Mobile CRM Is Slow to Take Hold

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Mobile here, mobile there, mobile, mobile everywhere—except in the CRM space. The workplace of the past has been steadily giving way to a new model, where, increasingly, employees are no longer tethered to their desktops but freely move from place to place. As evidence, this year International Data Corp. (IDC) expects vendors to ship more than 1 billion smartphones. Tablet sales are also skyrocketing: They are expected to reach 227.4 million units in 2013, 57.7 percent above 2012 shipment levels, according to IDC.

However, CRM systems have largely been unaffected by this groundswell. Businesses have tried, typically with little to no success, to entice salespeople to rely on mobile solutions. Few contact center agents use mobile applications, a fact that may not change much even as the technology matures. Most corporations have done little to nothing when it comes to empowering consumers to service themselves via their mobile devices.

Why the disconnect? "Employees will only use a mobile system if it somehow reduces the time needed to enter or find information," says Sheryl Kingstone, director at Yankee Group, a division of The 451 Group, a global analyst and data company. To date, that goal has mainly not been met with CRM systems. Instead, employees find themselves entering information multiple times in a convoluted fashion or aimlessly searching for needed data. Slowly, vendors have been putting the pieces in place so that equation should change—for instance, progress is being made in mobile sales force automation. But the union of CRM and mobility appears to be a long-term, rather than a short-term, goal.

Mobile: The Language of Love?

The impact of mobility cannot be understated. "Employees love their phones," says Jeffrey Pease, vice president of Oracle Application Labs at Oracle. This love comes from replacing cumbersome notebook systems that were often hard to navigate with elegant handheld devices that collect, present, and disseminate information quickly and efficiently. As an example, employees can check and respond to their voicemail in a few seconds with their smartphones.

However, such efficiency has not been present with mobile CRM solutions. "CRM's dirty little secret is [that] sales reps don't like these systems; that has been true since the dawn of CRM software," Pease states. CRM solutions are typically viewed as a tool for management and do not help the salesperson sell more. Consequently, salespeople see their use as an obligation rather than something that they enthusiastically endorse. As a result, instead of embracing them, they actively or passively resist them.

Also, these systems have not been very helpful. Presenting relevant data to mobile CRM users is a complex process, one marked by various infrastructure and programming hurdles. Even though billions of smartphones are being sold, the enterprise mobile software infrastructure is still in a fledgling state. As a result, taking advantage of mobile functions is a complex process that few companies have mastered, according to Steve Drake, vice president of business development at FeedHenry, an enterprise mobile application platform provider.

One Block at a Time

During the past few years, businesses have been busy putting the basic building blocks in place. To date, they have mainly focused on the physical devices themselves: specifically, the smartphones and tablets their IT departments will support. This decision represents a multistep process.

Ironically, CRM vendors have been slow to add mobile functions to their product lines, so corporations find themselves with a spartan number of options. For instance, in 2011, Kimberly-Clark wanted to outfit its field salespeople with iPads. To do that, the company had to build its own custom interface from the iPad to its CRM application, because its vendor did not yet support the device.

CRM vendors have been moving to expand the range of systems supported, but the mobile market has continued to morph, and many are still playing catch-up. For instance, few CRM systems support Microsoft Windows smartphones and tablets. Whether or not Microsoft will add support for iPhones or iPads to its Dynamics CRM system is an open question. So developing custom interfaces, like Kimberly-Clark did, will likely remain a chore that businesses have to take on.

BYOD or Company-Owned Mobile Systems?

Once mobile devices are chosen, corporations have to decide how they will be acquired: Does the company purchase these systems, or does it let employees bring their own into work? This step requires that enterprises develop policies covering a wide range of issues, such as who will pay for the hardware, how the system will be used, how ongoing use of the device will be compensated, and how repairs will be handled.

After companies have taken those two steps, more work remains. Security represents perhaps the most time-consuming step in the process. Companies must develop a wide range of security checks: what data a user can access, how users will be authenticated, how data will be protected, and what will be done if a mobile device is lost.

As a result, the CRM software infrastructure (especially the connection from the device to the back end) is quite barren. In most cases, mobile applications do nothing more than move data from a server to a mobile browser. "There are many pretty interfaces on mobile devices, but unless they help employees do their work, what good are they?" Drake asks.

Falling Short of the Goal

To be successful, mobile CRM systems need to increase productivity. They must streamline workflow, drive down the volume of data that users have to enter, make information entry as automatic as possible, pull data from numerous systems, and present users with contextually relevant data. Currently, most mobile CRM systems fall well short of that goal and instead increase users' workloads without delivering any easily discernible benefits. To bridge that gap, CRM applications need better integration on both the mobile front end and back end.

On the front end, current CRM mobile interfaces are pretty to look at but not very smart. They put a legacy interface on a mobile system and negate mobile devices' most alluring features: easy data input and simplified information access. Touch screens and voice recognition make it easy for individuals to read and respond to information, but those features are not typically supported in mobile CRM applications."Geolocation is a standard mobile feature that most CRM systems do not exploit," Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research at Nucleus Research, states.

Instead of taking advantage of these functions, CRM systems require that users enter information via a keyboard as if they were using a PC or a laptop. "CRM systems became popular in the late 1990s, when PCs were the primary end-user productivity system, and most are designed to use them," explains Jim Dickie, managing partner at CSO Insights, a sales and customer service benchmarking firm.

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