Has mobile CRM software on smartphones made laptops for the sales force obsolete?

The new generation of smartphones has brought a new wave of functionality to mobile CRM software and has some companies looking to ditch their laptop deployments entirely.

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Entering customer contact, opportunity and sales information into your mobile phone? There's an app for that.

In fact, there have been numerous apps for that for many years, but have the latest generation of smartphones and the newly designed CRM applications designed to run on them eliminated the need to supply your sales force with a laptop or desktop computer? Not yet, according to Sheryl Kingstone, CRM program manager with the Boston-based Yankee Group.

"You still need a laptop," she said. "The highly mobile workers can get away with a lot more today, but you still need some sort of access to write letters, access dashboards and do analysis, and all of that is still better with a full keyboard and full screen."

Yet some companies with a large contingent of "road warriors" are relying more on mobile CRM and supplementing it with a PC at home, Kingstone said.

"The reason everyone wants to get rid of the laptop is it's very expensive," she said. "Maybe it's also a netbook that you're looking for."

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Saving on the expense and headaches of laptops was certainly a motivating factor for Healthscreen Solutions Inc., a Toronto-based company that provides billing, electronic medical records, and scheduling products and services to doctors in Canada. It has done away with laptops and uses only RIM's BlackBerry for its sales force of about 20. While there's a nationalized healthcare system in Canada, doctors still have to manage billing their patients for some elective or only partially covered procedures. Healthscreen helps them handle that. When doctors are the people you're visiting on a sales call, there's plenty of idle time that can be put to use updating the CRM system.

"Typically what happens is they spend a lot of time in a doctor's office, a lot of idle time in the waiting rooms," said Martin Ross, vice president of technology for Healthscreen. "They'll enter the details of the opportunity in their BlackBerry and update directly from the BlackBerry."

Ross figures Healthscreen saves about $18,000 annually by eliminating laptops. The company also found some significant savings when it moved from Siebel CRM On Demand onto SugarCRM four years ago. Healthscreen runs the mobile version of SugarCRM's 5.1 and estimates the move has saved it $48,000 on licensing, $10,000 on operational staff salary and $20,000 on sales operational efficiencies.

Moving to SugarCRM mobile has taken some customization, but the availability of SugarCRM's open source code has made that simpler, Ross said.

"It's tightly integrated with our proprietary services platform," he said. "From a technical point of view, that's one of the nice things. Because it's open source, it's easy to integrate and quickly make changes and customize. No CRM works out of the box the way you want it to."

Ross, who describes himself as "by no means a fantastic programmer," makes some changes to the system and has one person who essentially works full time customizing the application, tweaking processes, including integration with Healthscreen's Gmail-based email and calendaring system.

"Frankly, the stuff we're writing is very business specific," Ross said. "About 70% of what we need comes from somewhere else, and 30% we write ourselves."

CRM vendors are going mobile faster than ever. In the past two weeks alone, CDC Software reached an agreement with Vaultus Mobile Technologies to use its mobiScaler framework to make its Pivotal CRM software available to mobile users, and Maximizer Software received certification from AT&T to run Maximizer CRM on BlackBerry and Windows smartphones.

The larger vendors like Oracle and SAP have gone even further. SAP and RIM partnered last year to allow SAP CRM to run natively on the BlackBerry and partnered with Sybase to bring its full BusinessSuite to the iPhone and BlackBerry. Oracle, for its part, released two of its Social CRM applications on the iPhone and on Apple's AppStore in October.

While the evolution of Apple's AppStore and the BlackBerry AppWorld are bringing plenty of attention and simplicity to CRM, they're still a ways from providing real CRM functionality, Kingstone warns.

"The stores are getting much more sophisticated, but the issue with these applications is you can't just download and run it," she said. "In order for a CRM app to be effective, it has to be built into the 'day in the life' processes, and you're not going to get that in an AppStore. To get the value out of an app, you're going to want to customize it around your processes."

The AppStore apps are well suited for simple chores like entering tasks and contact information, however. For now, Kingstone said, they're more complementary to existing deployments.

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