Telstra targets tradies with tech platform

Telstra is looking to help plumbing and electrician sole traders and small businesses with their digital transformation through a new enterprise platform developed alongside Master Builders.

Telstra has announced that it will be collaborating with Master Builders to develop an enterprise technology platform for the purpose of providing tradies with simple interfaces to manage jobs, order parts, service customers, conduct safety checks, and control billing.

According to the companies, the platform will enable the digital transformation of small businesses working in building and construction, combining Telstra's technology design and delivery expertise with Master Builders' knowledge as an industry association.

Telstra's executive director of Global Products Michelle Bendschneider told ZDNet that the platform is part of the telco's own transformation into a technology company.

"This is a wonderful illustration of what we mean by being a technology organisation and building on the connectivity we already provide to many of the participants in this space, but also really helping them digitise," Bendschneider explained.

"This is helping small and medium businesses thrive in an industry that's so competitive, so price competitive and conscious, and really where technology has not at all as yet played a part to really change the game."

Master Builders Queensland CEO Grant Galvin said his company joined Telstra's tradie project six months ago, after unsuccessfully attempting to develop a similar platform for its members two years ago.

"We actually tried to develop something similar to this for the market, because we identified that as an industry, we are probably one of the slowest if not the slowest to adapt to new technology," Galvin explained.

"Our industry as a whole is very fractured; it has mum-and-dad operators right across Queensland, and technology is the last thing on their mind -- but it's probably the one thing that they need the most."

The platform will initially be focused on plumbers and electricians, with Bendschneider saying it will support them in managing their assets, schedule, calendar, and customer appointments, and tracking their customers for follow-up.

"As businesses, even small ones, get more complex, anything that we can do to help them with really simple tools like the ability to quote and invoice with Xero or MYOB in the background is going to make them that slight advantage on their competitors," Galvin added.

"I think if we can nail it for those two key areas, which is the electricians and the plumbers, the principle behind this and the mechanism that drives it is applicable to all the trades."

The platform will launch at the end of 2017 for around 50 Master Builders members on a limited release basis, with a broader launch for its 32,000 members across the nation towards the end of the fiscal year.

The solution is targeting sole traders and small businesses with three to five employees, with Galvin saying Master Builders got a "great response" when it put out the call to take part.

Telstra will spend three to four months seeing how these initial customers use the platform, gaining their feedback and input before potentially scaling it up to other business segments and use cases such as integrating it with inventory management, Bendschneider said.

"The way we are deploying products at Telstra is really almost a continuous roadmap. There isn't sort of one locked-down solid date; we just keep scaling and growing, more feature functions, more customers, more feature functions, more customers," she told ZDNet.

"With Master Builders, we already provide core telco services, so we have the opportunity to then scale to a much bigger base there ... we design for the greatest simplicity, and then we would function up as the product scales."

For now, Bendschneider said the platform looks likely to cost around the sub-AU$100 mark, which will include carriage plans, a licence for the app, and the actual devices, which would be a tablet or smartphone. Customers will not be locked into a contract for now, as Telstra feels it is important to give them the flexibility they need to try out the platform.

It will be sold both through its digital marketplace, the Telstra Applications Marketplace, and through its channel network. Importantly, Telstra plans to have a "digital presence" where the customer can order and download the software themselves, with support then provided by Telstra through its partner channel.

According to Galvin, a support offering is where Master Builders' own offering "fell down".

"One of the most difficult things was we didn't have the technology or the broad capacity for support to help the members on that journey to put it in place," Galvin told ZDNet.

Master Builders was also impressed by how Telstra, in developing the new platform, spent the time to work out exactly how tradies need to digitise their businesses.

"The Telstra team had actually spent a month each on the road with a plumber or an electrician, and they actually followed them from 6 in the morning until 6 at night or whatever time they finished -- not just finished the job, but finished all the paperwork," he said.

"It was a really interesting insight for us to think that a tech provider had spent the time to go out and map every single process that one of these small operators had done.

"This is not just something that has been designed in the bowels of a tech company somewhere without the actual vision out into the wider world where it's actually going to be used."

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