Persistence has paid off for national food manufacturer Sanitarium, after a carefully managed salesforce mobility rollout has been driving process improvements where an earlier effort had failed to deliver expected benefits.
Snapshot on Sanitarium
The company -- which manufactures household, name-brand products including Weet-Bix, Marmite, Up&Go, and a host of other soy, vegetarian and other healthy products -- employs a nationwide team of some 70 sales representatives to continually travel the country, promote its products, monitor in-store promotions and generally act as the front-line liaison with retail customers.
Sanitarium initially began looking into providing mobile computers for this sales force nearly a decade ago, recognising that such a constantly moving and remote team needed better access to core business systems. However, that effort was abandoned after it was realised that limited notebook battery technology, inappropriate applications and complex synchronisation issues were going to make the process prohibitively difficult.
After years of improvement in mobile technology, particularly with the rise in handheld computers, Sanitarium took another look at a mobility initiative and charted a more deliverable course for the long term. One of the major goals of the rollout was to improve the flow of data to and from the head office -- and, in so doing, to improve the visibility of company and sales team performance.
"We were looking for a situation where we could control the rollout, and to continue to develop the software in the future without being dependent on the software vendor", says Wayne Hawken, sales system analyst with Sanitarium. "It was also important to be able to provide on demand reports to the business in a timely way."
O4 on O2, OK?
After weighing up options in the market, Sanitarium settled on a sales force automation solution from O4 Corporation. Yet the selection of software was only the beginning of the company's voyage into mobility: far more pressing was the actual task of getting the devices into the sales representatives' hands -- and keeping them there.
This time around, a new option -- smart phones, in this case O2 XDAII models -- was available that would work around earlier issues such as battery life. "PDAs were the best option because of their instant on design, and batteries can give it a full day's use," Hawken explains.
In a departure from most mobility rollouts, the project was managed completely by the sales team, with "very little traditional IT input" from the relatively small in-house IT team. This approach reflects a slightly unconventional yet effective business structure, in which forecasting responsibilities are owned and operated by the sales team rather than falling under the purview of the IT department.
The sales team provided important impetus for getting the smartphones out into the field, since many of the employees had never even used e-mail before the rollout began. As with any company, many employees were sceptical of the new technology. To build a culture of acceptance, regional sales managers were each tasked with choosing an employee to champion the system within their team.
These employees were assembled and put through a three-day training course in which they were introduced first to the devices, then to the O4 application, and then to practical training on using the devices as part of their everyday business processes. Upon completing the training, these "champions" returned to their home states and were tasked with encouraging and supporting other employees to embrace the mobile solution.
In introducing the devices to the rest of Sanitarium's 70-odd sales team members, it was decided an easier approach would be to roll out the hardware first for several weeks so the employees could get familiar with them first. Applications would then be introduced, keeping the learning curve as flat as possible.
"Basically, when people walked into the training, it was explained to them 'your previous way of working finished today, and when you walk out of here you will be working in a new way'," says Hawken. "Within a week and a half, if someone had a PDA problem they would be saying 'I can't do my job anymore'. Acceptance has been very high."
Keeping the devices in the field
With the Windows Mobile 2003-based devices well and truly deployed into the field, the mobility phase of Sanitarium's sales business had begun.
Employees were able to use the O4 software to track goods on the shelf of the retailers they visited; encourage store compliance with Sanitarium-funded discounting schemes; document in-store promotional displays; and relay that information to the company's back-office systems using a secure GPRS-based connection and virtual private network.
"If we have production problems, for example, we can monitor what effect that physically has on the shelves through out-of-stocks," Hawken explains. "We've also been able to set and monitor national business objectives. Previously, much of our team was state driven, but now [with the consistent mobility platform in place] we have been able to move to a national focus."
That national focus also created new challenges for the support team: for example, a number of devices were broken through everyday use; resolving this issue meant the project team had to distribute around a dozen extra units to sales offices around the country, so that any breakages didn't cause long-term disruption to salespeoples' productivity.
The O2 smartphones normally function as data entry devices that transfer information and pictures to the head office via a GPRS connection; however, in times where the devices are out of range of the Vodafone mobile network, they also have a buffer for locally stored data.
As with any mobility rollout, protecting data on the handheld devices was a paramount concern -- and a particular challenge since many salespeople stay in the field for months on end, and therefore can't just return to the sales office easily. "From my point of view, everything is remote," says Hawken. "We need to be able to assist staff to continue working without ever returning the device."
To minimise the risk of data loss, sales staff are required to use PIN numbers and passwords to restrict access to information on the devices. Even these controls, however, have occasionally proved irrelevant because of the design of Windows Mobile 2003, which loses all stored information if the battery goes completely flat.
Recognising this risk, the support team has given each salesperson an SD card loaded with an image of the O4 software, as well as the VPN software necessary to link back to Sanitarium's network. This card is useless without the right access credentials, but it has proved invaluable many times by helping remote workers get back up and running while in the field.
"Those are the devices where we have noticed they may not have [password protection]," Hawken explains. "The 2003 devices lose all data and settings if you go too far off the end of the battery. But basically it's the device and the card working as a pair. If anyone else picks up the card, they wouldn't be able to log onto our systems. This approach has proved invaluable many times by helping remote workers get back up and running while in the field. We have been exceptionally happy with the system."