The invasion of the handhelds

PDAs have evolved from glorified address books to essential business equipment. But is IT ready?
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In this article:
Grenley-Stewart Resources

Words to the Wise
Lessons learned about using PDAs in the corporate environment

Using a personal digital assistant on the job has produced an unexpected bonus for Christine Snodgrass, an account executive with fuel sales company Grenley-Stewart Resources. When Snodgrass used to make a sales call carrying a briefcase overflowing with papers and books, she was immediately treated with suspicion. Now, however, with all this information stored on her handheld device, customers "don't have a clue, and their guard is down," says Snodgrass, in Tacoma, Wash. "That makes it so much easier to cold call and to approach potential customers."

The past year has seen explosive growth in sales of personal digital assistants (PDAs)--pocket-sized computers traditionally used to store personal data such as appointments, lists, and calendars. But PDAs also are making inroads into the corporate world--and creating headaches for some IT managers.

"It's thrown another wrinkle in," says Mitchell Sheean, IT manager at Grenley-Stewart, referring to the fact that handhelds are just one more device for his department to manage and support.

According to Forrester Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., the PDA's move into the corporate space has not always been graceful. Last fall, when Forrester polled 50 Fortune 1000 companies on their IT purchases for its report "Managing Device Chaos," analysts found that 92% of employees had PDAs for their own use, but that most of these devices were unsupported by corporate IT departments. IT managers in general are a little wary of handhelds, the report concluded, because they add another client device to an often complicated mix.

Still, the attraction of handheld computing in business is clear--salespeople and other mobile workers can travel with all of their company's information, as well as with their calendars and to-do lists in their pockets. Some of the newest devices feature full keyboards and screens, and include access to e-mail and the Web, letting mobile workers stay connected to the office without setting up a laptop.

Gregory Stewart, CEO at Grenley-Stewart Resources, says having current pricing information at hand decreases the time it takes to close a deal.
PDAs are the mighty-mights of the ever-growing mobile computer market. Last year, sales of handheld devices topped 3.9 million units, a 61% growth over the previous year, according to Dataquest Inc., of San Jose, Calif. And sales are expected to continue to skyrocket. Forrester Research predicts that 10.5 million units will sell by 2002, with 76% of those PDAs being used in business.

"It's definitely the future," says Grenley-Stewart's Sheean.

Embracing the inevitable

AT A GLANCE: Grenley-Stewart Resources

The problem: With fuel stations across the country, it was almost impossible for salespeople to keep on top of pricing information. It took as long as a week to get all the relevant pricing information to a prospective customer.

The solution: The company handed out PDAs to its 10-person salesforce, and each member is now able to download current prices daily and take them out on sales calls. The PDAs also include maps to each truck stop location. Customers instantly have all the information they need to make a buying decision./font>

The IT infrastructure: Grenley-Stewart uses PalmPilots from the Palm Computing Division of 3Com Corp., of Santa Clara, Calif., and connects them to the corporate intranet via middleware from AvantGo Inc., of San Mateo, Calif.

The future: The company plans a pilot program to give palm devices to five of its clients--truck drivers--so they can download maps to the fueling stations, along with current fuel prices.

As more and more IT managers recognize the potential benefits PDAs offer, they are learning to embrace them as business tools. Indeed, companies such as Grenley-Stewart are issuing PDAs to their mobile staff and allowing them to download information from corporate intranets.

Grenley-Stewart issued PalmPilots from the Palm Computing Division of 3Com Corp., to its 10 salespeople a year ago. The handhelds were initially used in a traditional way--to store information on their truck-driver customers and keep track of appointments. But soon the account reps were using the devices to access timely pricing data on the company's Web site, enabling them to cut in half the time it took to close a sale. The sales reps simply put their PDA into a "cradle" at a PC, and run a sync program, which downloads the information from the company's Web site and ensures the information on the PDA and PC are updated and match.

According to Snodgrass, the time it takes to close a deal has gone from about a week to a day.

"With their PalmPilots, salespeople now have the price information they need at hand. That decreases the time it takes to close the deal," says Gregory Stewart, Grenley-Stewart's CEO.

In the old days, before their PDAs, salespeople at Grenley-Stewart would start wooing a new client by getting a list of the driver's locations. They would then go back to the office and enter each location into the company's intranet, get the latest fuel prices, and then report back to the customer. The process was long and unwieldy, according to Snodgrass.

To address this problem, about six months ago, Grenley-Stewart's Sheean set up a system where salespeople download up-to-date pricing information from around the country right into their PalmPilots. Today, before she hits the road, Snodgrass downloads the latest pricing information, along with maps and directions to each of the company's 1,400 fueling stations nationwide.

"Now when I go to a prospect, I have all the newest pricing information on hand," says Snodgrass. "They can make a decision right there."

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