How 4 companies use mobile apps to court customers

IT is on the hot seat to step up its mobile game as businesses strive to get closer to their customers. Here's how four tech departments are meeting that challenge.

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Freeman Co.: App tackles trade show grind

Location: Dallas

Line of business: Provider of business services related to trade shows and other events

IT staff: Approximately 100 employees

The mobile opportunity: Navigating a trade show is difficult work as an attendee, but the complexity multiplies exponentially as an exhibitor trying to juggle all of the logistics. Freeman Co.'s exhibitor customers often complained about the long walks to the service desk to report problems, the lengthy post-show checkout process and the lack of timely access to freight information.

To address those concerns, the company launched its Concierge Elite Program in 2009, putting Freeman customer service reps on the ground with mobile access to a Web-based application that let them troubleshoot problems.

It soon became clear, however, that exhibitors wanted to track and problem-solve on their own. "Our customers are at a show site in a convention hall surrounded by stuff, and having a [non-demo] PC is not really an option, and if they do, connectivity is questionable," says Richard Maranville, Freeman's EVP and CIO. "That led us to mobile pretty quickly."

What they launched: Maranville's team partnered with business colleagues in customer service and marketing to develop Concierge Elite, which was made available to customers about a year and a half ago. The mobile app -- initially available for iPhones and iPads and more recently for Android and Windows 8 devices -- streamlines the exhibitor experience. It lets customers get basic information about the event while also delivering a variety of services, including the ability to place orders for booth equipment, submit trouble tickets and orchestrate post-show checkout without a need to stand in line. Another feature of Concierge Elite is a freight alert capability, which notifies exhibitors via text or email when their freight has actually arrived in the booth so there is no waiting around and no mix-ups, Maranville says.

The technical details: Using Web services, the individual solutions (trouble tickets, checkout and so on) are stitched together via a messaging software layer running at the show site that hands off information between the local distributed apps and Freeman's back-end, Java-based ecommerce and operations systems -- an approach that facilitated development time, Maranville says.

The greatest pain point: The primary challenge to pulling off Concierge Elite was navigating the ever-changing mobile device landscape, Maranville says. Freeman accomplished this by using a development tool called PhoneGap to provide a layer of abstraction around the app so it could easily be ported to different form factors and screen sizes and deployed in the different app stores. "Right now, our biggest challenge is staying caught up with all the devices and operating systems so we can provide the best experience without being tied to a specific device or screen size," Maranville says.

The payoff: Concierge Elite cost less than $500,000 to develop, and Maranville says the payback has been "huge" in terms of improved customer service. The mobile strategy has improved Freeman's customer service measurements by 300 basis points, and feedback continues to be positive. "Our focus has always been on customer service, but we saw [mobile] as a lever that can make us even better," Maranville says.

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