Field Force

Advances in palmtop technology are enabling salesforces to source geodemographical and mapping information where they need it – out in the field.

While marketing may be a glamorous and status-filled job, it is essentially office-bound. As a result, marketers do not get as involved with their cars or mobile communications as their colleagues in sales. So many might not be aware of the hold being gained in this sector by a new generation of combined computing and communicating devices.

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) or palmtops offer up to 4Mb of memory in a notebook-sized package. Linked to a mobile phone and geo-positioning satellite (GPS) device, the user can access information, upload and download new data, and also be located anywhere in the world.

Major productivity improvements are therefore becoming possible by hooking up an organiser to the central geographical information system (GIS). Sales territory and route planning have already eliminated much of the wasteful travel and low-grade contacts from this area. The next step could be to empower remote workers even further.

“We are witnessing exciting times in the development of GIS. PDAs and laptops are starting to provide an easy form of data transportation, allowing salesforces to access information on consumer populations and local territories when they need it most,” says Alison Durham, product development manager at marketing intelligence agency EuroDirect.

“However, it’s all very well migrating to PDAs. But essentially it’s crucial that systems are easy to use and understand. They must be relevant to the client’s needs,” she says. This is where the face-off between the two palmtop operating systems could prove decisive.

On one side sits Psion with its proprietary organiser system. A number of software developers have introduced packages with an element of geographical data in them. Routeplanner, which already has 30,000 users, offers mapping for the UK, Europe and the US that specifies the optimum route between user-defined locations.

By hooking the organiser up to a GPS device, a moving cursor will show where the user is on the map. Streetplanner offers the same functionality at a detailed, city centre level. Psion can already integrate with ACT!, a popular salesforce automation (SFA) application. This suggests that convergence between SFA and GIS on this platform may not be far off.

The competing operating system is Microsoft Windows CE, which runs on devices such as the Compaq Aero and HP Pro. Pocket Systems has developed the first application specifically for this environment, called PocketGIS. Intended for user groups like surveyors and architects, it allows mapping down to 1:1,250 resolution and can also be attached to a GPS tracker.

Microsoft recently introduced the cheapest mapping software package yet, called MapPoint, which at £99 is intended as an entry-level GIS. Users of the software can transfer outputs from this, as well as its Autoroute Express and Trip 2000 applications, onto any PDA running Windows CE. Those outputs will be fixed, however, with users unable to manipulate either the map or the underlying data sets.

John Taylor, managing director of Yellow Marketing, which owns GIS software vendor Tactician and data set supplier Geoplan, says: “The main barrier to palmtop GIS is the memory and storage capacities. You can’t manipulate the data beyond the map, or add contact data or sales information.”

He sees the strongest potential for the palmtop use of GIS in linking it to a Web-enabled central system. By putting the analytical and mapping functionality of the application onto a central system connected to a server, remote workers will be able to access the relevant data sets and tools they need.

Having carried out analyses and reports, these can then be downloaded to the palmtop. Once that information has been changed, through contact or sales, this revised data can be uploaded to the central system and synchronised with the main database.

But Taylor warns that this model is not very advanced, despite the claims of many vendors. “We currently have 250 active companies using Tactician and not one has got remote access. They are in financial services, distribution or media, and not one has implemented GIS on laptop. The challenge is the distribution of data which might be confidential or sensitive,” he says.

During the Gulf War, one of the Allied commanders had his laptop, on which battle plans were stored, stolen from the back of his car. If data of that degree of sensitivity and protection can be lifted, then what of the risk that your leading salesman leaves for the competition, taking with him a file of your sales territories and leading customers?

Jeremy Whitaker, managing director of The Knowledge Store, the only source for data on the independent grocery sector in the UK, notes that his company’s clients use GIS extensively. “We apply it to our client’s territory plans or to help them determine their territory, and also to take feedback from the field to upgrade, add or improve our data. But we wouldn’t give anyone in the field the opportunity to manipulate their own territory plan,” he says.

His company takes data feeds from salesforces and field marketers working for a wide range of packaged goods companies.

Data on outlets is fed to these representatives, who then carry out their visits and note outcomes and changes in data. Many of these teams work on palmtops and send back their information straight from these devices.

“Simplicity always seems to be the key to collecting information – we never attempt to get too complicated. There is a training issue in the field and things go wrong. If you have justified giving out 50 devices to the financial director, then some of them fail and you are only collecting data from 60 per cent, you are damaging the organisation,” says Whitaker.

The more complicated the software which needs to be loaded, the more sophisticated the hardware needs to be. That introduces both reliability issues and costs. GIS is both complex and expensive, which is why those applications which have been developed for smaller devices are better understood as mapping or route planning software than as fully-featured GIS.

Durham argues that this does not mean mobile use of this technology will not happen. “It’s too early to dismiss the use of the laptops in the field, as they have far greater functionality. Many people operating in the salesforce rarely visit the office, so they still need to check e-mails, access documents and write reports. What is the point of having another piece of equipment to carry around if one system can do it all?” she asks.

A multi-tier model for GIS may well emerge in which planning, data management and salesforce direction takes place in one central location on a Web-enabled server. Some elements of the salesforce will have their own GIS applications on a laptop with limited data access rights. They will synchronise through daily e-mail uploads. Others will use a palmtop in the field, accessing the central source through a Web browser on whatever computer they are equipped with at home, or by laptop. Reports will then be downloaded onto the PDA.

However users configure their GIS, the new generation of mobile technology is having a very significant impact on this market.

Pushing applications down to end user level implies a very different business model to what high-end GIS vendors are used to. If packages need to be out in the field, single user licences are no longer appropriate.

“It is a highly complex business model. The software side is easier to control, because you have timebombs and security devices. The challenge for data suppliers is that once you’ve copied data, it cannot be controlled. Expanded access for everybody forces data prices down,” says Taylor.

Alongside the under-£100 software packages like MapPoint, data owners have had to align their prices or users would find little benefit from the software. That means more compression of data onto CD-Roms, some of which now carry information which would sell for up to £20,000 if accessed any other way.

But Taylor says this is helping to expand the total market rapidly, as evidenced by the success of his company’s Atlas CD. “It is a market in its own right. We have sold 250,000 since January, creating a new generation of customers for our advanced systems. It has lowered the cost of entry for GIS so a company can try it, learn, and realise what could be done with a fully-configured system,” he says.

Data prices are now down to the same level as 1985, although as with all technology this can be a misleading statistic. Since vendors are now concentrating on adding value to their GIS information, the actual price paid – apart from for low-end CDs – may have risen, even as the total amount of data delivered has also increased.

One of the biggest obstacles to the broader adoption of GIS has always been the cost of mapping data. A full set of the most basic UK maps from Ordnance Survey or Bartholomew’s would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. But new cartographic data sources have entered the market and competition is beginning to pay off for customers.

Lower prices, simpler products, new types of software licences, and mobile technologies all add up to a new era of super information-empowered salesforces.

Being data-driven has long been the preserve of the marketing department, but palmtop GIS makes the sales rep just as likely to be using up-to-date customer information. The difference is that, with a PDA-GPS combination, you can now know exactly where your salesforce is and what it is up to.

GIS 99, in association with the AGI Conference, will take place on September 28 – 30 at Olympia 2 in London.

Previously, the show has been located at the NEC in Birmingham. Event director at Miller Freeman Del Fasoranti explains the change in venue: “Given the trend of GIS expansion into the broader business community it is becoming increasingly important to locate the event as near as possible to its core market.

“The key growth areas for GIS users will be the South-east and South-west.”

The AGI Conference is now in its 11th year and is seen as the UK’s most authoritative conference for those seeking in-depth knowledge of GIS.

As well as plenary sessions from keynote speakers, the conference will be streamed. Most talks will concentrate on applications and practical issues, but at least one will be devoted to policy, research and technical developments.

Forming the hub of the show will be the new Consultancy Village, offering visitors free advice from experienced users.

The Solutions Centre will feature interactive workshops organised by Kingston University which will demonstrate some of the key industry-shaping development and will focus on the application area of telecommunications.


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