Firms claim an edge with wireless

A recent survey conducted by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATAAlliance) has found the majority of Canadian businesses surveyed believe mobile technology will help them better compete. The survey has also noted that more than half of the 345 respondents expect the mobile office or the ability to be available anytime anywhere will become a reality in the next three years.

Managing sales is already better and faster for AGF Management Ltd. after the Toronto-based global investment management firm deployed a wireless solution for capturing and accessing client data real-time.

AGF’s 40 sales teams serve around 40,000 wholesalers — financial advisors who sell and manage products for more than one million investors. The central challenge for these teams is acquiring a deep understanding of clients’ complex needs.

The company wanted a way to capture relevant client data at the point of contact and access it during sales meetings. Laptops used in the past hardly helped, and AGF sales teams experienced the usual limitations: excessive time spent each day downloading data from the network and synching this information later.

As sales reps previously found it difficult to capture client data on the road, they usually e-mailed or phoned assistants with information that needed to be entered into the customer relationship management (CRM) system.

This long and laborious process was error-prone and information on subtle nuances of the client relationship was lost.

With a mobile application from Waltham, Mass.-based Pyxis Mobile Inc., all that’s no more than an unpleasant memory. The Pyxis implementation was recently rolled out to AGF’s entire Canadian sales force — along with Blackberry devices from Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion (RIM).

Today AGF sales reps easily enter data without intermediaries. “Eighty-five per cent of our sales people [enter] activity information via Blackberry into our CRM [system]. That’s a huge number for us,” says Steve Elioff Elioff, senior vice-president of CRM at AGF.

Equally important, reps have real-time access to CRM, enterprise and back-office data during sales calls. Pyxis’ mWholesaler allows reps to wirelessly access contact details from CRM systems as well as rep, branch and firm level sales history. Another module, mReports provides executive management reports highlighting investment updates, company financial summaries, operation activities and IT status.

According to AGF, deployment of the Blackberries and Pyxis software was accomplished in a record time of 13 weeks. As Pyxis’ domain expertise is wireless solutions for the investment industry, no customization was required by AGF.

The software is designed to work with the data model and definitions typically used within the sector. “For us, it was a simple matter of mapping the application to our existing CRM [system],” says Elioff. “It was probably the easiest technology deployment we’ve ever done with a sales group.”

Pyxis says its products are already being used by 10 of the top 20 asset management firms in the United States. “Over 30 per cent of all mutual fund wholesalers are using our applications in the field,” says Christopher Willis, director of marketing and business development at Pyxis.

He says Pyxis Mobile is the only vertically-focused enterprise data delivery software developer that caters to the investment sector. The future trend, he says, will be to provide more customized applications and functionality on Blackberries. “Users are clamouring for Blackberries, but there need to be business benefits and ROI,” says Willis.

Aegis Funding Corp. in Houston, Tex., has also ‘mobilized’ its sales force. Back in May 2004, the company de-centralized and closed down its 60 branches across the United States in an effort to become more efficient. Its entire sales force became home or field-based and the company adopted BlackBerry devices.

The company chose BlackBerry over other mobile devices because “we didn’t want to go through the expense of a laptop and besides that [laptops] are inconvenient to use when you are out calling customers all the day,” explains John Peacock, Aegis Funding’s vice-president of sales and administration.

There are five companies under the Aegis umbrella. Corporately, there are 500 BlackBerry users and 300 of those are used at Aegis Funding Corp. The mortgage lender company did test other handheld devices such as Treo but Peacock felt the RIM devices were more user-friendly.

The killer app for Aegis Funding’s sales forces is something Peacock calls the Blackberry Pipeline Report. “It is a fairly comprehensive report of the business that’s in the pipeline now for an individual sales person,” he says.

He adds that the report lists customer names and contact information, name of the loan offering, status of that loan and the date of the status. “If they want to follow up on a particular loan offering, then all they need to do is make a click and they can either e-mail or call their customer straight from the pipeline report.”

Mobile technology lets his sales team get information out quickly without having to be tied to the company network or a specific location, Peacock says. “It increases your capacity and makes you more efficient. We conduct business on it on the weekends, so it is for all intent and purposes a mobile office. “The downside of the BlackBerry is it extends your workday,” he adds.

The CATAAlliance survey reported that 52 per cent of respondents said they were adopting mobile technology to provide their employees with flexible work options such as working from home like the sales force at Aegis. Remote working is beginning to gain acceptance in the financial sector, according to Michael Rozender, a senior associate with Fox Group Consulting in Markham, Ont.

“This is starting to become a reality [despite its] shaky start seven or eight years ago [because it] took a big hit in some of the security scares and dot-com meltdowns. Now it is a much more accepted thing and a much more desirable thing to enable knowledge workers to work from home or remote locations,” he says.

Although the survey did not break down into specific verticals such as the financial services sector, Rozender says financial institutions are holding back on wireless adoption because of concerns and paranoia that surround securing data. Security and viruses were the top concern to wireless adoption among 82 per cent of respondents of the CATA Alliance survey. “They know it can be secure, know about extra secure VPNs and that there are standards in place but they are still paranoid,” he says.

However, Brian Sharwood, a principal with the Seaboard Group in Toronto, says the financial services sector is one area where banks live by paranoia. “They haven’t been an industry afraid of wireless for security reasons,” Sharwood reports. “[Banks] also have a lot of smart people that know how to secure things. They are not afraid to do something for the sake of security. They are one of the first people to adopt BlackBerries and BlackBerry addressed the issue of security for them and still does probably better than any other industry or competitors.”

He adds that despite recent scandals and having to comply with regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley, the financial services sector should be comfortable in dealing with security issues.

Over at Aegis Funding Corp., Peacock believes there hasn’t been an issue with security so far. He says the devices Aegis uses are encrypted and the Blackberry Enterprise Server used to provision the BlackBerries is set up so that the specific user and only the specific user gets his or her own e-mail and reporting applications.

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