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What Degree of Mobile Access Do Your Business Users Really Need?

by Jim Goldfinger | SAPinsider

April 1, 2006

by Jim Goldfinger, SAP America SAPinsider - 2006 (Volume 7), April (Issue 2)
 




Jim Goldfinger,
SAP America

Companies are making it a priority to provide their mobile users with ready access to corporate data while they are away from the office, 24x7. Often, though, they believe the only way to do this is to give users complete offline access to information — and this sounds like a good idea. Consider field sales teams and sales management; they commonly require offline access to critical sales and customer-facing SAP applications and data so that they can work everywhere, even on an airplane.

But having spent a fair share of time at 30,000 feet, very rarely do I see salespeople updating their sales force automation (SFA) applications while flying. After all, most salespeople would not want to expose their highly guarded customer and prospect data in such a public forum. (And from what I can tell, these days DVDs and iPods are much more popular than SFA applications in the air!)

After working in the CRM industry for the last 20 years, primarily in the area of SFA, my firsthand experience is that without a careful initial inventory of their mobile needs, what customers demand and what they actually implement can be worlds apart. In the area of SFA specifically, many companies end up learning the hard — and costly — way by first implementing a completely "disconnected" or offline mobile solution to give their salespeople access to account, contact, and opportunity-related data, for example, only to later migrate back to a connected, portal-based approach. This, of course, can be an expensive, disruptive process for an organization.

To avoid this costly, time-consuming headache, it is important for your organization to distinguish between disconnected and untethered access to CRM data and to consider the trade-offs associated with each. While a disconnected approach means 24x7 access, having this access to data offline may have limited usefulness. Some critical data often requested by salespeople in the field, such as order or inventory status, is meant to be accessed in real time, and synching this data can be a maintenance headache.

Untethered access is another thing altogether; it means that you have online access to the information you need — and you can blend it with the right degree of offline access for your users. One way to do this, for example, is by using mySAP CRM Sales Online accessed through SAP NetWeaver Portal. This solution, supported with ways to access the offline information users require, can often fulfill the complete needs of your mobile users.

By devising a well-thought-out plan for mobile applications and understanding what information users will really need out in the field (see sidebar), companies can ensure that their users have the right kind of mobile access. This article will provide some checklists and practical advice for arriving at an optimal mobile application strategy.

What Types of Data Do Your Mobile Users Really Need?

A few years ago, AT&T Wireless (now Cingular Wireless) and Accenture commissioned a study to identify the most commonly requested data elements made by remote field sales forces.* In order of priority, areas such as inventory management and sales order status came out well ahead of contact and opportunity management. But if you think about inventory and order status, by design they are meant to be real-time checks. Making that information available in an offline mode means the data is not necessarily current and is therefore unreliable.

Another takeaway from this study is that sales representatives themselves are not necessarily the ones asking to have SFA capabilities (contact, account, pipeline, and activity management) available offline. This request more likely comes from sales managers who are expecting and hoping their sales reps will work as often as they need to — including offline when necessary.

* "Creating Business Value with Wirelessly Enabled Business Processes," Cingular Wireless and Accenture White Paper (2004).

Untethered, Online Access Often Does the Trick

Untethered, connected access is often more than sufficient for users' needs, even if they're constantly on the road. Internet access has become incredibly prevalent — it's as close as your local coffee shop. Even confined to Ethernet or Wi-Fi connectivity, practically every airport and hotel can accommodate business users. Beyond that, the major wireless carriers are now providing affordable wireless data cards with coverage areas as wide as cell phone networks, and with speeds approaching those of the wired state.

And on the back end, when compared with full offline capabilities, untethered access alleviates the burden on IT by reducing overhead and lowering maintenance costs. More on these benefits will follow in the section "Think Twice About Enabling Complete Offline Access."

When Are Disconnected Solutions Really Necessary?

This is not to say that there is no longer a need for offline capabilities. The need is just not as widespread as many organizations believe. Only in a handful of scenarios would an organization still want to fulfill the need for offline use:

  1. In regions where Internet access is not as readily available, such as some areas of Asia Pacific or Latin America.

  2. When reps need to update data while working side by side with customers, and access is not guaranteed. Consider pharmaceutical sales reps who need to get an automated signature from a physician to verify sample drops on a tablet PC or a handheld device, or a medical products company that takes orders directly from customers on-site, needing access to products, pricing, and configurations offline.

While disconnected mobile solutions are the logical choice in these scenarios, companies must be mindful of the tradeoffs of offline access.

Think Twice About Enabling Complete Offline Access

Over the last few years, I have noticed a number of companies migrating back to an online deployment over an offline one due to the required overhead associated with maintaining disconnected data.

When considering complete offline access, IT organizations must ask themselves these questions:

Exactly who gets access to what data? Pinning down access rights can be a very complex undertaking, especially in large, highly matrixed sales organizations.

What happens when multiple people access and potentially change the same data in the same timeframe? This is otherwise known as conflict resolution.

How will we discipline reps to synchronize on a regular basis? Also consider what issues will arise for both the sales rep and the corporate server data when this discipline is not maintained.

What availability of IT resources can we provide? Maintaining an offline, synching deployment adds considerable overhead for the IT department. This would include setting up synchronization rules and managing any troubleshooting associated with discrepancies in the field (inconsistent configurations, synch times, access speeds, etc.).

How will we deal with territory realignments? The most overhead-intensive process when managing disconnected users is conducting massive territory realignments, which essentially means swapping out historical records for each sales rep and replacing them with data for their new territory. Depending on the number of reps, the amount of customer data, and how ready access to high-speed connections is, managing this effort may mean having reps ship their PCs to the office for updates, or sending them CDs that contain the new data. Either scenario can lead to unwanted downtime in the field.

Happily, it is possible to take an approach that blends online access — through mySAP CRM Sales Online and SAP NetWeaver Portal, for example — with SAP solutions that support offline access as needed.

Additional Offline Capabilities Supported by SAP

In addition to the traditional, well-proven method of deploying SAP Mobile Sales on a disconnected laptop,1 SAP offers a number of ways to package up data for offline use, ranging from exports to Excel to populating preformatted forms.

Offline Data in Read-Only Mode

Many times, read-only access to data is all that is required to effectively support a sales call, primarily for last-minute, pre-call planning. Through mySAP CRM's integration with Microsoft Office, data can be offloaded into Excel or can be exported through a mail-merge-like function into Word or PDF files.

Offline Data in Writeable Format

SAP has recently offered a capability known as Adobe Interactive Forms. SAP customers can now create updateable forms that interact with the server database in a bidirectional mode. The example shown in Figure 1 depicts how sales reps can distribute leads to a business partner as an interactive form, which can then be updated by the partner and processed electronically — and automatically — back into the database, all using email as the transport mechanism. This same capability can also be used to create updateable forms sales reps can take with them when meeting with key accounts, when they really do want to work offline.

Figure 1

Offline, Automated Lead Distribution Through Adobe Interactive Forms

Use of BlackBerry for Ready Access

The BlackBerry can also provide an effective alternative for ready access to key customer data in real time. SAP customers can benefit from this remote option in the same way that the SAP sales force does today: using the high-level capabilities of mySAP CRM Sales Online, including account, contact, activity, and opportunity management along with order status lookup and some basic analytics.

Key Takeaways

My advice is this: Do not rush into a completely offline mobile solution deployment. First consider implementing mySAP CRM Sales Online — a connected but untethered mobile approach — to determine whether mobile users in your company truly require complete, disconnected access. Also, investigate SAP-supported options including read-only access, Adobe Interactive Forms, or BlackBerry use as viable alternatives to an entirely offline approach to mobile access. The time and cost savings will be well worth your upfront planning efforts.

For more information, please visit www.sap.com/usa/solutions/mobilebusiness/index.epx. You can also reach me directly at james.goldfinger@sap.com or +1 908 391-6164.


1 For more on SAP Mobile Sales, please visit www.sap.com/solutions/mobilebusiness/mobilesales.epx.


Jim Goldfinger joined SAP America in 2003 as a Director of CRM Solutions, focused on sales automation for all industries and deployment strategies. Jim has over 20 years of experience in CRM solutions, and he started working in this area back in 1984 with Brock Control Systems. Prior to working at SAP, Jim also served as Director of Sales Force Automation at Clarify (now Amdocs) and as Vice President of CRM Strategy at PeopleSoft. During his career, he has project-managed over 100 CRM implementations globally. Jim graduated magna cum laude from Duke University with a bachelor's degree in science.

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