Can Handhelds Improve Support? part 2

By David Haskin | Jul 10, 2001 | Print this Page
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These days, handhelds are an indispensable part of business. However, they mostly are used to manage personal information like contacts and appointments. What if you could use wireless handhelds to provide better end user support for less money?

In Part 1, we examined two dramatic case studies that did precisely that. In one, Key3Media dramatically decreased its average time-to-close on support for its large network used for the Network+Interop trade show. In another, Alpha Microsystems, an outsourcing IT vendor, says it paid back the cost of switching to wireless handhelds in four months.

Neither case was a typical in-house support scenario and even handheld and infrastructure software vendors acknowledge that very few IT shops have embraced wireless handhelds as a support tool. However, the case studies do point to how, in some situations, handhelds could lower your support costs and increase productivity. Today, we'll discuss the particulars.

What You'll Save
Ray Collins, Alpha Microsystems' business development manager, cites a number of areas in which his company -- and potentially yours -- saved money using wireless handhelds.

  1. Technicians become more efficient. At a specific site, technicians have real-time access to records for specific parts and pieces of equipment. In addition, it is easier to dispatch them to a nearby problem.
  2. Reduced cell phone bills. Collins says cell phone bills previously averaged between $300 and $400 a month. Even taking into account the cost of the flat-fee wireless service for the handhelds, wireless costs have been reduced by $150 a month, he says.
  3. Greater accuracy. Using cell phones to exchange data with the main office was imprecise and led to errors, Collins said. "Technicians spent a lot of time on the phone calling dispatch and there was a lot of inaccurate information going back and forth," Collins says.
  4. Productivity gains. Collins estimates there is a 30-40 percent gain in productivity that results from technicians having information such as the status of parts shipments in real time. "They save travel time if the part isn't there yet," he says.
  5. Forms are filled out more punctually. Instead of waiting to get back to their office, technicians now fill out forms on the spot.
  6. Tighter billing cycle. The rapid filling out of forms means the company can bill clients more quickly -- and get paid sooner. With the new system, bills typically go out to clients within two weeks instead of 30 days, as previously was the case. This is relevant in enterprises in which service calls are charged back to departments.

Steve Wylie, Key3's director of network operations noted that his company didn't do a Return on Investment (ROI) study, but said the technology -- and the dramatic improvements in time-to-close times -- will pay big dividends.

"Vendors pay a lot of money to be at the trade show," he noted. "Every minute the network is down, thousands of people walk past their booths and can't see their products."

Similarly, in the enterprise, when technology is down, employees aren't productive, he notes.

When Is It Appropriate?
Collins, Wylie and Wylie's colleague, Erik Cummings, who managed the trade show network, have extensive in-house IT experience and agreed there are many organizations in which using wireless handhelds will be useful. Here are their general guidelines for deciding whether wireless handhelds are a good match for your support staff.

First, if your company's campus is small, handhelds might not be worth the investment. But the more dispatching that goes on and the wider the service area, the more handhelds can become make your support operation more efficient.

"It might not be advantageous for a business with a few technicians and one building, but if you have five buildings and a lot of technicians, it will absolutely help," says Cummings.

Cummings said that one benefit is that, if a technician is in a distant building on a service call, checking for more trouble tickets in the same vicinity is much faster with direct wireless access than calling in or finding an unused desktop computer or setting up a laptop to access the database. "We looked at the time our field engineers spent on the phone, calling dispatch and the inaccurate info going back and forth going back and forth and it was a no-brainer," Alpha Microsystems' Collins said.

What It Costs
There are three major expense areas to consider to give technicians handhelds. First, of course, you must buy handhelds. For the most part, these come in two flavors: Those based on the Palm OS, such as devices from Palm and Handspring, and those based on Microsoft's Pocket PC from vendors such as Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Casio and Symbol Technologies.

Two factors in determining which to use are price and how you want to connect to your back end. Palm OS devices tend to be less expensive, running as low as $150, while Pocket PCs cost between $350 and $600.

If you're not sure about implementing wireless devices, the low prices of the Palm VIIx may be an incentive. Recent price cuts reduced the price to $99 each after a rebate and writing a quick link to your backend system for testing purposes will take only a day or so, Collins said. That makes it relatively pain-free experiment without making a major investment.

You can connect to your back end system either via public wireless networks, the method used by Alpha Microsystems, or via your company's wireless LAN. Key3Media used Pocket PC handhelds from Symbol Technologies equipped with 802.11b PC Cards. Using a public wireless network requires additional fees of between $25 and $50 per month per device, depending on the service provider. The wireless LAN adapter costs, typically, about $150.

The third cost is the time required to write the code to connect the handhelds to your back end system. Most systems from vendors such as Computer Associates make it relatively easy gain access via wireless devices. The easiest solution, however, is to use a Palm VII and that device's native query language. Collins said that writing the connection to his company's SQL Server was a trivial matter.