Internet-based synchronization technology turns the promise of Mobile CRM into a reality
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Following a directive issued by his boss, Tom, the highest producing sales rep in the Western region, inserts the latest synchronization disc into his laptop. These discs arrive in the mail weekly from the company IT department, and contain all the latest sales and customer information Tom and other mobile employees need to successfully use the company's CRM system. The information burned onto the disc is an exact duplicate of essentially all the data contained in the CRM system on the company's main server.
Four hours after inserting the disc, the laptop is still grinding away, slowly synchronizing with the main server. Because time is money, Tom, who normally adheres to his boss's edicts, cancels the download, and vows to ignore synchronization altogether in the future. "I'll just stick with my own personal system for keeping track of my deals," he says to himself. With this decision, Mobile CRM at Tom's company just failed.
Does this scenario sound familiar? It should. The same mobile technologies, which held so much promise just a few years ago, have since failed millions of mobile workers. Problems with data synchronization regularly leave these workers frustrated, uninformed and exiled from vital CRM information that could mean the difference between business success and failure.
There is a better way to keep mobile workers and their laptops in sync with the latest CRM data stored on the company server, one in which synchronization problems become a thing of the past. In our vision, mobile workers only have to synchronize the specific information each needs to do his or her job. Consequently, synchronizations take minutes, not hours. Internet-based synchronization technologies, will turn the promise of mobile technologies into reality.
Clearly, in the Internet age, mailing data on discs to mobile workers is not the way companies should be working. There is a need throughout the entire CRM industry to deliver good, synchronizable applications that promote collaboration throughout the entire enterprise, and that includes mobile workers. In a hyper-competitive business environment where down time means missed opportunities, no one should be wasting hours replicating a data center on a laptop.
Mobile CRM is a solution that extends the reach of customer relationship management applications to any user, whenever and wherever needed. Obviously, the need for such a solution has only grown as more and more employees work remotely. Additionally, business models are becoming increasingly complex, often involving dozens of partnerships or more. In this environment, the availability of CRM applications "whenever and wherever needed" often means 24/7, around the globe, both inside your company and out - to your employees and to your partners.
Enter mobile technologies, including laptops, PDAs, Web-enabled phones and other devices that tie disparate, mobile workers to the enterprise through multiple channels. According to direct marketing solutions vendor Harte-Hanks, 12 percent of North American companies provided corporate users with mobile CRM solutions in 2001. This figure will undoubtedly increase in the near future. Plus, the Cahners In-Stat Group predicts that 60 percent of the workforce will be using wireless devices by 2004.
Specific to CRM, mobile technologies promise sales reps and field service workers an efficient, fast way to stay current with their accounts. The theory behind Mobile CRM is that through their laptops, Web-enabled phones, PDAs and other tools, mobile professionals can access the latest information they need to better serve their customers.
For instance, a sales person might need to know the most recent billing history of one of her regular clients. A field service rep might have a question about inventory levels of a certain item back at the company warehouse. Likewise, the corporate office must have timely field intelligence collected by mobile professionals for financials, inventory, marketing, fulfillment, and almost every other enterprise function.
Closing the gap
Mobile solutions, in theory, close the gap between field intelligence and the corporate office. Several years ago, the CRM industry predicted that by delivering the right information at the right time, mobile solutions would:
Increase sales productivity and service quality.
Improve visibility of accounts and sales and field operations.
Enhance collaboration within the enterprise and with extra-enterprise
Increase accuracy, while lowering field service costs.
All of these benefits add up to improved customer service, and consequently, significant ROI on a company's CRM investment. This is, at least, the theory.
The reality of Mobile CRM is, however, quite another thing. The cool new vision of everyone using smart mobile devices - with Internet, PC, and phone rolled into one is just now becoming reality. And, cool is in the eye of the beholder: Many users would rather have a cell phone the size of a thimble, even if that means they cannot use it to get information off the internet.
These days, people spend a lot of time looking at the sexy, new wireless devices, but not many actually use these devices in the field. The mobile tool of choice is still the laptop-the workhorse of Mobile CRM-and salespeople rely heavily upon them.
But with the laptop, synchronization issues have plagued companies and their user/employees from the beginning. Many companies have failed to realize acceptable levels of success with laptop synchronization technology because they try to replicate the entire server application onto the laptop. With such technological limitations, your main server cannot be so complex that you could not run it on a laptop. In the early and mid 1990s, this appeared, to the entire CRM industry, to be a good use of database technology, but in reality, it simply doesn't fit users' needs.
It does not work because, as in the hypothetical case of Tom the frustrated sales rep, synchronizing a laptop with the company server takes too long and, if Tom does not synchronize every day or so, his database must be rebuilt. This involves IT mailing a CD-ROM to a mobile professional, which contains an updated version of the latest information in the server. All of it. Which can take hours to install. In effect, synchronizing mobile laptops with CRM applications on the company server means providing huge amounts of unneeded information to mobile workers in a way that wastes their time.
Regularly replicating a data center on a laptop is costly in terms of complexity and, in the end, the usability of the application. As more time is wasted, users get frustrated, then they stop using the mobile application, and, in the end, your company's CRM initiative fails.
The benefits of Mobile CRM are not just theoretical: With the right technologies, they are measurable realities. To address the ever-present synchronization issues that plague Mobile CRM, companies should turn to the Internet for the next generation of enterprise technology. Mobile applications should make the technology fit the way the user works, not vice versa.
Rather than fit the 200 MB server onto the laptop, why not fit the technology to the mobile user, who has no time to install, administer, and repair complex software? The mobile application must meet the needs of the mobile user - providing rich functionality for the tasks they do every day. You can meet users' needs without needing to replicate the entire server application, saving 99 percent of the overhead associated with the server replication model with no real corresponding loss in value. This is the 80/20 rule.
Moreover, mobile applications should live on the Internet - users should be able to install, synchronize, and upgrade their applications all over the Internet, using internet standards like XML and SSL. These applications should not only synchronize over the internet, but also eliminate the need for periodic database rebuilds, the last vestige of client-server technology in CRM.
While this model obviously eliminates enormous inefficiencies in the transfer of data between IT and mobile users, we also recommend taking a different approach to the actual content of the transfer. In most systems, during synchronization, sales reps get all the data they have access to. But how much of this often massive data download do these reps actually need to close pending deals this week? Only a fraction of it. Sales professionals should get only the data they need. They should not be wasting valuable time sorting through duplicative or redundant data, in effect doing the job of a database administrator.
The selective transfer of data reduces synchronization time while enhancing productivity at each end of the data transfer. The rep has more time to focus on clients, while IT is freed from a laborious, time-consuming synchronization processes. All parties, then, become more willing to utilize the CRM system to its maximum benefit, which enhances collaboration throughout the enterprise.
Technologically, this model dramatically simplifies the entire synchronization process. Consider this: Typically, for a mobile user to synchronize with the server, he or she will need all the software on a laptop that runs when there is no server connection. This means that a 300 megabyte monster that includes its own database server resides on a laptop, an application that is only slightly smaller than the entire Microsoft
Office suite. But by applying the tenants of our vision, the mobile software that synchronizes laptop to server can be emailed to the user. At under two megabytes, this mobile device footprint is at least one hundred times smaller than that required by a traditional client server system.
But is sending highly confidential customer information via the Internet secure? Absolutely. It can be done securely using SSL. This leverages the proven, industry-standard method of securing Internet data, and a partner does not have to ask for a special hole in a firewall to connect to your CRM system.
The future of mobile CRM
If Mobile CRM is to deliver real benefit to users in the future, the CRM industry must realize that the synchronization emperor has no clothes. For professionals like Tom the sales rep who can not surrender his laptop for hours to the sync process, or the legions of mobile field service workers who need only specific information, not an entire hard drive-crashing database. It means the difference between providing superior customer service and losing clients altogether. For their employers, it means achieving ROI on a CRM investment, and possibly, the future success of the company.
[Robb Eklund is vice president, CRM Product Marketing, PeopleSoft Inc.]