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When Chris Willard wakes up in the small town of Fergus, Ontario, he first reaches for the BlackBerry Playbook on his bedside table.
The tablet is an "almost hourly" part of his life as a sales account manager for Igloo Inc., a social-software company based outside of Toronto.
It gives me the freedom to break the chain to my desk.
a salesman, said of his use of a tablet for work
"It gives me the freedom to break the chain to my desk," Willard said. "Before, I used to go into work and see what happens. Now, I'm prepared. I'm checking on my tablet for new leads to come in overnight. It allows me to work on the fly and be productive in any location."
Prior to using a tablet six months ago, Willard tried the same approach with his smartphone. The small screen and tiny buttons made it more difficult and less fun to stay connected with work while at home. With the tablet, his productivity soars.
Businesses are paying close attention to the tablet trend, as tablet sales are expected to skyrocket in the coming years. Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., predicts that consumers will buy 375 million tablets in 2016 -- a huge increase from the 56 million purchased in 2011 -- and 760 million of the devices could be in use worldwide by then.
Tablets for business and sales departments have led to higher close rates and better engagement with customers.
Trane, a global provider of heating and cooling systems headquartered in Trenton, N.J., replaced paper on clipboards with tablets to boost the productivity of its salespeople, according to Ted Schadler, a Forrester Research analyst who highlighted the company in a recent case study.
With the tablets, Trane reports that its "ring-to-ching" sales close rate jumped from 35% to 65% compared with the previous year. Schadler said these proven benefits are increasingly enticing to companies that want to incorporate tablets for sales and improve results.
"Three primary forces are driving this: better preparation, better communication and faster follow up," he said. "They can walk customers through how to install an air-conditioning system, take a digital signature right there and initiate the project all in one meeting."
Tablets for business quickly provide data
On a sales call, the tablet offers easy and interactive use that few devices can match. Willard said he often pulls up testimonial videos and data from his company's competitors, but he really hooks his customers by letting them touch and swipe through the information themselves.
"People are very hands-on learning," he said. "When you're walking them through a presentation on the computer, they're watching and learning but not participating. Because they can get their hands on [a tablet] they get more emotionally attached."
Kindred Healthcare Inc., a health care services company based in Louisville, Ky., is another standout example, Schadler said. Kindred's sales staff used Windows Slate laptop computers but found a lack of connectivity in hospitals and limited offline access. The awkwardness of the devices also prevented good engagement with customers.
Barry Somervell, Kindred's senior vice president of sales and business development, told Forrester analysts that tablets have increased the company's close rates and built deeper engagement with its hospital customers. Sophisticated data collection also gives senior managers the information they need to identify best practices or areas that need improvement.
There's more to tablets than turning them on
There are obstacles to achieving this kind of success.
R "Ray" Wang, principal analyst and CEO of Constellation Research Inc. in Monte Vista, Calif., said securing a mobile device is a huge issue for sales forces.
"Mobile device management is needed, as you want to make sure confidential data is secured and not easily accessed," he said. Poor connectivity is another problem, and the devices must be combined with an application that supports offline use, he said.
Also, Schadler stressed the need to develop or adopt content applications. Companies should identify areas of sales improvement, assess how tablets for sales can strategically address those deficiencies, and conduct plenty of testing before full implementation, he said.
"It's not about handing somebody a tablet and saying, 'Here, have a ball,'" Schadler said. "The content has to be developed. You can't just shovel PDFs on it. You need a file-distribution system. There's a training issue, and you have to learn what works and what doesn't work. It's a massive overhaul and it takes a long time."
The effort will pay off, he said, and the devices are flexible across industries.
Pharmaceutical reps can communicate the benefits of their products more quickly to a busy doctor; architects can feature their high-resolution designs to clients; and car salesmen can help buyers build, order and finance their new rides right from the showroom floor.
"The improvement numbers are astounding," Schadler said. "You don't do this based on some ROI analysis. That's small potatoes compared to the amount of benefit you get out of it."
The tablet of choice is most often the iPad. Schadler called it the "no brainer" for its security benefits and network effects -- although Samsung and Google Nexus tablets have gained some traction as well. The Microsoft Surface, launched in late October, could also play a larger role in the business environment in the coming year.
"It's pretty much user choice" at Igloo, Willard said, although he prefers the BlackBerry Playbook because it feels comfortable in his hands. The iPad's aluminum backing is too slippery for his on-the-go needs.
Work rarely ends for Willard, but he said tablets for business have revived self-motivated productivity at his job -- a huge benefit on top of the obvious boost to sales results.
"No longer are the days when you're punching the clock and walking away," Willard said. "Now, I'm actually committed to what I'm doing, not just working on regular hours. Work is no longer a place. It is what I do, and with the right tools I can do it anywhere."