Mobile CRM Takes Off

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The need for anytime, anywhere access to critical information about customers, inventory and competition has kept field-sales professionals on the cutting edge of technology adoption. Most companies will try anything that can help get this information out to these mobile workers faster and more efficiently. Mobile CRM growth figures indicate that it is becoming a competitive imperative.

Market research firm IDC projects that the U.S. mobile and remote worker population will grow from 39 million in 2000 to 55 million in 2004, a 41 percent growth rate. Field sales professionals comprise the largest percentage of this remote worker population.

The past two years have seen an incredible growth in software, services and improved hardware designed to serve this growing market as major CRM vendors such as Siebel, Onyx, SAP and FrontRange Solutions (formerly GoldMine) turn their attention to it.

Along with the growth have come some dramatic changes. The competitive landscape has achieved something of a seismic shift--customer expectations have grown and the use of PC laptops for mobile CRM applications is beginning to be eclipsed by new form factors such as two-way pagers, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and even cell phones.

A study by market research firm NPD Intelect shows that the popularity of handheld devices continues to rise. Revenues from sales of PDAs hit $436.5 million in 1999 and approached $406.9 in the first half of 2000. Manufacturers sold 3.5 million devices in 2000, more than two-and-a-half times the 1999 figure of 1.3 million.

All handheld platforms are experiencing growth, but what a difference a year makes. Palm has made aggressive moves into the enterprise and Palm handhelds are now coming in through the front door as they are purchased in large quantities by the IT department and have become a line-item expense for corporate sales managers. Palm OS is the de facto standard in enterprise handheld computing and the company has even managed to attract a variety of licensees, including Handspring, Sony, TRG, Kyocera and Samsung, each with their own vision of what a mobile platform should look like.

With a few notable exceptions, Microsoft's name recognition within the enterprise has failed to translate into sales for its Pocket PC and other Windows CE platforms. Even so, it would be a huge mistake to count Microsoft out. The platform's advantages may become more apparent as mobile CRM shifts from mere contact management to more powerful line-of-business applications, and as the ability to fit these devices into an existing enterprise infrastructure becomes more important.

Symbian, the consortium formed by Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson, Psion and other big names in telephony, remains something of a sleeping giant with few of the expected devices shipping and nary a CRM application available for them.

From Sync to Think

The first mobile applications for CRM were somewhat primitive, simply giving a salesperson the ability to keep a contact database up to date while in the field, but that's changing. "There are two primary audiences for these devices, field sales organizations and other kinds of mobile users within an organization," says Christopher Fletcher, analyst for CRM with the Aberdeen Group in Boston, Mass. "Salespeople can now look at a database of inventory. When they sync the device in the morning, they get the latest inventory and there is an application on the device that allows them to take an order, check an inventory level that was current and make a delivery commitment to the customer based on that inventory. When they sync again, it places that order into the system and executes fulfillment."

Such synchronization was at the heart of products, such as GoldMine, which appeared in the mid-90s and allowed laptop users to synchronize data over a LAN (local area network). That technology has now been extended to PDAs running the Palm OS and Windows CE, allowing them to take a pre-defined set of data on the road. A sales representative can, for example, carry only those prospects within a particular territory.

Now these applications are becoming more intelligent. This increased sophistication can be seen in the number of vertical market applications beginning to appear as companies integrate CRM with line-of-business applications that support a specific industry. For example, a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company may need to collect a signature, while a field service person may need to use the device to dispatch service calls or to order spare parts.

Companies developing mobile CRM applications have been struggling for years with the question of where to store the data. Should it reside in a central database on the corporate server? Should it be resident on the handheld device? Should access to it be provided over the Internet? "Today, you've got more processing power and more memory on the handheld and the applications are getting more sophisticated," says Fletcher. "A few years ago it wasn't feasible to bring even a subset of your inventory down to your mobile device."

For many the answer to this question rests on whether the mobile CRM initiative is part of larger knowledge management undertaking that requires the data to be kept in a centralized repository. "A lot of people still want to be able to use their CRM applications on a plane where there's no connection," says Brad Leonard, director of business development, CRM at Frontstep, a Columbus, Ohio-based provider of CRM solutions to midsize distributors and manufacturers. "But those companies that want that capability tend not to have a broader plan in place for what they are doing with their data."

Web Platform

Those that do have turned to the Web as a way of accessing data stored on the back end. All handheld platforms--even cellular phones--now have the ability to run Web browsers and access standard HTML pages. Some can even download Java applets that provide for a user interface that more closely matches that of the software's desktop counterpart. In addition, many companies are making their applications available using more specialized protocols such as wireless application protocol (WAP) or Palm's Web Clipping. These protocols sidestep the slow speed of today's wireless connections by bringing up only the most relevant data.

For example, FrontRange has introduced a product called GoldMine Everywhere Server that takes the functionality of GoldMine Front Office 2000 and makes it available either through a standard Web browser or a micro-browser like those found on some mobile phones. There's also a Palm VII Web clipping application. "Before, if the sales rep wanted to go out on the road and access the customer data, they had to sync and it wasn't in real time," says Ronan Vance, director of business development at FrontRange Solutions. "Now they can go online and have access to real-time information.

They can also append, update and even add new data that will allow other people that are serving the same customers to have access to information that comes in from the field."

FrontRange's choice of a Web-based platform was in part a practical response to the ongoing debate about which mobile platform will ultimately emerge as the dominant one for CRM. Rather than write to a particular form factor, FrontRange used the most ubiquitous platform, the World Wide Web. "Technology is in such a state of evolution right now," says Vance. "We believe in the Web and we're going to focus on Web-based tools. We believe that handheld devices will conform to the Web rather than us having to conform to the handheld devices."

The Web-based platform also gives your company the choice of running your CRM platform in a hosted environment.

Wireless Woes

Wireless seems to make sense because most sales and field force professionals are already carrying wireless devices in the form of cellular phones. But the wireless Web has so far failed to live up the hype. Today's wireless infrastructure is still too slow and unreliable to entrust your mission-critical customer data to it and there are still some usability issues to be worked out.

According to some analysts, the need for wireless has been overstated. "Look at what you can do today using just a hard-wired or synchronized connection to your desktop
or laptop," says Fletcher. "There's a tremendous amount of functionality that can be brought to the handheld device."

Vendors are also looking for ways to deliver full-blown CRM applications directly on the handheld device. Siebel is one example of a CRM vendor that started by providing a very simple way of delivering information wirelessly to mobile phones and is now looking at ways to provide as much of the functionality on the handheld device as possible. "One of the reasons Siebel is going down this path is that with wireless, coverage is always an issue," says Dennis Gaughan, analyst with AMR Research in Boston, Mass. "People shouldn't have to worry about that. Mobile enablement isn't just about enabling a particular application, it's really about the role of the sales or field-service person, the business process that they perform. That's why companies are looking at a marriage of online and offline functionality. A lot of the vendors are recognizing that we need to marry those two so that salespeople have the timeliness of real-time connectivity with the ability to keep their data in sync."

Leonard agrees that to make such mobile enablement more seamless, the vendors need to focus less on the technology being deployed and more on the way in which the devices are used. "The Palm VII is nice because it remembers your log-in. WAP phones don't do that. Salespeople are impatient by nature so they like that."

Today, most mobile CRM applications fall somewhere on a continuum from synchronization on one end of the spectrum to a pure real-time wireless kind of application such as those made possible by WAP. Each has advantages and disadvantages, say analysts.

One kind of wireless scenario that does make sense is to use technologies such as Bluetooth and 802.11 to provide a short range connection to a LAN or WAN (wide area network). This can provide wireless connectivity to a handheld device in a warehouse or shop floor or allow a salesperson to connect her laptop to the Internet in public spaces such as the airport lounge or the nearest starbucks.

No Silver Bullet

Despite progress, enabling your mobile workforce with CRM is no simple task. Concerns remain about sync, system management and asset tracking, security, support and a continually evolving wireless infrastructure. While it's usually a safe bet to go with the market leader, in this case market share alone doesn't tell the whole story as to which platform is likely to emerge as the victor.

One recent study by investment firm Goldman Sachs gives a good indication of the market share of each of the handheld platforms. The Palm platform continues to dominate with devices from both Palm and licensee Handspring accounting for 87.2 percent of the market share in the last quarter of 2000. Pocket PC devices had 7.7 percent but their market share is expected to grow to 11 percent during the first quarter of 2001, with Palm OS market share dropping to 82.2 percent. Research in Motion's (RIM's) market share is currently 1.9 percent but expected to grow to 3 percent, while the market share of devices based on Symbian's EPOC OS is expected to increase from 3.2 percent to 3.8 percent in the first quarter of 2001. Wireless, in both the LAN and WAN variety has made tremendous strides.

"There isn't going to be one device that wins out," says Gaughan. "The vendors are looking to provide the broadest set of device support so that each end user can determine what he wants. The handheld won't be a replacement for the desktop or the laptop."

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