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Mobile CRM not just for SFA anymore

The ubiquity of smartphones and consolidation like SAP's acquisition of Sybase could mean a shot in the arm for mobile CRM.

Much as software as a service (SaaS) rose to prominence with CRM, the promise of mobile computing has centered around CRM as well, as companies sought to provide salespeople out on the road with the latest information on prospects and customers.

And while mobile CRM may never have fully lived up to its initial hype, in some ways it delivered, with most CRM vendors offering some mobile capability with their sales force automation (SFA) applications, unleashing and enabling organizations’ "road warriors."

With the emergence and – now -- ubiquity of smartphones, much of the focus and development around mobile applications from vendors has shifted to business intelligence (BI) and providing slick dashboards and reports to executives on the move. For example, in the wake of SAP's acquisition of Sybase, SAP's motto has become "anytime, anywhere, any device," and early demos and promises have focused on BI.

But there is plenty of opportunity for mobility in CRM outside of SFA. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) found that mobile enablement is the top spending priority for the organization's members next year, with 34% of field service members having approved a budget increase for mobility.

"Thirty-four percent is a pretty impressive number. We've been waiting for this to happen since the 1990s," said John Ragsdale, vice president of research at the TSIA. "The right device has been a big problem, but smartphones have more or less eliminated that issue. Now service is seeing some good ROI stories. It doesn't need to be a huge customized piece of hardware. If you have a BlackBerry, that's all you need."

Clunky user interfaces that attempted to recreate the full application also held back adoption of mobile CRM, but vendors have become smarter about adapting the interface for mobile clients.

"I was really surprised at how far along people were," Ragsdale said. "Essentially, everyone has some native application -- usually for the iPhone and the BlackBerry, though we're seeing more for Droids and some browsers in Japan."

In addition, the newer Web 2.0 infrastructures and application marketplaces like the Apple AppStore have made it easier to develop mobile applications.

Mobile knowledge management connecting departments

In terms of mobile CRM for service, knowledge management has become a particular area of interest, according to Ragsdale. As companies seek to reuse support content created across multiple departments and subsequently reduce multiple knowledge bases and the search tools required to manage them, they are seeking a cohesive knowledge management strategy. And as they amass this information in one central repository, employees need to access it.

"They are extending [knowledge management] not just within tech support, but we're hearing from field service, professional services, even the education groups," Ragsdale said. "There's a lot of interest in how we can extend this out to people, and that means extending to Web self-service as well."

Some CRM vendors have begun to extend mobile support capabilities to consumers, allowing them to solve problems themselves from a mobile device.

"Getting into the actual native applications can boost a lot of use," Ragsdale said.

There has also been some interest in extending mobile offers to customers based on location.

"I remember a million years ago, someone came up with advertising on the phone based on location," Ragsdale said. "At the time it was terrible, but convenience overrides paranoia. A few years ago, yes, I think consumers were really nervous about people being able to triangulate their location from cell towers, but once we see how convenient it is to use that feature, we get over that paranoia."

Mobile CRM extends beyond SFA in other sales areas as well

Today, mobile enablement for sales means more than just SFA, particularly for SAP customers wondering what the Sybase acquisition will bring, notes Jack Gold, founder and principal analyst of J. Gold Associates.

SAP already had a long-running partnership with Sybase to bring its CRM application to the iPhone and BlackBerry, but with the acquisition, expect SAP to mobile-enable other modules from its ERP applications that will benefit sales.

"They've tried to take some common denominator apps -- order placement, time and travel, dispatch -- those are on the list for mobilization first," Gold said. "Then they'll move on to more niche-y apps or customized apps."

For companies mobilizing their CRM systems and complementary applications, this means thinking carefully about what to enable first.

"What you want to do is pick some core functions that will be needed in high volume, then look at a more customized approach for different areas," Gold said.

And while the acquisition of Sybase will facilitate development of mobile applications by SAP and its partners, customers still need to think carefully about their own specific needs and involve IT in all decisions.

"It really never ends," Gold said. "IT will be a conduit forever because there are lots of specialized apps. As SAP is not a pure off-the-shelf product, neither are the mobility products coming from Sybase."

The advice is similar for mobile service. When establishing a mobile service strategy, the TSIA recommends first conducting a survey of corporate data to understand what mobile devices customers use and the desired use cases for information access. This helps IT to balance the mobile demands of both customers and employees and, ultimately, as vendors release mobile search and knowledge management, to select best-of-breed applications. Those who have invested heavily in building out their own mobile applications may need to consider that a sunk cost, Ragsdale said.

"Spending was really up this year, and one of the reasons was pent-up demand, but also because people are moving off their homegrown infrastructure," he said. "If you've been trying to maintain a homegrown incident management system or knowledge base on SharePoint, you can't take advantage of any of this. The social media integration and now the mobile revolution are making best-of-breed tools more attractive. They automatically come mobile-enabled and they work with any browser that's out there. If you're trying to build it yourself, you're going to be five years behind your competitors."

And for SAP customers interested in mobilizing their field service operations, there is good news ahead. The SAP partner community will provide options, it just may take a while.

"I believe it's not going to change immediately," Gold said. "What's going to happen is over the long haul [three to four years], you'll see a lot more Sybase-based field force apps coming to the marketplace."

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