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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Toyota Financial Services: IT proves its mobile mettle

Location: Torrance, Calif.

Line of business: Financial

IT staff: 150 employees

The mobile opportunity: With a mandate from the CEO to improve the customer and dealer experience, it was a no-brainer that Toyota Financial Services (TFS) would deliver a mobile app to let customers access key services on the go. What was questionable was whether the internal IT team would spearhead the project or whether it would be handed off to an outside player considered to have deeper experience in mobile development practices. (Spoiler alert: IT got the job.)

What they launched: The project encompassed a series of mobile apps for the Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands, allowing for bill payment, simple account access and a dealer locator, among other services. Mobile websites were launched first for Toyota and Lexus in January 2011. These were followed by iOS versions for each of the three brands (myTFS, myLFS, and Scion Solutions) for the Apple App Store in October 2011 and then for Android in October 2012.

The technical details: The apps, developed with re-use in mind, were conceived as an extension of TFS' retooled consumer website. As opposed to taking a native development approach for each mobile platform, TFS choose to build out the app portfolio on a foundation of federated security and Web services, including the REST open source Web services technology.

The idea, says Marlo Donate, chief digital officer, is that once developed, the apps could quickly be ported to multiple mobile platforms in a relatively short time frame. Case in point: While the Toyota Financial Services and Lexus Financial Services mobile websites took eight months to develop, subsequent Mobile Click to Pay versions for the Android platform took only three and a half months.

"We opened up eight [mobile] channels in two and half years, and they all have the same integration on the back end, but look different based on the brand of vehicle," Donate explains.

The greatest pain point: During the initial scoping of the Mobile Click to Pay project in mid-2009, the business side wasn't fully confident that IT could deliver on the vision to leverage mobile as a way to offer a higher level of service and open up new payment channels, Donate admits. The "aha moment" came when both sides were together in a room, with marketing brainstorming an innovative concept -- enabling customers to get set up on mobile payments simply by having them swipe a barcode printed on their billing statement -- and IT saying it could quickly prototype that setup. "This was the turning point in the relationship between IT and business," Donate explains. "It established trust and the sense that we could work together better."

The payoff: While declining to discuss project costs, Donate says the customer response has been huge -- without any marketing, there have been 297,224 total downloads for the iPhone apps and 45,165 for the Android apps, which have only been out for five months, Donate says.

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