Converting Field Data Into Corporate Assets

If only you knew what your field force knows.

If you could capture, analyze and act on the details of the relationships that go on from day to day and year to year between your field people and the clients they serve you could mine a rich new resource- -field data- -which could become an invaluable corporate asset.

Ellen Libenson, vice president of marketing at Thinque, sees this real-time, actionable data as the way to overcome one what she calls the "Last mile" problem. "In every industry, there's a 'last mile' problem: the gap between the corporation and the customer. There's always some kind of gap, and every industry defines its problem differently. We see FFA, and primarily data collectors, as a means to solve the last-mile problem in numerous industries. You have to extend the business enterprise. How do you get closer to your customers? Get your mobile workers out there with them."

A Five-Part Plan

Collecting this data and leveraging it within your enterprise is a process that can be broken down into five steps: equip the field force, train the field force, get buy-in from the field force, analyze the data and act on the data.

1. Equip the Feld Force

Mobile workers have to be equipped with the right hardware and software to properly collect data. The news is that there is no shortage of good hardware or software out there; and making an investment needn't force companies to spend the exorbitant sums of the past.

"There really have been a lot of events in the last few years that have let people know that [wireless technologies] are worth looking into," says Thinque's Libenson. "It's not the stuff of the '80s or mid '90s. It's real, it's affordable, it can interface with the stuff you're using already, like Microsoft Office. People are figuring it out. The things people have pushed against in the past--the price and durability of hardware, lack of being able to integrate these proprietary systems with others or the high cost of integrating them--were all valid reasons for not going with it. But all of those objections are now falling apart; they don't exist anymore in many cases."

This is thanks to a new breed of mobile solutions. "If you wanted to build a mobile application five years ago," says Bernard Desarnauts, cofounder and CEO of ViaFone, "you almost had to build your own wireless data network," Desarnauts believes there is a new set of technologies opening up a wave of new mobile applications to provide field workers the information and tools they need at the home office, as well as out in the field. "What we provide is based on Internet-based standards like IP networks, WAP phones, voice recognition and so forth. It's a new way of delivering mobile value to the customer [and] doing it much faster and cheaper than what could have been done before."

2. Train the Field Force

Training is a critical big part of the collection process as is buy-in. A considerable amount of data needs to be fed into the database before the right conclusions can be made. Consequently, the people collecting the data may need to be convinced of its worth--and even its benefit to them.

Libenson's advice is to take advantage of the mobile workers; beyond recording the obvious data, make sure they're relaying everything they see and hear. "There are the industries with the typical field service employees or mobile data collectors that people think of first," she says. "Utilities, HVAC, construction management, warehousing logistics, healthcare. Then you also have your cable people, phone people, the FedEx person. These are people who have been around for a long time and were most often viewed as an expense center, but [recently] we've seen how much revenue these people can bring to the company in the form of competitive intelligence. They're out there playing in traffic. Tell them: 'Report back to us. What do you see? What are you hearing? Are you hearing something from our customer that maybe we're not hearing back at corporate? Maybe they're not calling us; maybe they're not complaining to us directly. We're losing them, and we don't know why. You're out there in front of them, tell us what's going on.'"

Jason Richardson, manager of Best Practices advisory firm's group, Chapel Hill, N.C., explains the importance of your workers as providers and users of data, as opposed to being solely providers of data. "I think that's a key distinction," he says. "Sometimes you have to convince representatives to try it, but if you have an effective system in place, you don't have to convince them to use it--they'll learn on their own." In the case of mobile sales representatives and the like, they'll even see the value of the system reflected in their paychecks. Richardson continues: "We found some of the most successful SFA implementers somehow tie in the entry of data to the representative's bonus, so there is a component of actual pay--compensation--for entering data, and that's critical. You have to give--at least in the early stages--incentive for the representatives to enter the data. Because it's a pain, it's not an enjoyable thing. If you can make it as easy as scanning a bar code, then you can make it much easier. But with the vast majority of smaller companies, they're still going to be entering data somehow."

3. Get Buy in from the Field Force

You may have purchased hardware and software and trained everyone to use it, but what can still make or break you is buy-in. Like the little engine that could, you need to believe in the system for it to be effective. You have to create a corporate culture that's supportive. Everyone needs to understand that it's not an annoyance--it's a saving grace.

The CEO needs to be onboard, the senior vice president or executive vice president in charge of sales needs to be onboard. It needs to be cross-functional, at least in terms of review, because marketing, sales and customer service are all going to have to use this data. Without buy-in from the three of them, you're not going to have an integrated system that works.

Glen Kelley, senior manager for KM strategy of Lotus, agrees, saying a data-warehousing system won't work in an environment where a person's knowledge is valued over his or her ability to share that knowledge: "A company can have the greatest system in the history of the world, and it'll fall on its face because the company doesn't have the culture for it."

Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of General Electric, is a man who knows how to create a corporate culture, Kelley says. "The first time he hears a good idea, he doesn't say, 'Good idea,' he says, 'Who have you told?' Again, it's about what you share, as opposed to what you know." Sharing what you know is especially critical in areas where employee turnover is high."

4. Analyze the Data

Once you have a database full of good stuff you have to figure out what it all means so that you can act on it. If that sounds like it's easier said than done, the good news is, you aren't alone.

"Companies today spend so much time around branding, image and identity," says Kelley. "There are surveys that are done, focus groups that are done--but think about the transactions that happen every day between field representatives and their customers and the information that can be collected. The problem is, it's unstructured in nature. So to date, it's been difficult to aggregate that, but we're beginning to provide the tools to make sense out of that sort of unstructured aggregate."

In Research Methods in Anthropology, anthropologist H. Russell Bernard describes how companies have improved business by acting on analyzed data. To learn more about its potential customers, the phone company MCI used focus groups to develop its initial advertising campaign. Speaking to customers, the MCI researchers realized that they didn't blame AT&T for their high long-distance bills, they blamed themselves for talking too much. MCI came out with the tag line: "You're not talking too much, just spending too much," and it worked like a dream.

Sometimes, though, it's not a matter of coming to one clear conclusion about the customers, but aggregating the data into a database or a data warehouse that makes it easier to act on the information specific to each customer every time mobile workers are in contact with them.

"If you have a good representative, they'll store every one of their correspondences with their customers," says Kelley. "Then, if we can go through and understand what those are about--what's the commonality, what does the experience mean--there's a lot of value in that. Our discovery server will go through and aggregate all the content, whether it's customer correspondence, proposals, quotes, a word processing document, an Excel spreadsheet or a CRM application--it spiders through that stuff in the background, and it builds commonality. It builds what is known as a taxonomy, literally, of all that information."

"Data for data's sake is worthless," says Richardson. "It's a system where you have to have everything working: Getting systems in place to capture the data is step one; getting people to actually enter the data is step two; and then actually working with the data is step three. And I think if you don't get to step three, then you haven't really done anything useful."

5. Act on the Data

Once you have a database full of data and have decided how to make it work for you, it's time to put it to use. "One of the earliest wins is that your customer service representatives have access to that data," says Richardson. "When a customer calls in, or comes in through the Web, the representative who's handling that case, or the Web site itself (the Web-accented or actualized database itself) can connect and identify that customer, figure out what products that customer has, what problems they've had before, down to what the customer's birthday is and how many children they have. The customer service representative or system is armed with that information and is able to make a much more individualized, personal response to that complaint, question, etc."

Thinque's Libenson lists merchandising among the industries where being armed with information makes the difference between a job well done and a lot of frustration. Merchandisers are responsible for several stores, and they travel between them, making sure that product is on the shelves, checking that displays are set up properly, documenting problems, taking pictures, making notes and then entering all into a program that updates to the corporate database. If they feel that merchandise isn't placed on the shelves fast enough, they can speak to the store's manager, equipped with all of the shipping and receiving dates from the corporate database.

Whether you're in a B2B or B2C relationship, your success comes down to what you know and how well you act on it. The phrase "Knowing is half the battle" couldn't be a more pertinent reminder when it comes to turning your field data into a corporate asset. After the data, you've still got halfway to go.

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