stay competitive these days," agrees Michael Buhr, senior director, enterprise marketing at Palm Inc., one of the world's largest handheld solution providers. "This is why we're seeing companies with large sales and service forces turn to wireless handhelds in droves."
The evidence is more than anecdotal. It's backed up by the hard facts: a recent study by IDC, a major industry marketing firm, said enterprise demand for mobile solutions like handheld devices is "on the verge of exploding."
The IDC study, encompassing responses from 360 corporations, found that 21 percent of U.S. companies are now in the process of deploying mobile handhelds solutions to their workforces. Another 56 percent are actively considering deployment of wireless technology in the field. In Europe, the rates are even higher with 35 percent of companies putting mobile solutions in place today.
Handheld computers help mobile workers process credit cards, exchange e-mails, maintain schedules, access customer records, receive sales information, track inventory data and process service requests, among other activities. According to IDC's survey, 69 percent of all wireless device deployments are targeted at field employees. Once these field solutions prove totally successful, IDC says organizations will deploy similar wireless initiatives for customers, partners and suppliers.
One of the newest field applications gaining in popularity is credit card processing via handhelds. Top manufacturers like Palm offer add-on equipment that allows sales and service employees to swipe a credit card just like store clerks. According to Palm's Buhr, this represents a significant improvement over older key-in methods. By swiping a card, security is tighter since the salesperson has the actual card and not just an account number. This added security lowers processing fees as much as half that of a keyed-in transaction. In addition, the sale goes faster in as little as 15 to 20 seconds.
Wireless solutions are inexpensive to implement, too. All they require is a small scanner added to the handheld device and a software patch added to the operating system. Many companies also contract with a credit service company to process the card at a cost of as little as $25 a month. The combination of hardware, software and service dramatically improves customer service, expands sales opportunities and offers greater transaction security.
One company using credit-card processing technology is Student Voice, a market research firm that specializes in gathering data from college students. Student Voice provides an attachment on Palm handhelds to swipe student credit or ID cards prior to conducting market surveys. The attachment allows surveyors to instantaneously verify when students fit the requirements of a specific survey before going ahead.
The Santa Clara Police Department in California provides field officers with Palm handhelds and detachable magnetic stripe card readers. The officers swipe drivers' licenses or credit cards to electronically capture data or confirm identification prior to serving summonses, writing tickets or checking police records.
For companies that don't need the multifunctional capabilities of a handheld but still want wireless credit-card processing, a company called Nurit Corporation offers a battery powered terminal and printer combination. Like the Palm, the Nurit handheld is fast, compact and lightweight. Field workers can easily perform credit and debit card processing, cash tracking, check guarantees and check verification. This device also has a large, easy to read display screen and menu-driven prompts that walk users through each transaction.
Firms looking for an even less costly solution may want to investigate the AIRPAL Wireless Data Interface. The AIRPAL connects PDAs and other handheld devices that have swipe attachments to wireless phones for field processing.
Efficiency and New Revenue
Most users of wireless swipe technology say today's combination of hardware, software and service can dramatically improve customer service, expand sales and service opportunities, and offer the highest possible transaction security. But these companies are also discovering the greatest benefit of wireless handheld technology can be in creating new efficiencies, and not just in driving new revenues. In today's fast-moving business climate, responsiveness and flexibility are what customers expect and competitors fear. When mobile field forces have instant access to product data, inventory and order status and when headquarters workers have instant access to field data for forecasting and delivery the combination delivers a competitive advantage like no other available in business today.
In one case, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper improved sales force productivity by 30 percent through the use of wireless handheld technology. According to one of the paper's top business managers, the company's sales supervisors began a recent door-to-door subscription campaign by downloading customer and prospect information onto handheld devices. When the sales team canvassed local neighborhoods, the wireless technology gave them the ability to adapt promotional offers in direct response to feedback from customers. The remote access allowed the sales people to scan a central database of offers to determine which one best suited each customer's individual need. At the end of the shift, the sales team uploaded results to the company's central computing system, giving regional managers real-time data. In most cases, new subscriptions, classified ads and other services were delivered the next day.
Another example is the Gunn Automotive Group, a privately held company with 10 auto dealerships in San Antonio, Texas. Gunn is among the 100 largest automotive dealer groups in the U.S. It got this way, the company says, in large part through the use of handheld wireless devices at every dealership. With the technology, Gunn's sales personnel can access inventory information wherever and whenever needed on or off the car lots. According to Chris Karcher, the company's vice president of Consumer Strategy, this mobility dramatically shortens the sales cycle and increases the probability of a deal. In addition, the salespeople no longer have to haul around a "mobile" kiosk a 60-pound touch-screen monitor to off-site sales and marketing events. Gunn has more than 200 handhelds in use.
"The cost of exchanging inventory data with our sales force has been drastically reduced," he notes. "The entire handheld solution paid for itself in the first two months of use by saving us more than $65,000 annually."
Sales and Service
While many early adopters of wireless handheld technology currently focus their efforts on sales, many other innovative companies are finding equal if not greater value through deployment of the systems to service employees. These companies have discovered mobile computing can dramatically reduce the cost of what is often a company's most expensive interaction with customers. At the same time, the wireless handheld service transactions can be used to generate unexpected revenue during one of the few times when a business engages in direct dialogue with its best prospect a satisfied customer. Companies say the instantaneous wireless connections increase the chances of customer retention and expand the lifetime value of customer relationships at an almost zero cost of sales.
While wireless handhelds can greatly simplify all kinds of business processes, companies should take into consideration a number of options for rolling out mobile solutions before moving ahead, according to Aberdeen Research. A study by the analyst group comments: "Several business, technical and organizational issues must be reviewed before implementing a broad mobile field application. Measurement criteria should include but should not be restricted to return on investment (ROI), total cost of ownership (TCO) and other financial models crucial to the decision-making process."
Surprisingly, the Aberdeen study discovered financial justifications are often a secondary or even tertiary consideration to a final decision on moving forward with a mobile deployment. Other equally important concerns, according to the study, include:
Usability, mobility and application functionality. A company's primary focus should be on the wireless application itself and on the need of the enterprise to extend that application to mobile users. Ease of use, ergonomics and the functionality of specific business applications should also be among a company's key decision criteria.
Companies should consider the size of the device's operating system and the communication protocols required to integrate the device into the corporate communications network, security and applications environment.
Overall financial justification
Costs should play a role in decision-making only after the previous two issues have been addressed. The lead analyst on the study suggests companies keep in mind that financial evaluations, especially those focused on ROI, can also be affected directly by ergonomic, ease-of-use and operating-system issues.
The comfort level of executive decision makers with the technology is also important. In almost all companies interviewed by Aberdeen, executives wanted devices they had already seen or used. In most of these cases, executive familiarity with the technology led to a de facto standard within the enterprise.
Security, Security, Security
Just as location is important to real estate sales, security is critical to mobility solutions. Data security is so important to the competitiveness of companies that most manufacturers of handheld devices address this issue directly in the production process by offering security features via a series of distinct processes or levels.
With most mobile technologies today, security begins with password protection to lock out unauthorized access. Top manufacturers like Palm, Handspring, Sony and others build this capability into their operating systems. Most manufacturers also offer specialized encryption capabilities when higher levels of security are needed. Other standard security features include automatic locking of the handheld whenever it's turned off, prevention of unauthorized downloading of data to a laptop or desktop computer, and "flagging" of data to assure only authorized users see certain databases. Palm also makes available a feature that allows IT managers to create user profiles to lock in certain handheld applications. This keeps users from inadvertently compromising important wireless settings and network data.
As for security of the transmission itself, companies must turn to service providers that offer built-in encryption of data signals. Signal encryption has proven remarkably safe and effective, according to the Electronic Transaction Association.
Another important security concern one many companies too often forget about is theft of the devices. Top manufacturers offer a variety of solutions, including galvanized steel cables and locks to secure handheld devices to desktops or other unmovable obstacles. One company called Force Technology offers the Bond Latch, a stylish neck, belt or key strap to hold devices. Still another firm, Personal Electronics Concealment, offers the e-Holster, which fits under a coat and is designed to secure a handheld device as well as a cell phone or modem. A few innovative companies have also begun to apply new technologies such as motion detection and proximity alarms to the handheld world.
If all the statistics and trends hold out, industry analysts say, 75 percent of field workers will be using some form of wireless PDA solution within the next five years.