A field technician looks at his rugged tablet screen for instructions on how to service a piece of equipment
By Jim Hilton | August 16, 2019

Adopting a “Mobile-First” Mindset Can Help Your Field Sales and Service Teams Better Meet Customer and Business Demands

Read How High-Performing Teams Are Leveraging this Mentality, and the Right Mobile Technology to Maximum Effectiveness

It doesn’t matter if you have scheduled a sales meeting, installation appointment, warranty repair or product delivery: your customers want to know that you (or your team) will be there on time and provide solutions to their problems before you leave. If you fall short of those expectations, they can easily find another provider—and give you a bad review—online.

The emergence of the “now economy” is not just impacting e-commerce, after all. Consumers have set new speed and quality standards that extend to every type of service provider – from retailers, manufacturers and healthcare providers to more traditional field service organizations such as utilities, telcos and HVAC or plumbing contractors.

That is why it is so important to adopt a “mobile-first” mentality to business process improvement, especially within your sales and service organizations.

According to Zebra’s 2019 Future of Field Operations Vision Study, some field service, fleet management, field sales, direct store delivery and merchandise courier services teams are doing a better job than others at adapting to the on-demand economy and effectively responding to heightened customer service expectations. They're proving that there's more to mobile-first field operations than merely reducing paper in favor of pixels in a few workflows.

What it Means to Be a “Mobile-First” Organization

Without a doubt, the first step to creating a more efficient sales and service organization is to equip your workers with mobile technology solutions that are purpose-built for business use. Just be weary of trying to adapt consumer-grade devices to business use. It is a risky strategy that frequently yields less-than-optimal results.

For example, your field technicians and sales reps need to be able to capture data at the point of sale (POS) to process a transaction, provide proof of payment or provide proof of delivery (POD). In a mobile-first environment, such actions typically warrant some type of quick scan. This may be a scan of a barcoded label affixed to a package being delivered or piece of equipment being installed. It may even be a barcode printed on a piece of paper – a customer work order or invoice – that the technician or sales rep can scan to retrieve more details about the account or document a service delivery action. Either way, an enterprise-grade mobile device with a built-in barcode scanner is necessary to capture the data that helps you capture your edge.

Why does it have to be enterprise-grade? Wouldn’t it be easier (and far cheaper) to ask workers to download a free scanner app on their personal smartphones to capture and submit such data?

These are both questions that we are asked quite often by customers, and I’m glad.

As I alluded to above, mobile technology utilization by itself does not make an organization’s field operations “mobile first.” Neither does choosing a rugged tablet, handheld computer or 2-in-1 based on the upfront cost; giving workers multiple single-use mobile computing devices (i.e., a laptop and a barcode scanner and a smartphone); or giving them the wrong mobile device form factor for their job (i.e. everyone gets a laptop as their primary device – even a heavy equipment repair technician who needs to access various cramped areas of service trucks for maintenance throughout a typical day).

By definition, taking a “mobile-first” approach to your digital transformation means that you are:

1.       Scaling the technology enterprise-wide. It is seemingly impossible to scale even basic barcode scanning data capture processes when using consumer-grade smartphones or tablets or a free/cheap scanning app download from an unknown third-party or relying on a built-in barcode scanner. The hardware and software designs may not be intended for the use cases you’re envisioning. Reliability, security and interoperability with your business systems were not priorities for those developers like they are for enterprise-grade device and software developers. Plus, we all know how challenging it can be to manage multiple devices; imagine having to also manage the multiple scanning apps that could be downloaded on workers’ personal devices. It would be an unwieldy proposition.

2.       Evaluating the the total cost of ownership (TCO) of multiple mobile technologies prior to every capital expenditure as a standard business practice to inform your ultimate buying decisions. Price is not your only mobile technology purchase criterion. You also have to factor in software compatibility, hardware and software management, interoperability with your back-office systems, security, solution lifecycle, etc. (I’m sure you can see the theme here.)

3.       Also adopting emerging technologies that can exponentially expand the capabilities of mobility, such as augmented reality (AR) applications. Again, it’s likely not possible if your workers only have consumer-grade devices. Even though AR apps exist on these devices today, most are not designed for professional use cases.

Sixty (60) percent of participants in the Future of Field Operations Vision Study said they were already doing these three things as “mobile-first” organizations, and their detailed responses corroborated their self-identified status.  

However, when we segmented the feedback provided by these “mobile-first” organizations and analyzed it against the overall survey data by industry (retail, manufacturing and healthcare), we found some particularly striking differences between mobile-first and other field sales and service teams in their approach to technology evaluation and adoption.

High Use Rates of Mobile Computers, Mobile Printers Among Advantages for Mobile-first Manufacturing and Retail Service Teams

Mobile-first manufacturers and retailers confirmed that their field service teams routinely use enterprise-grade mobile technology that enables them to access work orders and technical information, communicate with their teams and scan barcodes on field equipment. In fact, our 2019 study revealed that mobile-first manufacturing (66 percent) and retail field service teams (65 percent) were using handheld mobile computers at a higher rate than the overall survey sample (51 percent).

Rugged tablet utilization is higher among manufacturing and retail field service teams as well (45 percent and 44 percent compared to 40 percent of the total surveyed group). This makes sense considering how well-suited this form factor is for field service work. Larger 8-inch to 12.5-inch screens make reading schematics easy. Rugged-to-the-core designs help maintain operational continuity despite drops, constant vibration on a forklift or off-road truck or exposure to harsh weather conditions. Rugged tablets are also ideal in situations where on-the-spot, long-form data entry is common and a full-size keyboard is necessary, such as for detailed service action reporting.

Interestingly, retail field service teams that qualify as “mobile first” also have quite a high mobile printer utilization rate (59 percent) compared with the overall sample (41 percent). In addition to printing work order documents for their own records, though, they are often handing them off to the customer for proof of service, claim filing and other similar actions that may require a hard copy record.

These teams also reported relatively high utilization of field mobility support technologies. These include digital security (66 percent for retail compared to 55 percent for the overall sample) and device management (60 percent to 50 percent) solutions. Retail teams use cloud computing and storage at a higher rate than the overall sample as well: 68 percent versus 58 percent.

Retail field service teams also have made mobile technology TCO evaluations a standard business practice more so than the overall sample has (91 percent to 79 percent). Retail service teams are more likely to expand their mobile technology use across their entire enterprise as well (38 percent versus 29 percent).

Perhaps not as surprising, retail field service teams are beginning to increase their use of AR or virtual reality technology (32 percent to 21 percent). They’re also adopting blockchains – i.e., “encrypted digital ledgers” – at a relatively high rate (38 percent to 26 percent). Employing an AR application can enable home appliance repair technicians to do their maintenance work correctly and efficiently without a lot of training. And documenting repair histories and performance-based data in a blockchain can help technicians diagnose problems more effectively or meet established service event metrics.

How a Mobile-First Strategy is Helping to Boost Field Sales

Barcode scanner-equipped handheld mobile computers and rugged tablets that have been purpose-built for enterprise use enable field sales technicians to scan merchandise in the process of setting up displays and check warehouse inventory for the next stop on their route. So, it’s no surprise that the use of these devices among mobile-first retail field sales and merchandising teams is high. As of 2018, 69 percent reported using handheld mobile computers, compared with 51 percent of the overall sample. Much like retail field service technicians, these retail field sales teams also use mobile printers more than the overall sample does (54 percent to 41 percent). Printing price lists or receipts for customers adds convenience to transactions.

Mobile-first retail field sales teams also take device breakage/repair into consideration when evaluating the TCO of mobile technology more than the overall sample (48 percent versus 35 percent). Uptime is a high priority for these teams. Many merchandising display setup environments create potential for device damage, as there is a greater risk that something could fall or spill on the mobile device, that the device could be dropped during handling or that it will be exposed to outdoor hazards, such as rain or snow. And conducting customer presentations on rugged tablets versus other mobile devices can be essential to closing sales; any technology failure during a presentation can be disruptive, and rugged tablets are proven to be more reliable than non-rugged devices in field environments.

From the 2019 Future of Field Operations Vision Study, we also learned that mobile-first manufacturing field sales teams use mobility support technologies more than the overall sample. These include cloud computing and storage (66 percent to 58 percent), digital security (70 percent to 55 percent) and device management (61 percent to 50 percent). Operational continuity is deemed a priority when evaluating the TCO of business mobile technology. They consider uptime/downtime (39 percent versus 26 percent) and device management and support (49 percent to 39 percent) more than the overall sample does.

Another interesting and promising, finding is blockchain use among mobile-first field sales teams.

Use of this technology is relatively widespread among manufacturing field sales teams: 34 percent compared with 26 percent for the overall sample. These field sales teams might use retailers’ blockchains to document display setup or replenishment. And the manufacturers’ plant managers might analyze the data and adjust production schedules for demand.

Want to Transform into a “Mobile-First” Organization? Use Your Peers’ Experience to Help Guide your Strategy

Whether your organization’s field teams sell and stock merchandise or install and fix things, these service category analyses should give you an idea of the strategic moves you need to be taking today to raise their service performance to a higher level. Industry networking can be valuable as you work to elevate your organization to mobile-first performance, too. Talk to leaders in your industry whose field operations share the same qualities as the mobile-first teams described in our vision study. They can share lessons they've learned along the way.

You can also check out some of the Success Stories we’ve published on our website to see how organizations like yours have used mobility solutions to overcome business challenges similar to those you may be facing. Or you can check out some of other blog posts on Your Edge. Bob Ashenbrenner just showcased several companies – including manufacturers, government agencies, energy producers and equipment sales and service organizations – that had paperless, “mobile-first” ambitions in a two-part blog series that you can read here.

This Mobility Buying Playbook is also a fantastic resource to help guide your evaluation and execution of mobility solutions. It offers tips on how to determine whether or not the devices and software you select are appropriate for enterprise use – inside and outside the four walls.

Of course, you can also reach out to us here at Zebra. We’re happy to sit down and discuss your mobility challenges and goals.


Editor’s Note:

Though Jim primarily highlights the mobility trends emerging in the retail and manufacturing sectors above, an interesting nugget about the role of mobility in healthcare-related service calls caught our attention:

The survey found that healthcare field service teams’ adoption of cloud computing and storage is higher than that of the overall sample, 72 percent to 58 percent. Cloud security has improved a great deal in recent years—a boon to these service teams, which often perform maintenance on medical devices that contain patient data and are required to protect patient data they contain in adherence to regulations. Also, these teams consider device uptime or downtime in TCO analyses more than the overall sample (41 percent versus 26 percent). Small wonder: medical device service calls can be critical to patient outcomes.

Field Operations, Transportation and Logistics, Retail, Manufacturing,
Jim Hilton
Jim Hilton

Jim Hilton leads Zebra’s global vertical strategy in Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics in primary segments of the local markets worldwide. He helps businesses within these industries intelligently connect company assets, data and people in collaborative workflows through innovative Zebra products, software, services, analytics and solutions—enabling them to sense what’s happening, analyze or anticipate the outcome and make best-action decisions in real time.

Having worked in the technology industry for more than 35 years, Mr. Hilton brings a unique vision to the real-world use of technology and its powerful advantage in driving customer success. He helps to give organizations the competitive edge they need to simplify operations, know more about their businesses and customers and empower their mobile workers to succeed in today’s data-centric world.

Mr. Hilton’s hands-on career in manufacturing and logistics entails route sales, distribution, corporate management and deployment of major technology initiatives. He was responsible for the successful deployment and use of what was recognized as breakthrough “automated distribution systems” in the early 1980s. He later transitioned to managing, deploying and training on distribution systems across 30-plus subsidiaries of a major global food and beverage company, as well as managing major deployment projects across the consumer-packaged goods industry.

Today, Mr. Hilton helps organizations look to this next industrial revolution and demystifies what it means to become Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) compliant in order to connect goods, assets, people, places and processes to unlock the hidden potential of the organization. In turn, customers are able to modernize the warehouse or make the transition to Manufacturing 4.0. Through Zebra, Mr. Hilton is able to assist operations in identifying where they are now and where they need to be as we works with them to devise a realistic plan for implementation.

Mr. Hilton holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Kentucky, College of Business and Economics, and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Zebra Developer Blog
Zebra Developer Blog

Are you a Zebra Developer? Find more technical discussions on our Developer Portal blog.

Zebra Story Hub
Zebra Story Hub

Looking for more expert insights? Visit the Zebra Story Hub for more interviews, news, and industry trend analysis.

Search the Blog
Search the Blog

Use the below link to search all of our blog posts.