Lowe's addresses customer service with iPhone apps

More than 42,000 iPhones are now in the hands of employees, allowing them to check inventory, prices and home improvement ideas on behalf of customers.

How do you maintain the customer service you became known for as a small, corner hardware store when your company has grown into a massive, nationwide home improvement retailer?

Lowe's hopes at least part of the answer lies in a series of new custom applications for the Apple iPhone that its employees are now using to help customers.

The retailer talks about its iPhone installation -- more than 42,000 in all -- in a new case study published this week on the Apple Web site. The investment includes three applications, two for its employees and one for customers.

On the corporate side, there is one application that helps employees work with customers on store floors to find materials, products and tools that the might need for a project. The application lets employees see when an item is out of stock and when it is expected to arrive at the store; or, alternatively, whether or not a customer might be able to find the item in another nearby Lowe's location.

Lowe's Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) Mike Brown commented on how the application was able to help a customer who needed an out-of-stock product. "A store manager was able to look where the inventory was, order the product in 10 seconds, and solve the customers' problem," Brown said in Apple's case study.  "The customer was absolutely blown away at the simplicity and how fast that could happen in a Lowe's store."

Lowe's store managers also are using a new iPhone application that allows them to review price changes, check up on sales reports, evaluate the status of new products and when they will arrive in the store, and so on. The idea is to keep managers more visible out in front of customers and employees, rather than stuck in a back room at a desktop computer.

Lowe's employees are now using more than 42,000 iPhones in stores; updates are pushed to the mobile devices via the company's information technology (IT) organization, Brown said.

The customer-facing application that the Lowe's IT organization has developed includes home improvement tips and ideas, along with how-to videos, product reviews, a store location finder, and a feature that lets customers see how much money they have on any outstanding gift cards.

While it might be hard to measure the bottom line impact of an investment like this one, the mobile apps allow employees to get a lot more face-time with customers. "In all of my 27 years at Lowe's, iPhone will go down as being the most impactful device we have ever put in our employees' hands," Brown said.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com