A New York food distributor pours customer data into cell phones and sends reps on the road.
In the middle of last year, Joe Chiavetta was facing a potentially huge hardware purchase to keep his always-on-the-road sales force current with pricing, orders and customer backgrounds. Its not what a food distribution companys chief financial officer likes to think about.
"Our salesmen, who are really out in the field all the time, we were looking for a way to get them information on a daily basis. We wanted them to start submitting their orders to us on a daily basis," Musco Food Corp. CFO Chiavetta said, adding that the sales force was then checking into voice mail to hear about price changes or other crucial matters.
It then struck Chiavetta that the device the reps were already using to check voicemailtheir cell phonescould also include small customer databases for the 200 or so prospects that each rep works.
Chiavetta worked with one of the companys software providersSCOand the Palm Treo 650s were customized.
"We now use these devices as kind of an electronic catalog, possibly as a price list and with some customer information, such as the last time the customer paid and what they bought the last time," Chiavetta said.
The rep "also has the ability to go back in and put the order into the handheld and get it to us live."
Before the modified Treos were deployed, "we needed a ready operator on our end here, to take the order. Now its sent right into our server." Muscos orders move wirelessly and drop into an HP server running SCO Unix, networked to about 18 Dell PCs.
The data all sits on the handheld Treos, with each sales rep retaining only his or her slice of customers (about 200).
One of the biggest advantages Chiavetta talks about is the ease of getting price changes announced.
"Its not unusual that, perhaps once a week, well be sending a voice mail telling our sales people about price changes with different products," he said.
The old system prompted a lot of errors, with some reps placing orders with old pricing. "Now, when they try and place an order, that updated price is going to be right there. Thats been a tremendous savings right there," Chiavetta said.
Before the Treo possibility was developed, the CFOs plan was to purchase a bunch of Windows laptops that the sales reps would have to carry around.
"Were paying about $300 for the average Treo, and we were looking at more than double that, with a laptop costing about $700-$800," Chiavetta said, adding that the Treos delivered real-time data and the laptops would have likely not.
One possibility for the future is equipping the sales reps with tiny portable printers so customers can be given hard-copy receipts to immediately confirm orders placed in the field.
For the moment, though, Chiavetta said, the record being in the handheld is sufficient.
"Its not really necessary to give them an order confirmation on the spot," he said.
Almost all of the data resides on the PDA, other than the price list that sits only on the server at headquarters in Maspeth, N.Y.
This is one of the first deliverables from a relatively new unit of SCO called Me Inc., which was introduced last September at the Demo conference.
To read more about SCOs new mobile app division, click here.
Its goal is to deliver feature-rich consumer and business digital services for smart phones and other intelligent mobile devices, regardless of the presence of an SCO operating system.
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Evan Schuman is the editor of CIOInsight.com's Retail industry center. He has covered retail technology issues since 1988 for Ziff-Davis, CMP Media, IDG, Penton, Lebhar-Friedman, VNU, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0 and United Press International, among others. He can be reached by e-mail at Evan.Schuman@ziffdavisenterprise.com.