Wireless CRM takes to the field

While many companies are still testing large-scale wireless CRM projects, Stamford, Conn.-based mailing systems vendor Pitney Bowes Inc. is an experienced practitioner. The US$4 billion company set up its first wireless system in the late ’90s. Since then, it has deployed a second-generation system for 250 field service employees in its Document Messaging Technologies division, which sells high-end inserter mailing systems.

Now the company is wrapping up a more sophisticated wireless CRM rollout for its Global Mailing Systems division, where some 1,500 wired employees service Pitney Bowes machines designed for the low-volume distribution of mail.

The newest system connects field service representatives to its back-end call centre and service applications. Using pocket PCs, RIM 957s from Research In Motion Ltd. and other devices, service technicians can access a wide range of data from multiple back-end systems. Such data includes information about inventory availability and whether calls are billable or covered by contract.

Early Start

The company’s first wireless CRM system was more limited. It relied on Motorola Inc. “brick” client devices that connected to homegrown CRM systems, and it retrieved service call data over Motient Corp.’s wireless data network, says Ralph Nichols, service program manager at Pitney Bowes.

In 1999, the company began moving to low-cost RIM devices and started work on an integrated field service and call centre back end, says Mark Davis, vice-president of customer service.

In 2001 Pitney Bowes installed field service software from San Mateo, Calif.-based Siebel Systems Inc. for its Document Messaging division, and it upgraded to cellular wireless service from Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless, which uses General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) technology.

For wireless connectivity middleware, Pitney Bowes uses software and services from Antenna Software Inc. Antenna A3 and SmartClient field service software links field workers with RIM handheld devices to Siebel sales force automation software and Pitney Bowes’ parts ordering system.

Network coverage was important, so the company tested several carriers and devices before settling on Cingular’s service and RIM’s handheld devices. Jersey City, N.J.-based Antenna was the logical choice for gateway software and services, says Paul Weston, vice-president of CRM at Pitney Bowes. Its software had the most features, included systems management tools for troubleshooting breakdowns, supported multiple carriers’ networks and was already Siebel-approved.

Ensuring the convenience and usability of the devices was also key. “If the thing is difficult to use, the people will find ways around it,” says Weston. So the staff made sure that menus on the RIM devices were easy to navigate and included special product codes to help users place inventory orders.

The workflow starts in the system when a customer calls the contact centre to place a field service request. The Siebel application identifies the product needing repair, selects the representative to dispatch and pushes the request out to that technician’s wireless device. The recipient then acknowledges the receipt of the order.

Messages from the devices are routed to Antenna’s wireless gateways in New Jersey. XML-formatted data is then forwarded over a frame-relay or VPN connection to Pitney Bowes’ data centre, where it passes through a gateway server before being routed to the back-end applications.

The system delivers customer data to field service personnel in near real time, including the service history for a given customer or piece of equipment. It also tells the technician whether work is covered by contract or is billable and feeds data for billable work into the company’s billing system. When parts are required, the Siebel field service application determines if the part is in stock and sends information on parts the technician uses to a legacy inventory application that in turn connects to the company’s SAP supply chain management system.

For areas where wireless coverage is spotty, client devices either use a dial-up connection or store information and forward it later.

Weston says that better information has allowed field service staff to solve problems faster and complete more calls per day. Managers now can get up-to-date reports on what activities service personnel are engaged in and what steps were taken to satisfy customer requests. And by flagging the problems that require the most technician time, Pitney Bowes has been able to save money by scheduling proactive maintenance calls.

The company is nearly done rolling out a similar system in its Global Mailing Systems operation. The newer system features smart cell phones, RIM 957s, pocket PCs or other handhelds and GPRS services provided by several carriers. By using a mix of carriers and handheld devices with Antenna’s SmartClient software, Pitney Bowes estimates that it can cover 95 per cent of its territory, up from 85 per cent with the previous system.

The Global Mailing unit’s system is similar to that of the Document Messaging group, but it’s completely separate. “There is a uniqueness between the organizations,” Davis explains. “I’m more distributed (than the Document Messaging unit) with a greater breadth.”

The Global Mailing rollout also was about five times more costly than that of the Document Messaging unit’s system. The Global Mailing system uses more expensive Windows CE-based handhelds and required more extensive integration with the company’s SAP, billing, call centre and other applications. With this setup, Pitney Bowes hopes to create a single system of record and avoid re-entering the same data in different systems. With the resulting productivity gains, the company expects the system to pay for itself in three years.

Weston has some advice for others trying to build similar systems: Test the hardware and software thoroughly, make sure the devices have adequate battery life, and plan for the change management such a project requires. “The key,” he says, “is understanding how these processes interact with the rest of your business and understanding that it’s not just field service. It affects sales.”

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