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Mobile CRM makes its move

Once again, analysts and experts are saying that mobile CRM is ready to take off, but this time the idea may have some legs.

Will 2006 be the year that mobile CRM finally takes off? So far, all signs point to an impending launch.

CRM vendors are readying for the countdown by purchasing or partnering with mobile technology firms. And analysts are generally optimistic of clear weather ahead. For example, Gartner expects continued strong annual growth in mobile CRM -- predicting sales of around 40% to 60% for the next two to three years.

At the same time, analysts are quick to note that not all CRM applications are ripe for mobilization. Rather, customers want mobile access to specific subsets of CRM data and functions.

For example, sales force automation (SFA) is one area that has long been a natural focus for mobile CRM, notes Gartner vice president William Clark. Enterprise asset management and field service automation are others.

"Field service management is getting a greater push, because it's simply more lucrative," he explains. "I've seen annualized ROIs of 100% to 500%."

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Medical equipment maker Hologic, based in Bedford, Mass., has discovered first-hand the payback of field service automation. A year ago, the company's traveling service engineers swapped paper-based reporting for laptops equipped with a mobile version of the company's Oracle field service application. The result has been faster call resolution and shorter billing cycles, as well as less manual data entry and better management of parts inventory.

"In the past, the engineers would write up the [service call] information and send it to headquarters for data entry. The reports would pile up, and it might take days, weeks or even months to close out the calls," says Dave Rudzinsky, Hologic's CIO. That resulted in delayed billing and slower restocking of the parts in repair trucks.

Hologic's experience is indicative of the way mobile CRM is being adopted -- for specific business processes where the payback is clear.

Of course, mobile CRM isn't cheap. Gartner estimates that wireless field service, for example, costs about $4,500 per user for the first year, including hardware, network costs and software.

A combination of low market demand and complex technical issues has slowed entry of the big CRM software vendors into the mobile CRM market. Meanwhile, many mobile technology firms have taken the opportunity to carve out their niches. Some of the current key players in wireless CRM are MDSI, @Road, Sybase, IBM, Syclo, Vettro, Antenna Software, Dexterra,, SAP, Oracle and Siebel, according to Clark.

Getting over CRM's mobile hurdles

"More of the innovation is occurring with the mobile software players rather than with the large CRM players," observes Eugene Signorini, vice president of wireless/mobile enterprise solutions for the Boston-based Yankee Group. "Some of these larger ISVs [independent software vendors] don't have the capability in terms of an application design for various form factors and devices."

And there are other technical problems to overcome, including making the CRM application accessible over non-broadband, wireless networks and addressing security issues such as providing VPN clients, virus protection and methods for securing the device if it's lost.

"Vendors are solving these problems, though. We're seeing a lot of activity out there," says Signorini.

Another issue is that the application needs of mobile CRM users are usually very different from the needs of internal employees. Mobile workers require only a stripped-down subset of the data and functions of the main sales force, field service or other CRM application.

So that subset tends to be highly focused and extremely valuable to them. Take for example, Symetra Financial, a Bellevue, Wash.-based financial services firm. Symetra's 30 external wholesalers -- sales and support representatives who call on Symetra's 20,000 to 30,000 independent insurance agents across the U.S. -- rely on their Blackberries to look up addresses and notes on agents they're visiting. The devices provide real-time access to Symetra's Onyx database.

"It's the core functionality that's important -- looking up names and addresses, integrating that with Mapquest to get a map and directions, then calling them on the Blackberry. They can do all of this now without even pulling over," says Dave Batterberry, senior IT analyst for Symetra.

The wholesalers also use the Blackberries to update customer accounts and to input notes about their visits. Having a real-time link to the corporate database ensures that everyone, both internal and external, has the most current data.

"They can enter this stuff right from the agent's office," says Batterberry.

Whether 2006 proves to be "the year of mobile CRM" is still a topic of debate. But clearly it marks the beginning of a steady upward adoption curve. Both Signorini and Clark see it as a market with plenty of healthy growth ahead.

"Even in industries where mobile is hot, like field service, the penetration rate is well under 15%. So over the next five to 10 years, there's really no end in sight to the growth," says Clark.

Sue Hildreth is a freelance writer specializing in enterprise software. She can be reached at

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