Wireless CRM: Strings Attached

When the state of California faced rolling power blackouts last summer, it decided it needed to let the public know what was going on by way of the wireless Web. To make that happen, the state developed a wireless notification system that sends out personalized alerts from the My California state Internet portal. Using applications from Kana Communications Inc. in Redwood City, Calif., wireless users can subscribe to receive automatic e-mail notifications of impending blackouts, traffic alerts, press releases and even winning lottery numbers, says Arun Baheti, director of e-government for the state of California.

The state internally developed software hooks to let users of personal digital assistants (PDA), cell phones supporting the wireless access protocol (WAP) or other WAP devices receive text messages. And these users can access a stripped-down version of the existing My California Web portal by way of a wireless gateway server.

The state is an early adopter, pioneering the wilds of wireless customer relationship management (CRM). Users see the potential value in some basic applications today, but they also face technical obstacles that limit which applications are right for wireless. Those obstacles include questions about connection security, session reliability issues, coverage limitations, decisions about what data to reformat for smaller screens and the possible need to re-engineer business processes to accommodate wireless users.

Growth vs. Maturity

The demand for wireless CRM applications is growing. According to a recent report from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Cahners In-Stat Group, about 47% of the U.S. workforce will have access to PalmPilots, WAP phones, pagers and other mobile computing devices by year's end. By 2004, it said, 60% of the workforce will be using wireless devices. And domestic businesses are expected to spend $37 billion on wireless services this year, a figure that will jump to $74 billion in 2005.

Fueling this growth is the continued evolution of wireless technology and the fact that it's relatively cheap to deploy, according to Cahners In-Stat.

But users and analysts still have some big doubts about the state of the technology. "Overall, it's still in its infancy," says Dennis Gaughan, an analyst at AMR Research Inc. in Boston. "When I talk to end users about wireless in general, there is still the question about the maturity of the underlying technology and security." He notes that companies tend to roll out CRM packages in stages, and wireless is generally considered in Phase 2 or 3.

Today's wireless CRM applications come in two flavors, Gaughan says. Wireless infrastructure vendors offer applications that can be adapted for CRM, such as IBM's WebSphere Everyplace Suite.

Business application vendors, such as SAP AG and San Mateo, Calif.-based Siebel Systems Inc., either offer CRM applications with embedded wireless capabilities or provide add-on products that attach to application servers and enable mobile connectivity. These vendors typically offer two options: browser-based real-time access to back-end applications or a Windows CE or Palm-based client/server application that offers local, off-line access to limited data subsets and periodic synchronized updates to the application server. Since synchronization takes place in the background, the latter approach makes slow connections and dropouts tolerable while allowing off-line access to data. However, browser-based access lets users see real-time changes to account information.

For instance, administrators using the mySAP CRM application can install the mySAP Mobile Business module on the application server or an attached server and deliver data to any wireless device with a browser interface. The system can be configured for real-time or synchronized data access.

For some users, the state of wireless CRM technology is good enough; the only question is figuring out how to use it properly. That was an issue for the state of California when dealing with its energy crisis. "There's nothing inherently good about having things on the Web or wireless," says Baheti. "Part of the problem is finding an application that makes sense on wireless. There is no rationale to make it all wireless-enabled. Each particular channel has its benefits and disadvantages, and you need to find the right product to offer on wireless."

In California's case, the impetus came when the governor mandated that citizens be able to receive rapid notification of impending outages without relying on broadcast media.

Others are waiting for improvements in wireless technology before pursuing more ambitious projects. New communications technologies are needed that offer better security and reliability, says Richard Shipley, director of information systems at San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. The utility plans to use Kana software to send wireless e-mail to its customers and deliver power-grid alerts. Beyond wireless e-mail, Shipley says, "a number of our core business processes could be improved by the application of mobile wireless technology," but not for another year or two, when high-speed third-generation (3G) cellular networks are due.

Others users echo that view. "You should be leery," says Chris Mausolf, manager of e-commerce at St. Paul, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines Inc. "There are a lot of software and service companies that call on a daily basis offering wireless assistance, and that can be expensive and not get you where you need to be." Northwest has offered wireless access to back-end systems for the past two years using home-grown applications. Customers can use their PDAs to get information tidbits such as flight and gate status.

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AT A GLANCE

Should You Go Wireless?

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Wireless CRM currently works best for e-mail alerts and information tidbits such as checking flight times.

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Slow transmission speeds, small screen sizes, intermittent connections and other technical issues currently limit wireless CRM’s usefulness for more sophisticated applications.

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Emerging 2.5G and 3G cellular wireless technology should eventually improve performance and reliability.

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Keeping It Simple

To make the system work, Northwest created XML-based software hooks that tie portions of its Web site to wireless network services from AvantGo Inc. in Hayward, Calif.

"What we were really trying to focus on were things that provide the most utility for customers," says Mausolf. "We don't want to inundate a small window on a wireless cell phone. We definitely don't want them to download the entire Internet site."

Northwest also forwards information to customers automatically; customers especially like getting flight departure times and other data sent to them, he says. Mausolf declines to divulge costs but says that because the work was done in-house, the integration was inexpensive and is paying for itself in reduced call center loads as more customers rely on wireless self-service.

"There are limitations to what we can do with WAP right now," says Billy Pickle, applications expert at Southern Co. Currently, field personnel at the Atlanta-based utility still rely on simple radios with screens that provide text-based messages from headquarters. The radios, from Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc., interface with a call center system from Brampton, Ontario-based Nortel Networks Corp. The wireless network has been in place since 1997, when Southern built an internal interface to its back-end systems to send pages to field technicians.

Pickle would like something more advanced. "There's a limitation to the amount of data you can stuff into one of these," he says. Pickle wants users to be able to respond to messages, a capability currently unsupported securely by the system, and transmit things like billing data into the back end.

Southern is now considering using either a real-time system or one that would rely on PDAs or mobile workstations that periodically synchronize with the back-end system. The key, however, is to make sure it doesn't further complicate the service workers' lives. "They're out in the field driving to different sites, and we don't want them to have one of these nuisances with cell phone issues," says Pickle.

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California Wireless Traffic Flow

The State of California offers its wireless users both WAP-based browsing and e-mail notification services. E-mail alerts: When a power alert or traffic event occurs, the My California portal triggers an e-mail notification to wireless subscribers. The dynamic e-mail generator queries a back-end customer database and creates a message for each subscriber. It forwards the messages to the e-mail sender, a 12-server farm that can send up to 35,000 e-mail messages per hour via SMTP. Users with WAP or Short Messaging Service-enabled cell phones or a wireless PDA can receive the messages. WAP access: Users with WAP devices can access the state’s Web site to view specially formatted highway information, lottery results and press releases from the governor’s office. When a page is requested, the WAP server queries the Web application server, which polls the back-end database for the latest content. The WAP server dynamically creates a Wireless Markup Language page and routes it to the user.

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