Can Handhelds Improve Support? (Part 2)

Could handhelds improve customer support while costing you less? Tips on how to evaluate whether wireless devices are right for your business, including potential expenses and savings.
Handhelds have become an indispensable part of business, but their use is mostly limited to the management of personal information like contacts and appointments. What if you could use wireless handhelds to improve customer support while spending less?

In Part 1, we examined two case studies that did precisely that. Key3Media dramatically decreased its average time-to-close on support for a network used during a trade show. Outsourcing IT vendor Alpha Microsystems says it paid back the cost of switching to wireless handhelds in four months.

Neither case was a typical in-house support scenario, and even handheld and infrastructure software vendors acknowledge that very few IT shops have embraced wireless handhelds as a support tool. But the case studies show how, in some situations, handhelds could lower your support costs and increase productivity. Today we'll discuss particulars.

Where You'll Save
Ray Collins, Alpha Microsystems' business development manager, cites six areas in which his company saved money using handhelds -- points that could apply to your business.

    1. Technicians become more efficient. At a specific site, technicians have real-time access to records for specific parts and pieces of equipment. In addition, it's easier to dispatch them to a nearby problem.

    2. Reduced cell phone bills. Collins says Alpha Microsystems' cell phone bills previously averaged between $300 and $400 a month. Even taking into account the cost of the flat-fee wireless service for the handhelds, wireless costs have been reduced by $150 a month.

    3. Greater accuracy. Using cell phones to exchange data with the main office was imprecise and led to errors, Collins says: "Technicians spent a lot of time on the phone calling dispatch, and a lot of inaccurate information was going back and forth."

    4. Productivity gains. Collins estimates a 30 to 40 percent productivity gain from technicians having information, such as part shipment status, in real time: "They save travel time if the part isn't there yet."

    5. Forms are filled out more punctually. Instead of waiting to get back to their office, technicians now fill out forms on the spot.

    6. Tighter billing cycle. The rapid filling out of forms means the company can bill clients more quickly -- and get paid sooner. With the new system, bills typically go out to clients within two weeks instead of 30 days, as had been the case. This is relevant in enterprises in which service calls are charged back to departments.

Steve Wylie, Key3's director of network operations, noted that his company didn't study return on investment, but he said the dramatic improvements in time-to-close times will pay big dividends.

"Vendors pay a lot of money to be at the trade show," he said. "Every minute the network is down, thousands of people walk past their booths and can't see their products." Similarly, when a business' technology is down, employees aren't productive.

Size Matters
Collins, Wylie, and Wylie's colleague Erik Cummings, who managed the Key3Media trade show network, agree that a company's size should determine whether wireless handhelds will help a support staff.

If your company's campus is small, handhelds might not be worth the investment. But the more dispatching that goes on and the wider the service area, the more handhelds can boost support operation efficiency.

"It might not be advantageous for a business with a few technicians and one building, but if you have five buildings and a lot of technicians, it will absolutely help," Cummings says.

If a technician is in a distant building on a service call, checking for more trouble tickets in the same vicinity is much faster with direct wireless access than calling in or finding an unused desktop computer or setting up a laptop to access the database.

"We looked at the time our field engineers spent on the phone, calling dispatch and the inaccurate info going back and forth going back and forth, and it was a no-brainer," Alpha Microsystems' Collins said.

What It Costs
Three major expense areas must be considered. First, of course, is the cost of the handhelds. For the most part, these come in two flavors: Those based on the Palm operating systems, including devices from Palm and Handspring, and those based on Microsoft's Pocket PC, coming from vendors such as Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Casio, and Symbol Technologies.

Two factors in determining which to use are price and how you want to connect to your system's back end. Palm OS devices tend to be less expensive, running as low as $150, while Pocket PCs cost between $350 and $600.

If you're not sure about implementing wireless devices, the low prices of the Palm VIIx may be an incentive. Recent price cuts reduced the price to $99 after a rebate, and writing a quick link to your back-end system for testing purposes will take only a day or so. That can make it a relatively pain-free experiment without a major investment.

You can connect to your back-end system either via public wireless networks, the method used by Alpha Microsystems, or via your company's wireless local area network. Key3Media used Pocket PC handhelds from Symbol Technologies equipped with 802.11b PC Cards. Using a public wireless network requires additional fees of between $25 and $50 per month per device, depending on the service provider. A wireless LAN adapter costs, typically, about $150.

The third cost is the time required to write the code to connect the handhelds to your back-end system. Most systems from vendors such as Computer Associates make it relatively easy to gain access via wireless devices.

The easiest solution, however, is to use a Palm VII and that device's native query language. Collins said that writing the connection to Alpha Microsystem's SQL Server was simple.

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