Connecting The Field In Real Time

By Susan Nunziata — September 08, 2008

Whether their workers are connecting via smartphone, rugged handheld or tablet PC, the priority for field service enterprises is real-time access to relevant business data and applications.

While each enterprise has its own business drivers, there are several universal objectives in deploying mobile business applications that offer real-time access:

  • Keeping information synchronized in real time between disparate departments;

  • Enabling employees in the field to respond proactively to situations;

  • Freeing managers from being bogged down by inefficient processes so they can focus on improving sales;

  • Realizing improvements in customer service.
Keeping All The Pieces Synced

"One of the main things we were looking to solve was how to keep all the pieces of information we have to manage synced," says Brian Fisher, Director of Business Technology at Papa Murphy's International, which deployed mobile versions of software from across a full range of field staff, from store construction to sales, on a range of smartphone devices.

"For example, with each new store we have all kinds of dates: blueprint dates, inspection dates, cabinet dates, equipment delivery dates...there's a lot of coordination that needs to take place. We have a lot of employees in the field who are intimately involved in making that process go smoothly, but all of our departments need to be on the same schedule."

Knowing that readily accessible information could save time and, ultimately, money, the Papa Murphy's pizza chain needed a solution that would keep information streamlined for its various departments -- sales, operations, marketing, construction.

With each team on the same page, the expectation was that the business would run more smoothly than it had been. The company also has mobile employees within each department and wanted a solution that would allow them to be able to access and update information while out in the field.

Proactive Decision-Making

Likewise, cafe chain Au Bon Pain needed a smartphone-based solution for its field directors that could enable them to be proactive in managing labor and inventories (See story, this page).

Since deploying a Windows Mobile-based solution earlier this year with applications customized by Enterprise Mobile and running on Motorola Q smartphones, the chain's VP of I.T. Randy Burkhart says results have gone beyond basic business drivers to include quality-of-life improvements for employees.

"Our area directors really and truly are on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Burkhart. "There are times that there's critical information that goes out to them. No longer are these [workers] tied to their laptops. They can have a life."

Workers with smartphones can access information anywhere and decide whether or not immediate action is required. "Anecdotally, all these guys came back saying their quality of life improved," says Burkhart.

For restaurant chains such as Papa Murphy's and Au Bon Pain, liberating workers from their laptops was a major driver, as the environments don't lend themselves to easy use of a laptop.

However, other field service organizations need a solution that's more robust than the average smartphone. When moving and storage company PODS went looking for ways to streamline its operations, the company chose Motorola's 9000 series handhelds, which offer multiple data capture options and GPS. For its wireless service, PODS chose Sprint Nextel, in part because of the carrier's established push-to-talk service and also Sprint offered it the best pricing information.

The company reached full roll-out, with more than 1,000 devices in trucks and forklifts in June 2007.

With the previous IVR time-stamping system, it could take anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes for a transaction to go through. Now, with bar code scanning a transaction is logged in less than 10 seconds. During a three-month period, the company logged nearly 160,000 time-stamped jobs, saving between 1,200 and 5,000 hours.

Signature capture also saves time for drivers. Now, customers view contracts online and sign the driver's device when he or she presents the container. The company had 20,000 Pod Pilot signatures captured in that three-month period. Tammy Carr, VP of Training and Development at PODs and the lead for the POD Pilot project, estimates that the signature-capture process previously took at least five minutes. Now it's down to less than 1 minute, for a savings of 1,600 hours. And managers and location staff no longer have to spend on average 10 minutes per job scanning and filing paper contracts, so in the same period that's another 3,000 hours saved, she says.

"Using the info that's coming to them from the wireless solution, managers can work on building the business rather than just making sure deliveries get made," says Carr.

For Irish utility service KN Network services, the decision to equip its field technicians with a mobile solution resulted in a marked decrease in the time it takes the company to get paid for its services. The previous paper-based process meant it could take 30 to 60 days for an invoice to be generated by the utility's accounting department. "Now, when the tech enters the information on a completed job it goes straight to accounts receivable and generates an invoice," says Darren Kelly, Project Support Consultant for KN Networks. "Now we get paid in seven to 14 days."

Kelly says rugged tablets were a priority when the company migrated from a paper-based solution to a proprietary real-time mobile application, as was keeping the solution web-based, rather than storing large amounts of data on the devices themselves. The company deployed 40 Web DT tablets from DT Research, and uses a data package from local carrier Vodafone.

An added bonus, says Kelly, is the "cool" factor that the tablets give the utility. Beyond marked improvements in workforce efficiencies, "One of the biggest things for us was the image it gave us as a company," says Kelly. "The board signed off on this because we would look professional and be the only company in Northern Ireland using this kind of technology. We've used the Web DT in negotiations [for new business]. Clients are impressed. We've probably won two to three contracts already just on the back of the technology. It's a brand differentiator."

Additional reporting for this article provided by Teresa Von Fuchs. Go to to read case studies on each of the end users interviewed here.

How Is A Mobile Solution Helping Cafe Chain Bring In The Dough?

A smartphone solution is enabling field directors at cafe chain Au Bon Pain to respond to market forces in real time, resulting in increased sales.

Giving its area field directors real-time access to critical sales and labor information was the primary goal for Au Bon Pain when it deployed a series of smartphone-based applications this year.

Each area director is responsible for overseeing operations in six to eight restaurants, including making sure the restaurants are appropriately staffed and stocked. They were previously using laptops to access daily P&L information, but the nature of their work, often conducted in the cramped back rooms of restaurants, made the laptops cumbersome to use. Many were using their laptops as de facto desktops, and printing up daily reports each morning to take with them into the field and taking down information on pen and paper. "The problem with that is you don't have what you really need, when you need it," says Randy Burkhart, VP of I.T. at Au Bon Pain. "Our first objective was, could we deploy information on a smartphone so they had a smaller, unobtrusive form factor that they could carry with them all the time."

Burkhart details several challenges:
  • Could the company's critical applications be used effectively on a smartphone?

  • Could the applications be formatted for the smartphone in a way that the area directors found beneficial?

  • Could the area directors, who were hired for their restaurant operations ability not their technical savvy, learn how to effectively use the devices.

  • Was it possible to achieve a level of security that would protect sensitive data such as daily store sales?

The chain found a partner in Enterprise Mobile that could help it answer all those questions with a resounding yes.

Enterprise Mobile built a mobility strategy from scratch customized for Au Bon Pain's needs and meeting its security requirements. Burkhart says Au Bon Pain preferred to work in the Windows Mobile format. Enterprise Mobile is a Watertown, Mass-based startup whose founder, Mort Rosenthal, was personally tapped by Microsoft's Steve Ballmer to advance Windows Mobile in the enterprise

For the initial pilot, Au Bon Pain chose to mobilize its daily cafe P&L report, an application for which it had data readily available but was going to have to reformat from a user-interface perspective to fit the smartphone. "We wanted to see how much effort that was going to take us," says Burkart. Within three weeks, Enterprise Mobile worked with Au Bon Pain to reformat the app.

The eight-week pilot began in July 2007 involving nine area directors who had varying degrees of technical acumen.

"The group we started with is all local, so it was very easy for me to bring them into our office," says Burkhart. "With Enterprise Mobile we provided them the rollout of the devices and the training on the devices."

The area directors were given several different smartphones to try out, and they settled on the Motorola Q as their device of choice.

The solution was rolled out to the chain's 45 area directors in spring 2008, and additional applications were added on. First was a forecasting application that predicts cafe sales. Next was an application that compares how those forecasts are stacking up to daily sales. The third app helps manage labor resources, by comparing actual labor to forecasted labor.

Now, the chain is working on developing processes to get the area directors actively involved in affecting the results as they're happening in real time, as opposed to just looking at historical data, says Burkhart.

"In our labor scheduling application, we actually poll the cafe to find out how much labor they need by the hour," says Burkart. "Our particular area of concern is what we call guest-service labor, those people running the cash register, and those people who make sandwiches, where demand is driven by people walking into the cafe. If you walk into an environment and there's a long line you walk away. So the objective is a high level of customer service."

The next piece going into place is an application that will send an area director a text message whenever labor demand in a given cafe is out of line with where it's supposed to be. "They will have the ability from their smartphones to pull up an application to show them exactly how much labor is in place at a cafe and what are they doing. This lets them look at real-time sales as well as real-time labor. So if sales are exceeding forecast, and you need more labor, the area director can potentially move labor from another cafe to help out, they themselves can go help out. On the converse side, if for some reason sales are way off, they can make adjustments in labor to bring labor down."

Adds Burkhart, "Our focus is not just when sales are down how do you reduce labor, but how do you ensure that you're providing the right level of service. As you do that, your sales actually go up."

While he declines to reveal specific sales results, Burkhart says the company is seeing sales go up along with a corresponding reduction in percent of labor, even though the chain is leveraging its existing labor better than it previously had been.

In addition to realizing efficiencies for its area directors, the chain also saved money by consolidating what had been a piecemeal system of individual cellular contracts and myriad devices to one that used a single device under a single service plan with Verizon.

Historically our users could have either been on a corporate contract or on an individual contract, and they expensed their phones," says Burkhart. In fact, some were walking around with cell phones, BlackBerrys and wireless data cards for their laptops.

"We did a study of those that were being expensed, found out how much money we could save by forcing them all onto corporate contracts, and put in place a new policy that everybody would be on corporate contracts." The result? "We were able to pay for the new devices and data plans at no incremental costs."


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