Smart Mobile Strategies for SMBs

— April 10, 2007

Small businesses must take the "knowledge leap" in order to mobilize successfully.
"Talk to any small business owner that has invested in an ISV mobile solution for ERP, and they will tell you how important it is to partner with an ISV that truly has a solution that meets your needs," says Doug Migliori, VP of business development at ADC Technologies, an ISV (independent software vendor) that builds mobility solutions primarily for small to medium-size businesses (SMBs).

Migliori, whose company extends generic ERP (enterprise resource planning) and warehouse solutions to Microsoft-based Windows Mobile 5.0 platforms, believes many SMBs are wary about selecting an ISV. "Almost any ISV can develop a mobile application," he says. "Microsoft has made it so easy, with its development platform for Windows Mobile. So you've got a lot of little guys out there, which makes selecting the right ISV difficult."

However, Migliori emphasizes, ISVs can also offer one-on-one attention and provide specified solutions, as opposed to just applications. They also can offer greater flexibility in business systems and lower operational costs by taking the complexity out of software.

Microsoft runs a strong certification program to ensure ISV competencies--the company's partnership program has three levels, Registered, Certified and Gold Certified--but it's up to the business owner to ensure the ISV or consultant is reputable, referenced, certified and provides a solution that's worth the cost.

Strategies for Success

Mobile solutions adoption in the SMB space has lagged behind the largest and best-of-breed mobile enterprises. However, SMBs can emulate best mobile practices and still come out winners. The first and most important strategy in adopting wireless is to close the knowledge gap first, says Philippe Winthrop, director of research for wireless and mobility at the Aberdeen Group. "It's all about increasing the productivity of a workforce through mobile technology; that's true across the board," he says. "But if you're going to leverage mobility in the organization, whether it's executives or field service, understand the pain points first. The best in class have been doing a lot of this [by] thinking the whole business process through--what needs to be mobilized and why. And they actually develop a business case; they think about metrics quantifying value."

There are plenty of reasons SMBs have had a slower rate of mobility uptake than larger shops, Winthrop explains. Lack of knowledge about wireless solutions, inability to identify functional areas that need improvement, failure to justify operational costs, push-back from management, fear of technology failures, too few IT staff: All of these factors impact reluctance to mobilize.

"Mobility is more than just a cost issue; everything for any organization, whether small or behemoth, is a cost issue," Winthrop observes. "The question for SMBs is truly, Where is the value? How to drive the highest level of ROI? It's one of the biggest struggles right now. We're working on a new study, and we find the ability for new organizations to measure ROI is surprisingly low." For example, a study of enterprise mobile messaging found that nearly half of respondents had a "low or very low" ability to measure ROI. SMBs are particularly challenged on even basic business case knowledge and performance metrics, Winthrop adds.

"In one survey, 77 percent of respondents did not develop a measurement plan [for mobile applications]," Winthrop reports. "And 63 percent did not create a business checklist to understand not only why they're [deploying mobility] but what the benefits will be and how to go about measuring them. There is a very high level of individuals [in SMBs] who are not aware of the solutions available to them," says Winthrop.

Big Rewards, Small Companies

For smaller companies, rewards for mobilizing can be great, says Tom Willison, president of Pro Mechanical Service, a California-based HVAC repair company. Willison, who saw the potential for wireless when he helped start the $5 million company five years ago, has seen double-digit increases in profitability with a hosted field force mobile application from myServiceForce.com.

"What we're doing is dispatching service calls to nine service vehicles in the company," Willison explains. "The savings are $180,000 in salaries, and the mobile operation has changed my bottom line profitability from 28 to 30 percent gross to 51 percent this year," he says. Known as FieldMaster Pro, the hosted application provides an on-demand work order processing system that handles job assignment, inventory ordering and invoicing. Each technician carries a Cingular 8125 phone running Windows Mobile 5.0 that enables direct communication to the host operating out of the University Science Center in Philadelphia, says Gary Rawding, president of myServiceForce.com.

"It's the automation of the entire work order process--the assignment of a work order to a technician plus all the associated information (i.e., customer repair history) to the field technician via the mobile device," says Rawding. "We do it in a way that technicians can use their devices independently of a wireless signal. Once they have the data they synchronize with the host and download [the newest information] to their handheld device."

The ROI is derived from time and manpower savings: less time spent in a home office, and time saved researching a customer history, ordering parts, waiting for paperwork and billing. Manpower is streamlined: Pro Mechanical Service now uses one dispatcher instead of three and fewer people for data entry and book keeping. Further, the Windows Mobile 5.0 platform enables technicians to text message instantly and receive desktop emails using Microsoft Outlook.

"Our technicians are each spending more time doing service calls," Willison reports. "Prior to wireless, they averaged two and a half calls a day. Now it's three and a half, approaching four calls a day." Rawding says that at roughly $70 a seat, companies such as Pro Mechanical Service can increase annual billings by 15 to 25 percent.

"I have been on this for five years, and I haven't had to reconfigure or change anything," Willison says. "I just have to learn what more I can do and get my guys to adapt to it."

Needed: Unified Communication

While the payback for an SMB wireless investment can be broad reaching, challenges remain significant. ADC's Migliori cites ease of use, affordability, scalability and real-time integration with host ERP/CRM systems as especially important for SMB supply-chain businesses. "It's not just a question of being able to handle growth from five users in a field force to 100 users," he observes, "it's being able to scale the platform to add functionality." Price sensitivity, required payback times of 12 months or less and quick turnarounds often make the difference between SMBs deciding to go mobile and those that hold back.

Smaller businesses are still lacking the most basic forms of unified communications, such as integrated mobile email, VoIP, a collaboration platform and Internet access, says Francois Depayras, the VP of sales and marketing at Ensim, a mobile technology software company producing hosted mobile solutions. "For unified communications to work, you pretty much need a Ph.D. to be able to receive emails, access your files on an intranet, connect to the Internet via a cell phone and get an over-the-phone configuration," Depayras continues. "SMBs don't have the mobile infrastructure."

One solution Ensim provides is hosted mobility through telecom and other service providers such as Telus in Canada, Pipex and Belgacom in Europe. Ensim's product, Unify, is designed specifically to automate email delivery, collaborative tools, IM and VoIP, and performs over-the-air provisioning and configuration of BlackBerry and Windows Mobile 5.0 devices.

The advantage of hosting is that SMBs can see immediate, collaborative results. "The primary hurdle for SMBs is the IT staff," says Jerry Goedicke, president of Mobitor, a California-based mobile CRM software producer for medical device distribution, manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. "Most SMBs have in-house systems that aren't sophisticated, and they don't have the knowledge and bandwidth needed to do mobile extensions."

But not every small business can use a hosted solution says David Jonker, a senior product manager at Sybase iAnywhere, which specializes in mobile management platforms for enterprises that support multiple devices. A number of SMBs may have adopted email and PIM in the mobile environment, but "when it comes to line of business applications," Jonker adds, "they're looking for more customized solutions."

One strategy is the use of rapid application development (RAD) tools, which provide visual environments to create mobile applications such as forms. Tools of this nature are often obtained through specialty companies such as Mobile Data Force (a Sybase partner) and Dexterra, which offers a 4G visual design environment. These kinds of visually based tools often yield applications that are not integrated with anything else but still provide big productivity benefits for field technicians and in verticals such as warehousing.

According to Howard Beader, VP of marketing for Dexterra, visual RAD environments are evolving so rapidly that "an analyst can develop a [mobile] application very easily," he claims. Dexterra offers two 3G customized development templates, a visual studio environment for the dot.net developers and an Eclipse environment for developers in the Java world. "The next generation of tools (known as 4G) [offers] a VISIO-like environment. A business process analyst can lay out an application flow and it will develop that application down to the device of choice."

With or without integrating with backend systems (Dexterra, for example, offers a series of standardized adapters to backends from Siebel, SAP and others) SMB mobile solutions demand a certain level of complexity. This may require the help of mobility consultants and ISVs.

"The biggest issue overall is to work with someone to understand what to mobilize," says Aberdeen Group's Winthrop. Overall, defining the right mobility strategy requires factoring in such variables as security, end user devices or platforms, carrier choice, appropriate usage policies, back office hardware and software, data management, payment policies, end user applications, interoperability between network and devices, procurement policies and business case development.

SMBs do best when they pick flexible solutions that will scale in size and functionality as needs arise. "You can try to mobilize everything or pick your battles," says Winthrop. "But the right strategy is to do things one by one, and not to throw the kitchen sink at the problem."

Arielle Emmett is a Temple University lecturer, a freelance writer and the editor of Wireless Data for the Enterprise.

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