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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WSSC: Mobilizing customer self-service

Location: Laurel, Md.

Line of business: A water and wastewater utility serving suburban Washington, D.C.

IT staff: 94 employees

The mobile opportunity: With 1.8 million residents spread across 1,000 square miles of metropolitan and suburban Washington, D.C., and a customer service center fielding over 50,000 calls a month, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) was hungry for a way to let customers help themselves without sacrificing its levels of service. The rise of the mobile device provided just the right opportunity. "We wanted to have some sort of self-service option for customers in a post-PC era when everyone walks around with a smartphone or tablet," says Mujib Lodhi, WSSC's CIO. "We wanted customer intimacy, so why not connect directly to them?"

What they launched: WSSC Mobile made its debut in 2011, allowing customers to pay bills, report problems and monitor their water usage without having to wait for phone assistance. Using integrated GPS capabilities, WSSC Mobile also lets users track the status of their issue and view a map of any current problems in their area.

The app is also a way to enlist the public in identifying problems, helping the utility's small team of experts police the 1,000 square mile area. "It creates a partnership with customers so if they're out for a morning jog and see a leaky hydrant, they can pull out their smartphone, snap a picture and submit it and, based on the geographic coordinates, WSSC can immediately dispatch a crew to take care of it," Lodhi explains.

The technical details: To keep costs in check, WSSC leveraged existing tools to create the mobile app, including ESRI's Arc-GIS suite for spatial applications, IBM's WebSphere suite for all J2EE applications and Oracle for the RDBMS.

The team also took a hybrid development approach to minimize platform-specific programming, while still delivering a device-specific user experience, Lodhi says. Specifically, they employed an open-source library-wrapper framework, which included JQueryMobile for screen navigation and design; JavaServer Faces MVC framework for business logic process; Dojo for asynchronous calls; and Objective-C to create application wrappers for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry devices.

The greatest pain point: Integrating the app with the GIS system and getting the user experience right was IT's biggest technical challenge, Lodhi says. Initially, when IT presented a prototype of the app to the business, they weren't impressed and sent the team back to the drawing board to optimize the look and feel for a truly mobile experience. "We wanted to give customers an excellent experience so they'd use it," he says. "We paid attention to the feedback, took it seriously and went back and fixed it."

The payoff: All in all, Lodhi estimates the project cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars. It delivered value by reducing call volume, call handling times and paper expenses since more customers are seeking out information online. The team has steadily added new features to WSSC Mobile with a fresh release about every three months. To date, about 10,000 customers have downloaded the mobile app, and WSSC's goal is to get to 150,000 user downloads in the next three to five years.

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