Tablet computers are flying off store shelves, mostly to eager consumers.

But businesses are also finding used for the powerful and lightweight devices, particularly among field staff.

One of the latest is Reliance Home Comfort, a sales and service provider of home heating, air conditioning and hot water equipment in four provinces, which is equipping its sales staff with Microsoft  Surface Pro tablets.

Celso Mello, the company’s CIO,  says the reason it chose that solution is that Surface Pro runs the full Windows operating system , so it can connect back to Reliance’s Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform in its contact centre.

But the project nearly didn’t get off the ground.

Before we go into that, a little background:

Reliance was once part of the Union Gas utility in the 1980s, when companies providing energy also sold the heating and water equipment installed in homes. During a wave of deregulation in Ontario, a  number of utilities shed their appliance divisions. Union’s  eventually became Reliance.

Today it has 1.4 million customers in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta, most of whom rent gas water heaters. Over the years Reliance has added furnaces and central air conditioners to its products, as well as home security monitoring.

But while it updated the product line, its business applications stayed the same — some three software suites covering business functions such as billing, equipment and warranty information and order fulfillment.

A service agent had would to go through six screens and 20 mouse clicks to place an order into the system, Mello says, which took about six minutes to complete.

Starting in 2011, three years after Mello arrived, it was decided Reliance had to be brought into the 21st century. Using Microsoft’s [Nasdaq: MSFT] BizTalk middleware, data from the separate applications was merged into a single view, with Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM used as a front end.

The integration, largely done in-house although some programming work from an integrator was also used, shaved 50 seconds off the work contact centre staff did to process a phone-in order, Mello says.

“Fifty seconds sound like a little,” says Mello, “but when you do it hundreds of thousands of times a year it adds up pretty quickly.”

With that project finished, Mello turned to helping the field sales staff, who were getting muscular toting around binders full of product brochures when they went on house calls. It was “very paper intensive,” Mello says — and after a deal was signed there was more paperwork.

Hence the tablets, which began being distributed to the sales staff of 100 in August. “We didn’t want a laptop, which is bulky,” Mello said. The choice of a Windows tablet was simple: Staff needed a device that could run a customized version of Dynamics CRM on- or offline.

“We have no idea what kind of connectivity they’ll have when they’re in customers’ homes,” Mello explained. “They could go into a rural area where there’s no cell towers.”

When contact centre staff arrange appointments, they appear on the tablet’s calendar. When sales staff meet in homes with customers, the tablet includes product information, a configurator for putting together the parts needed for a solution, a calculator for pricing for brochures and the ability for customers to digitally sign the final contract.

The order then goes electronically to the fulfillment staff, which looks after scheduling the installation with a contractor in a process that grabs data from the contract — including photos snapped by the salesman with the tablet of where the equipment goes.

But Mello still wants to go further.

“We want to get to the point where the salesperson can turn the Surface device over to the customer and let them browse through different offerings as if it was a brochure. We’re not there yet.”

The capability is being worked on and will likely be ready early next year.

While the tablet project has only three months of experience behind it — and two more months before they are in the hands of all staff — Mello says there are already important lessons: Introducing new technology to staff involves a period of change management that has to be taken into account.

“Salespeople are very competitive. You have to engage them. And to do that you have to explain what’s in it for them, before you even start to talk about the implementation. We probably underestimated that in the beginning. Things only started to progress well once we were able to define what was in it for the users.”

Second, management sponsorship is needed before the project design is complete. “It took us quite a while to get the right sponsorship for the project. But once we had the VP of sales on board things progressed really well.”

Third, although an Agile process used, they didn’t get end users involved early enough to ensure the final product would appeal to them.

In fact, Mello says, the tablet project nearly died before  it got started. Early last year a team of senior staff was asked to think of ways of using technology to make the life of the sales staff easier. But for a variety of reasons, including other issues had more priority, “things started to de-rail and the project came really close to dying a natural death.”

“It got shelved a bit, but it was resurrected early this year with other people and the right sponsorship … Now we’re really proud of this project.”

“Typically the business issues are more important than the technical issues,” he concludes. “Zero in on the business aspects of the implementation, because they will take more of your time and effort.”

 

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