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.

You don't have to look far to witness the total domination of the mobile device. Whether on the commuter rail or at the soccer field, cruising the mall or navigating a bustling city street, consumers are wedded to their smartphones and tablets to conduct the business of both their personal and professional lives.

As a result, the mobile channel is opening up new ways for companies to nurture customer relationships in ways not possible in the past. Via the deployment of strategic apps, mobile presents businesses with a unique opportunity to engage customers with a product or service any time, anywhere, in a manner that is specifically tuned to their individual needs.

The mobile experience also delivers a rich set of analytics that provides hard-to-come-by insights into everything from a customer's buying behavior to his or her actual physical location, allowing companies to custom tailor the conversation while also setting the stage for interaction that is all about intention, according to Chris Silva, an independent mobile analyst.

"If you've got customers, you've got mobile customers, and it's one of the few places where you can almost replicate the conversion potential that you have when someone walks into a store," he explains. "Anyone using a mobile app or accessing a mobile website is doing it as part of a task, so it's a model built around consumption."

Yet hand in hand with this powerful business opportunity come some unique development challenges for enterprise technologists. IT is being tasked with building out an app portfolio that supports a wide range of mobile platforms, including smartphones and tablets, amidst a continuously changing landscape of operating environments, from Apple iOS to Android and Windows 8.

Adding to this backdrop of complexity are the vastly accelerated delivery schedules for mobile apps -- weeks as opposed to the months or years of traditional IT projects -- and the fact that many IT staffs, already strapped for core talent, are lacking the requisite mobile development skills, forcing them to hire up or turn to outside partners.

"Most mobile strategist roles and groups are in their infancy today," notes Silva, who says internal IT departments need to prove their competency to be taken seriously as mobile players.

Despite the scope of the task, the opportunities to leverage mobile as a stepping stone to customer intimacy are too potent to ignore. Read on to discover how four IT organizations in different industries are rising to the challenge and making mobile a centerpiece of how their companies forge tighter customer relationships.

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.

The mobile market explodes

The growth of tablets and mobile phones has surged over the last few years, and the momentum, for now at least, appears nearly unstoppable. Gartner projects tablet shipments to grow 67.9% in 2013 -- to reach 202 million units shipped -- while the mobile phone market will expand 4.3% to hit volumes of more than 1.8 billion units.

International Data Corp. also sees 2013 as a watershed year for smartphone adoption. This will be the first time that more smartphones are shipped than feature phones, accounting for more than half (52.2%) of all mobile phones deployed worldwide, according to IDC's most recent forecast.

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.

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.

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.

First Trade Union Bank:

Tapping mobile to attract Gen Y

Location: Boston

Line of business: Community bank with assets of $650 million

IT staff: 6 internal employees

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