November 14, 2012
My recent work with Salespod has given me an opportunity to reflect on the latest (and greatest) thinking on how distributed sales organizations can leverage mobile technologies to enable extremely agile sales operations…
Field sales reps have a reputation for being early adopters of technology that will make them more productive. They know that the more efficient they can be in communicating with prospects, the more productive they will be at advancing the sales cycle. This desire to be connected, and the availability of powerful Smartphones connected over fast wireless networks has laid the groundwork for a rapidly emerging trend in sales management; a fundamental shift to in the moment management of agile field forces powered by real-time, location based activity streams.
Sales and merchandising professionals want to be efficient, productive and connected. Today’s Smartphones and Tablets make it easy for them meet these goals, and by their nature enable extremely efficient two-way communication with field management. The expectation and desire is there for these field reps to conduct their day to day business using modern mobile technologies. Sales force automation, mobile CRM and mobile workforce management tools have become standard issue for the mobile workforce in recent years; now, tools that give management instant access to the details of these field activities in a way that is meaningful and actionable in the moment are emerging, and enabling field organizations to become hyper-efficient.
The Psyche of the Great Sales Rep
Great Sales Reps are, by definition self-directed, independent decision makers with strong personalities. They can assimilate a situation, determine a course of action, and act. They are able to move quickly from one opportunity to the next, and strive to make their work process as efficient as possible. Great sales reps never short change their customers when it comes to personal interactions, and keep the administration of the sales process ‘behind the curtain’.
All of these characteristics are balanced by the great sales reps’ aversion to being managed. Their independent spirits, and self-motivation are in direct conflict with managements desire to harness their energy and both direct and duplicate their success.
These factors all contribute to the need to provide sales reps with light-weight, non-intrusive sales tools that allow them to capture and report details of their sales activities ‘in the moment’, and at the same time provide visibility and a communication channel to sales management.
The latest generation of mobile sales tools delivers these capabilities.
Ubiquitous Mobile Access
The explosion of capabilities delivered by consumer grade mobile technology has put massive power in the hands of field sales organizations. The current baseline Smartphones have greater than 1GHz processors, a GB of RAM and high resolution touch capable displays. They support fast 3 or 4G Wireless and Wi-Fi connectivity and can easily accommodate 16, 32 or 64GB of additional storage. This kind of power was only available on desktop or laptop computers a few years ago.
It is a given that this kind of power is available to field sales and merchandizing representatives, and it provides a very solid foundation for the features that the most efficient and agile sales organizations demand.
SmartPhones all include GPS receivers, which can be accessed by the applications running on the phone. The user doesn’t have to interact with the GPS in order to report his or her location to management; the application can do it on their behalf, reporting the exact time and location of every activity the rep does throughout their day.
This kind of data gives managers exactly what they need to make sure that territories are being covered appropriately, and that reps are being as efficient as possible as they work in the field. The best sales tools collect and report GPS information for all rep activities, and deliver that data to managers in three ways:
1. An interactive, real time map interface,
2. A live stream of activity data as it is generated, and
3. tabular data for use in reporting.
Sales management has the information they need to manage their teams when they know where the rep is whenever an activity report is generated, and exactly how often their reps visit customer locations.
Forms on the Fly
Every organization is interested in collecting data that is unique to their business, and this information can change as products and marketing programs evolve. Best in class mobile workforce management solutions provide customizable forms that can be defined and managed by field managers.
Sales and merchandising organizations can create forms and publish them to coincide with things like product launches and new marketing initiatives to insure that reps deliver the right message to customers at the appropriate time.
The latest solutions enable management to create custom forms, and to publish them to the reps’ mobile devices. Reps don’t have to look for and download the right forms, they simply appear on the reps’ phone or tablet at the time that management wants them used.
A well-designed custom forms capability allows organizations to:
• Define their own forms,
• Publish those forms on their own schedule,
• Enforce required data collection within forms,
• Automatically time and location stamp each form submission,
• Push forms to reps’ mobile devices in the background, and
• Make forms available at the right point in a mobile workflow.
Forms enable organizations to be flexible, and to quickly gain insights from the field about customer satisfaction, competitive activities, complaints (which become instantly actionable by management), and customer demographic data.
The convergence of a wide range of technologies integrated in the sales representatives’ phone, arguably their most important tool, enables communication capabilities that go well beyond the person to person voice conversations than telephony delivers on its own.
Ubiquitous wireless connectivity for reps in the field creates the opportunity for communication in many forms, from conversations attached to specific activities, to broadcast messages to the entire team. The current state of the art in mobile workforce management enables managers to review incoming data in real time, and comment on the activities ‘in the moment’. Managers can both coach their team, and develop a more complete picture of what is happening in the field through these enhanced communications channels.
Additionally, the ability for management to broadcast messages, and for the reps to be able to effortlessly retrieve and review those broadcasts increases the level of information sharing throughout the field organization.
Finally, the constant connection provided between the field rep and the home office completely removes issues associated with out of date product, pricing and customer details. When key information that directly affects the activities of sales and merchandising representatives, the best mobile enabled tools provide a facility for pushing information about these changes to the rep as soon as it happens.
The best mobile enabled sales force automation and retail merchandising tools include:
• The ability to establish communication threads on specific activities in a way that is easy to use, and highly available to the rep as they conduct their daily business,
• Retrieval of conversations on specific topics for future analysis,
• Broadcast messages that are highlighted for the rep, and can be reviewed at any time,
• Billboard features that highlight important events and changes to key data like products, prices and priorities.
The most current mobile phones have incredibly high resolution displays, very powerful speakers, processors that can manage smooth video display and are connected on high bandwidth networks. All of these things make mobile devices well suited for sharing extremely rich marketing and productivity enabling content.
Companies go to great expense to create rich content, but it is often out of the reach of reps when they are in the throes of selling; when they need it most. By giving access to web based rich media, sales management empowers its reps to add power and credibility to conversations with customers, and can better inform and train those reps with more effective tools.
These capabilities can be leveraged to give sales representative instant access to rich marketing content, and to provide retail merchandisers with enhanced tools to more effectively manage displays and in-store presence.
By enabling access to rich media content, sales and merchandising organizations can give their reps access to:
• Marketing media to share with customers,
• Training videos about new products, merchandising display setup and marketing initiatives,
• Brochures, sell sheets and product specifications.
Agile sales organizations are able to leverage all of the investment that they have made in rich media by extending access to that media to reps whenever they need it.
Productivity Enabled Integration
As smartphones, and now tablets, have evolved over the years they have transformed from clunky devices used only for making phone calls, to Personal Information Manager that also tracked contacts, to communication hubs capable of managing email and text communication on top of voice, to powerful and elegant handheld computers.
All of these advances have made the ‘mobile phone’ and evermore important tool for field reps. The explosion of utility that these devices carry is being multiplied by tighter and tighter integration between capabilities. Instead of switching between a text messenger, a contact manager, an email system, a calendar and a phone to conduct business transactions, new and powerful tools incorporate all of these capabilities in a single application. Reps can look up a customer, and with a tap on the customer record can dial the phone to make their connection. Field management can see their reps’ activities and create text messages that appear in the mobile application, and associated with the activity, not in a separate texting application. Calendar entries for follow-up visits are entered as part of a normal call report and automatically populate shared calendars.
The integration of productivity tools that have evolved on mobile platforms into the new generation of sales and merchandising automation solutions is a key driver of efficiency for well managed field organizations.
The new paradigm in field management has arrived. Reps expect to have access to extreme productivity tools, managers expect their reps to be held accountable, and expect to be able to have real time, actionable knowledge about activity in the field. Organizations can understand and react instantly to new information as it is being developed. Managers can remotely coach their reps by keeping their fingers on the pulse of field activities, and leveraging in-app communication channels.
This level of agile field management and responsiveness is now a reality due to the explosive growth in mobile capabilities; capabilities being leveraged by only the most innovative field sales automation and retail merchandising management solution providers.
July 22, 2012
I’ve been creating mobile strategies and solutions for well over ten years, and have been waiting for true platform independent development since day 1. The demand has become greater over the years as the selection of viable platforms continues to shift (today all the buzz is on Android and iOS… where were they 3 years ago?). Many solutions that claim to have solved the ‘code once, run anywhere’ problem have entered the landscape, but none has emerged as a dominant and fully capable leader. We will continue to wait for the perfect solution, but the range of complexity that cross platform environments are well suited to solve is rapidly expanding.
We have had a great opportunity to test the limits of one of the top cross-platform frameworks recently. One of our clients is a leading provider of Work Management solutions. They provide a SaaS based service where their customers manage complex work processes around break/fix, preventive maintenance and inspections. Our client was looking to provide a compelling mobile extension that would improve productivity and help differentiate their product. The solution has some requirements that prevented us from taking a Web App approach, including a need to run ‘off-line’, capture photos during the work process and leverage push notifications when new work is assigned. They are also very aware of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend and wanted to support customers using corporate Blackberries as well as those allowing engineers to use personal smartphones.
All of these requirements screamed for a cross platform framework. After some analysis and evaluation of several of the leading platforms, we settled on PhoneGap as the best fit for this scenario. Our experience with the platform told us that we could address 90% of the requirement ‘out of the box’, and that the remaining challenges could be addressed with platform specific plugins.
6 weeks into the project, 100% of the infrastructure is in place and working as expected, and the most demanding module (Work Order Management) is functioning quite well on all three platforms.
Our client is able to realize a single code base solution that runs across Blackberry, iOS and Android that can largely be maintained by their existing programming staff. We have put a virtual build environment in place for them so they won’t need to establish separate environments to support the mobile portion of their product offering.
This all sounds ideal on the surface, but I did say earlier that we are still waiting for the perfect solution to cross platform development.
So what’s the hitch?
Actually, the tradeoff in this case is fairly small… here are the key pieces that prevent me from being able to say that we’ve reached ‘Cross-Platform Nirvana’:
- Performance – PhoneGap is a ‘WebView’ solution and runs within a browser instance on the phone. It looks and feels a lot like a native application, but UI performance is not quite as ‘snappy’ as one would expect of a well written native application. This is much less of an issue on ‘Modern’ phones with multi-GigaHertz, multi-core processors than on older phones and will continue to trend towards ‘non-issue’ as older devices are purged from the mainstream and as browser performance continues to improve. Other cross-platform frameworks that compile to true native applications don’t have this problem.
- Browser Differences – If you really want a Native-like experience for your app, you will probably want to implement UI components that native web viewers don’t provide out of the box. In our case, we implemented touch enabled screen transitions like ‘swipe and slide-in’. We found that in order to optimize performance of these types of gestures for all the platforms that we are supporting, that we needed to create variations that would be called based on the device the app is running on. Not all WebKit implementations are identical, so the more native feeling that you want your application to be, and the more devices that you plan to support, the more complex the implementation may become. Still not as complex as writing 3 or 4 native applications from the ground up, but still not the utopia we are waiting for in a perfect cross platform framework.
All in all, using PhoneGap for this multi-platform application is the right approach; it will be supportable by a single development team (though we may need to lend a hand from time to time on plugin work), it performs quite well on ‘modern’ devices, and it enabled us to deliver a fairly sophisticated Enterprise App to market on all three major platforms in under 3 man-months of work. Still, I continue to long for the day when we can do all that without the compromises that we tolerate in today’s best platforms.
June 15, 2012
Over the past few years I have been involved with many varieties of organizations that deal with service tickets: soda fountain maintenance, water and electric infrastructure service, building maintenance, medical equipment service, furniture delivery and installation… Each has its own unique and very specific requirements, whether it be integration with highly accurate GPS or RFID readers, dealing with very tight ticket turn around to meet customer Service Level Agreements (SLAs), support for BYOD strategies or operation in extreme conditions; but every client I have worked with has had a common objective; to find the right balance between cost, complexity and effectiveness.
I have seen everything from ultra-low-cost solutions that rely on structured text message sent and received using ‘free’ feature phones to solutions running on $3,000 GIS enabled military grade handheld computers. Each may be the right solution for its respective users, but absolutely the wrong solution for the other.
There are so many factors that determine cost, complexity and effectiveness when it comes to mobile: work environment, uniqueness of work process, criticality of transactions and access to data, integration to back end systems and peripherals, customer SLAs being only a few.
It is easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm of what is possible with mobile, and to design the ‘uber-solution’ that solves every aspect of the business problem. Without a healthy dose of pragmatism, these solutions can quickly become complex and expensive systems that impede the effectiveness of a field service team rather than enhance it.
Here are a few simple rules for making sure that your mobile strategy is focused on delivering value over sizzle:
- Don’t implement mobile for mobile’s sake. Make sure that you have a specific business objective that mobile will address for you… things like: Increase responsiveness, increase accuracy, reduce labor costs, increase competitiveness… If you don’t know how to quantify the business results that you will gain from mobile, then you should not be considering what kind of mobile solution to implement.
- Test the business value of any feature that limits your device options. Today’s smartphones are as powerful as desktops were just a few years ago (multi-gigahertz/multi-processor devices with many gigabytes of storage, hi definition displays and very wide network bandwidth). Most workers carry these under-leveraged assets around with them every day. Make sure that any features requiring integrated peripherals such as bar-code scanners are actually critical to the success of the solution, and exhaust any options to leverage components that exist on most consumer devices, like cameras, touch screens and GPS receivers.
- Make sure you don’t build a Frankenstein. The flip side of relying on consumer devices is the trap of leveraging ‘easy to connect’ peripherals like blue-tooth RFID readers, credit card readers that use the phone’s headphone jack, or ruggedized cases. These add-ons all have their place, but be cognizant of adding points of failure and user complications into the equation. My rule of thumb is that 1 ‘add-on peripheral’ that is used to process less than 50 transactions per day is fine… anything beyond that should be scrutinized by some pragmatic would-be users of the system.
- Don’t skimp on user interface design and testing. The overall cost of a system is impacted dramatically by the amount of support that you have to give users. The user interface should be highly intuitive to someone who knows the business, but hasn’t seen the solution before. This usually means iterating on design with heavy user feedback included in the iterations. Excellent design pays back in two major ways: better adoption of the system (higher use of value-add functionality) and lower support costs.
- Be open-minded about solution options. In the early days of mobile, all enterprise applications were expensive custom projects. As the industry evolves (at lightning speed) more options are coming to the mainstream. There are many horizontal cloud based solutions with mobile extensions that business because yare available for low monthly subscription fees. These solutions have increasingly able integration capabilities, and are offering higher levels of flexibility. It is more plausible than ever to consider solving the bulk of a business problem with a readily available, easy to customize low cost solution.
In summary, don’t be afraid to explore mobile solutions based on concerns of huge price tags. With some pragmatism and good planning, you can create a right sized mobile solution that delivers great value to your business.