Mobile dial-up app pays off for sales firm

After Chuck Latham spent US$300,000 trying, and failing, to launch a mobile sales application for his sales firm, he didn't give up.

Instead he let someone else do it.

Today, Charles Latham Associates in the US relies on a hosted service from application service provider (ASP) Unique Solutions, with a specialized sales automation application developed for handheld computers and data synchronization software to manage nearly 200 sales staff members in the field. Most of these professionals work from home as the sales force for wholesalers that supply pet food and other products to retailers such as Petco.

The Toshiba PocketPC computers let sales staffers upload once or twice daily digital photos, survey results, order data, signatures and more to a central database. The next day, managers can see how a new display has been set up or why a group of customers had complaints about another display.

In addition, regional managers now review each Friday morning with CEO Chuck Latham and other headquarters executives an extensive set of weekly reports on orders, the number of stores visited by each sales representative, pending problems or backlogs. The data gives senior managers new, more accurate measures of the effectiveness of the sales team and guides decisions on how to improve that effectiveness.

The sales representatives see only their Toshiba and a Windows application called FieldTrack. They dial a toll-free number once or twice daily to synchronize the data they collect at each stop with a FieldTrack database, via Extended Systems' ExtendConnect middleware.

Unique Solutions wrote FieldTrack as a way to eliminate paper from field service operations. Unique offers the application as a hosted service specifically designed for small and midsize merchandizing service companies.

The idea was a sanity saver, Latham says.

"We had stupidly tried to write our own program for Palm handhelds and a Lotus Notes database, about three years ago," Latham recalls. The synchronization software from Extended Systems worked fine, but the PalmOS at the time lacked the features of a 32-bit platform such as Microsoft PocketPC. Worst of all, Notes proved unsuitable as the data store because it wasn't a true SQL relational database.

Latham was getting desperate, investigating interactive voice-response phones and optical character readers as ways to turn data around quickly. But those options limited sales representatives to yes or no responses.

In the meantime, the representatives were faxing orders and written reports to headquarters and experimenting with Handspring's Treo device, a combination cell phone and PDA.

Latham eventually found Unique. FieldTrack gave the sales team most of what it needed and a centralized Microsoft SQL Server database that made for extensive data analysis. Even more important for the hard-pressed Latham, Unique worked closely with their clients.

But it seemed like deja vu all over again when the first rollout, on Casio PocketPCs, ground to a halt when a memory fault plagued the handhelds. Seventy of nearly 100 of the devices had to be sent back, and Casio took 60 to 90 days to sort things out, Latham recalls. But by then, he had had enough and switched to the Toshiba handhelds, with a bar code scanner and a separate HP digital camera. A memory card lets the representative transfer the images to the handheld for uploading.

Sales representatives usually synchronize their handhelds once a day. Unique has eight toll-free T-1 lines to the hosted site. With Extended's software, each synchronization takes about 12 to 14 minutes, says Andy Fay, Unique's executive vice president. Each sales representative typically uploads 10 to 15 images daily.

So far, Latham says, he's spent about $100,000 on all the various hardware and software elements, and another $100,000 for the ASP service.

"We're starting to see a return on our investment," he says. Part of the return is in getting much more accurate data, much faster than ever before. "For managers, they can now know when they have a problem usually within 24 hours, instead of having to wait a week," he says.

Another benefit is the weekly trend analysis. "We can evaluate how well we executed that week," Latham says.

The next step is adding, with Unique, a complete travel-and-expense report program, followed later by a time-and-attendance program. "A 2 percent reduction in mileage (reimbursements), by more precise records, can pay for this (system) in a year," Latham says.

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