Infor's Joe Bennett, senior director, Wholesale Distribution Solutions, whose background includes being one of the original developers of the Eclipse ERP system now owned by Infor rival Epicor, sees ION as a game-changer because it allows Infor's mobile apps to be aware of other apps on the device, such as maps, navigation, Skype, contact databases and so forth, and to call them and use them to make the salesperson's interaction with the device more seamless.

Epicor is planning to launch a modular add-on to its Prophet 21 ERP system next month called ICE, which stands for Internet Component Environment. ICE enables all kinds of new mobile accessibility, Frymire says, enabling Prophet 21 to push any information it has out to a mobile dashboard that can be accessed via a smart phone, tablet or anything else without the user having to connect to the Prophet 21 ERP system directly. ICE will be rolled out for the company's other main distribution ERP systems, Eclipse and Prelude, in early 2013, Frymire said.

Other software providers such as Ximple use a browser-based interface, which simplifies the puzzle as the data can display on any device that uses a browser. The whole ERP system, whether it's accessed via the cloud or on the distributor's own hardware, functions through the browser and makes use of the browsers' functions, says Wittig.

Mobile or not, though, the real power being delivered into the hands of today's field sales organizations depends on a strong back end. “The mobile devices they're carrying around is the tip of the spear, but what's really driving the capabilities of the reps to do what they want to do is what's back in the ERP system,” says Ned Lilly, president of Xtuple, Norfolk, Va., an open-source ERP software platform that started life in the manufacturing arena and has since expanded into wholesale distribution.

There are differing points of view on how necessary it is for a field salesperson using a tablet to be able to get into the guts of the ERP system. DDI System, Sandy Hook, Conn., is a software company that concentrates on providing a simple, rock-solid system for smaller distributors, primarily those with annual sales of $25 million and below. When Adam Waller, DDI's president, looked at what would be most useful to outside sales people apart from the calendar-based CRM already built into the DDI ERP, it became clear that the one function that tablets are especially excellent at, and which other providers weren't doing very well, was an electronic catalog with an interface that allowed the salesperson to check inventory and create purchase orders on the spot.

Waller started a new company, Mobilistics, to create an app that would provide those capabilities. Mobilistics isn't affiliated with DDI System — it can work with any ERP system — but DDI does offer integration with its app, MobiOrder. The app doesn't provide real-time connection to the ERP system. Instead it uses a simple utility to pull a daily flat-file update of the company's product data and inventory and customer-specific data including contact info, special pricing and so forth, the basic information a salesperson needs to build a sales order.

Perhaps it's inevitable, as tablets and smart phones and the networks over which they communicate grow faster and more powerful, that new possibilities will emerge for empowering distributor field salespeople. What might come with that increased power? One likely answer is access to more data-heavy material.

Regardless of the technical specifics of how the interface is deployed, the killer app for field salespeople in distribution is customer relationship management (CRM). All the software providers in the industry are focusing heavily on their own CRM systems, which house the key functions for most outside salespeople, or if they don't have their own they're integrating with popular stand-alone CRM systems such as Salesforce.com.

Business intelligence is another function set software providers are deeply engaged with right now. For distributor executives, this is the tool that gives them information they can use to better understand the internals of their business and make better decisions. Such data crunching and analysis is beyond the responsibilities of most outside salespeople, but the road warriors can benefit a lot from the output of that kind of analysis.

As the power of mobile devices continues to grow, Bennett of Infor said he expects to see more in-memory data rather than pulling it down from the network when needed. “We will see full engineered specs, complete mobile business intelligence. You'll have every transaction with every customer, every note, you'll be able to analyze that data in any form, all right there. You'll have true Activity Based Costing, and you'll be able to see all the activity that chipped away at their net right there on that device.” Bennett also expects increases in power and speed to support advances in methods for presenting business intelligence graphically, to make the problems jump out at the user in a more intuitive way that supports drilling down into the data more effectively.

To get there, distributors and their software providers are going to have huge opportunities, a lot to learn and a lot of fun. Distributors looking at technology providers will want to make sure their systems run in multiple environments and are able to display well on a smart phone. Beyond that, just keep your eyes open for mobile technologies and techniques that enhance rather than complicating the job of selling electrical equipment.

Even if distributor sales people aren't order-takers anymore, the old truths will still apply. “From an electrical wholesaler perspective,” says Frymire of Epicor, “don't lose sight of the forest for the trees. You want an app that makes you money, brings cost savings or differentiates you from the competition.”

Tablet Use By the Top 200

The responses to Electrical Wholesaling's 2012 Top 200 survey showed that tablet computing already has achieved significant penetration among the nation's largest electrical distributors. Here's the breakdown:

  • Of the distributors who responded to our survey, over half (58%) were already using tablet computers. Another 12% said they had plans to add them to the mix in the next 12 months.
  • Of those who were using tablets, 94% were using iPads (84% exclusively iPads), and 10% use a mix of Apple and Android-based devices.
  • 80% of those who said they use tablets use them for sales presentations on the road.
  • 59% use them for general office use.
  • Tablets were also used for lighting audits, by executives for unspecified purposes, in lighting showrooms, and to demonstrate home automation products in branches.