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Field force automation enters the realm of CRM

Mobile field force automation (FFA) can be called the uncharted frontier of CRM. Many companies plunge headfirst into FFA plans as soon as CRM is in place. But FFA, like CRM, is not a magic cure for what ails an organization.

Mobile field force automation (FFA) is the uncharted frontier of CRM. As companies are putting the finishing touches on their CRM systems, they are beginning to boldly go where few companies have gone before -- into the realm of mobile field force automation.

But FFA, like CRM, is not a magic cure for what ails an organization. "FFA requires the same seamless coordination and integration of people, process and technology as CRM in order to optimize customer-touching functions and maximize relationships with customers," said Dennis Schweigert, director, business process services at Bethesda, Md.-based consultancy ISM Inc.

Instead, FFA creates an opportunity for companies to further serve their customers, Schweigert said. The ideal FFA process includes the employees of the company working together in a collaborative function, established metrics, integration with the CRM and back-office systems and a high level of process integrity. It also supports the direction of the business, he said.

Less integrated field service programs have caused pain for companies. Often, they could not optimize scheduling, did not allow a single view of the customer for the field service representative, could not provide adequate information to service the customer in the field and lacked some way to track effectiveness, according to Brian Jones, analyst at Boston-based Yankee Group.

"Before you get involved, make sure the underlying data is quality data," said Barry Berlin, CEO of Newton, Mass.-based Client Interaction Inc. Berlin warns not to start a mobile initiative until the CRM process and the data in the company's data warehouse is solid.

Companies will have to undergo some sort of business process redesign to implement an FFA process, Schweigert said. But the technology also creates an opportunity to expand customer-facing processes, because the field force is so visible.

Integration with CRM software and back-office systems also poses a challenge, Jones said.

Berlin suggests using extensible markup language (XML) and Java to integrate the software in the office with the software displayed on a handheld. Middleware also insulates the application from the device, thereby protecting the investment from future shifts in technology, he said.

Another challenge is the mobile technology itself. The root of the problems lies within connectivity, but bandwidth and coverage problems should be solved within the next three years, Jones said.

Right now, there are no market leaders, according to Jones. There is tough competition, but no one vendor holds a top spot, as Siebel does with sales force automation, he said.

In evaluating a mobile platform vendor, a company needs to look for CRM expertise, financial strength, scalability and tools for active development, Berlin said. The vendor should also be network-independent so that the company can choose its own wireless service provider, and have excellent architecture or be partnered with a company that thoroughly understands XML and Java-based platforms.

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