Is Mobile SFA in Sync Yet?

Once CRM systems got their bugs worked out, ancillary solutions further developed and handheld devices became a favorite of top executives and field staffs alike. However, early mobile sales force automation (SFA) and other CRM offerings had their approach all wrong.

Vendors tried to miniaturize entire CRM solutions for mobile SFA, “which is insane,” Rich Koch, vice president of marketing for Saratoga Systems, tells CRM Buyer. “It’s kind of like doing surgery with salad tongs. You can’t store as much as you have in a CRM system on a mobile device.

“This is why mobile SFA had fits and starts,” he adds. “Vendors and IT [executives] were trying to shove a jet engine in there. The market ran ahead of itself and what the user actually wanted. Mobile SFA is like camping: You’re not taking the house; you need a Swiss Army knife.”

A Growing Market

From 2006 through 2011, the number of mobile salespeople requiring real-time network connections will grow from 40 percent to 80 percent, according to a November report from Gartner. Additionally, 50 percent of surveyed companies believe mobile SFA will have a major impact on the way they do business in the next five years, an Aberdeen Group report states.

Saratoga Systems, which has been in CRM development for 20 years, via its Apresta division offers software for this burgeoning market that prioritizes access and functionality field workers need from enterprise systems for smartphones.

Apresta’s technology could be likened to an iPod, Koch says. “You’re not carrying around CDs,” he explains. “Only the music you want and how you want it.”

With Saratoga’s version of mobile SFA, users get only the data they want — such as contact, inventory and pricing information, status of outstanding orders and data on what the competition is buying — in a browser-based interface.

Software Functionality

Once the mobile software is installed on the device and it connects to the Apresta server, it will pull and push data as requested — as long as the device receives service. When the handheld can’t get a connection — in rural areas, for instance — the user can still access information locally from the device.

Apresta’s caching system houses information within the device’s internal memory to allow information retrieval and editing offline. Once service resumes, real-time syncing resets without any direct command.

One Apresta customer, electronics sales firm Phoenix Contact, was able to increase its sales 25 percent with mobile SFA.

“Salespeople can structure a deal right in front of the customer, as opposed to the typical sales cycle in which they try to get information together in five or 10 days,” Koch notes.

“There is a customer demand for real-time interaction,” he adds, and Phoenix reps can even deliver photos by PDA and place orders in real-time from their BlackBerry devices. The Phoenix sales team now has 4,200 meetings with customers and prospects per month, up from 3,500 per month when it implemented Apresta two years ago.

A Competitive Advantage

Phoenix Contact is just one of a multitude of firms to implement mobile SFA, Ronn Duby, research analyst of customer intelligence research at Aberdeen Group and author of The Mobile Sales Solutions Benchmark Report, tells CRM Buyer.

“Top performers at organizations of all maturity levels plan to invest in mobile sales productivity tools to drive top-line growth,” he notes. “They believe that providing their sales professionals with a competitive advantage through timely access to key information such as recent account activity, supervisor’s notes or revised proposals is vital to successful attainment of corporate revenue goals.

“Part of this success includes growing revenues through enhanced customer satisfaction or support levels at the point of customer interaction,” he continues. “Sales professionals cite the ability to improve customer satisfaction or support levels as a top driver for their investment.”

On the Road

There is an argument to be made for rollover of the total CRM system onto a handheld. Technology has progressed since mobile SFA’s early days enough to make this solution sexy to small business BlackBerry and PocketPC users, “any organization that has a remote sales force, external sales force or remote field service force,” Amedeo Tarzia, senior vice president for Sage Software mobile solutions, tells CRM Buyer. “Definitely all are conducive to mobile SFA,” he says.

“After several false starts, converged devices are finally in a form factor small enough for people to consider as an alternative to a cell phone and powerful enough to run robust mobile applications over more readily available wireless bandwidth,” Tarzia adds.

“Users are used to the desktop and want rich applications as much as possible on a device. With a Web-based browser, you’re not getting much traction,” he explains. Compression and encryption capabilities enable devices to store and transmit large packets of data without compromising device memory or clogging connection bandwidth.

From Optional to a Must-Have

Sage Software’s mobile SFA has reached beyond early adopters in financial services and pharmaceuticals to horizontal market acceptance, from a nice-to-have add-on product to a need-to-have offering, even for small to medium-sized companies.

Some firms are equipping their field sales and service personnel with BlackBerry devices and PocketPCs to extend their investments in CRM, Tarzia notes. “We are seeing increased interest in mobile SFA solutions over the past six to 12 months,” he says.

Key drivers of this growth are similar to those of desktop CRM software, Tarzia states, “a move towards more business intelligence and graphing capabilities as well as tighter integration with back-office work flow engines to allow users in the field to drive back-office process.”

Additionally, syncing can be done real-time, on-demand or scheduled, based on user needs and device capabilities.

“In general, we see mobile users syncing up at least a few times during the day, especially prior to customer calls to ensure they have the latest information, as well as following calls, to ensure that information captured during the call or visit on the device itself, is transferred back to the internal Sage SalesLogix system,” Tarzia concludes.

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