Businesses turning to mobile ERP to boost ROI on software investments

Companies have many reasons to go mobile, but some analysts say the true benefit is better ROI from your existing ERP package.

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The question might not be who is interested in mobile ERP, but who isn’t?

While utility and telecommunications companies have been using mobile ERP systems for years -- think of the cable guy who uses his device to set up or cancel your service from the field -- a growing number of companies are now looking to implement similar systems for their own strategic goals, according to Eric Kimberling, president and founder of the Denver-based ERP consulting firm Panorama Consulting Group.

That push is coming from several different angles, Kimberling said, whether it’s for simple request and approval applications, programs that allow salespeople to check inventory and create an estimate right on the spot, or more sophisticated business analytics applications.

For one, it’s being fed by employees who “want and need” to feel connected to their jobs and IT specialists interested in “bleeding edge” technology, according to Kimberling. However, the biggest driver is management executives, who are looking to get the most out of their existing ERP applications. “Mobile just extends the ROI of their ERP package,” he said.

That’s exactly what Kevin Benedict, CEO and founder of Boise, Idaho-based Netcentric Strategies, has found. Companies have already spent “millions of dollars and decades of time” on licensing and implementing their ERP systems only to find that small parts of their workforces are even using the software, he said.  

Getting a greater ROI from ERP packages requires giving a greater number of people access to the system, Benedict said, and that’s where mobile comes in. After all, many of the people who should be tapping into the ERP package are out on the road making sales calls, driving trucks or overseeing the loading of shipping containers.

Executives are also interested in mobile ERP because of the potential for greater profits, Benedict said.

Sears, for one, has been able to increase the number of appliance warranty extensions it sells by equipping its repairmen and women with mobile devices, Benedict said. At the end of service calls, representatives can ask customers if they want to extend their contracts and then enter the order information then and there.

“What better time to talk to someone when you’ve just fixed their machine?” asked Benedict. “That’s the best time to sell the product.”

In other cases, mobile ERP applications can provide sales staff with information they need on a sales call -- including the customer’s sales history, product inventory details, and any information on where the customer’s order is in the shipping process. That not only expedites the sales process, but it keeps the sales employee from having to return to the office to do paperwork.

 “You’re saving yourself a lot of time and putting forward a more professional image,” Benedict said.

Using mobile ERP to increase profits is often more attractive to management executives than using it to save money through reduced travel time and better inventory control, he said.

 “When you sit down with the executive team and say ‘I believe this will generate increased sales’ that rings a bell with management," he said.  "There’s the whole ‘this’ll make us more efficient, this will save us money’ thing.  But if you can say, ‘this’ll make us money,’ that’s huge.”

Once companies have decided that it makes financial sense to implement a mobile ERP strategy, Benedict said, they should start with a basic investment and then add additional users according to department and processes.

“Every department can determine their own ROI.  That’s one of the good things about it. It’s not ‘buy it once for a massive amount and try to figure it out,’” Benedict said “It’s really, you pick an enterprise mobility strategy and add users if and when there’s a good ROI in each department.”

The idea of going mobile has been an easy sell for the executives at the Canonsburg, Penn.-based Consol Energy Inc., many of whom are already users of mobile devices like iPhones and iPads for personal use and now want to use mobile ERP for things like requisition approvals, purchasing orders and leave requests so that those employees “don’t have to be strapped to their desk,” said Jim Johnson, the company’s director of technology.

“I would say they’re sold on the benefits, yes,” Johnson said of the company’s executives.  “It’s gotten to the point that they’re asking for it.”

But while many companies are sold on the benefits of mobile ERP, analysts like Benedict say many of those same companies are also struggling with just how best to implement the technology.

That’s been the case at Consol, where Johnson said his company would like to give employees a stipend to buy whatever mobile device they want.  But while that would give employees the freedom to buy the type of mobile device that best works for them, it has also brought up frustrating questions over what back-end platform would work best with a range of different mobile devices. 

Issues like security and access have been the biggest obstacles to implementing a mobile strategy, according to Johnson.  “What are we going to allow beyond our firewall?” Johnson said of the mobile devices.  “We’re stumped like anyone else.” 

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