Mobile devices — especially tablets and smart phones — are becoming a must-have tool for outside sales, and the move is happening with amazing speed. Electrical Wholesaling's Top 200 survey this year included a question about whether distributors were using tablet computers, and if not, whether they were considering adding them to the arsenal. Out of all respondents, 58% said they were using tablets, and another 12% were planning to add tablets in the next 12 months (see sidebar below).

Apple introduced the first iPad in April 2010. Think about that. That was 28 months ago. Since that time the way people think of computing, communicating and accessing information has changed radically. Only in the world of mobile devices could it seem like electrical distributors are slow on the uptake when they're adopting a technology that didn't even exist three years ago.

Tablet computers offer several advantages over laptops — they turn on instantly, their navigation is dead simple and intuitive, they feature better graphics, lighter weight, impressive speed in rendering images and video and longer battery life than most laptops. And we're still in the earliest generations of the technology. New tablets are getting even better graphics rendering, more power, better user interfaces. Smart phones are getting larger, clearer displays, faster connections.

Just by themselves, the tablets are a nifty tool, with thousands of applications (apps) available and in development to take advantage of the devices' built-in capabilities, such as onboard global positioning systems (GPS) for navigation, ever-improving still and video cameras, and most of all easy reading of text and graphics. All this makes tablets nearly ideal tools for sales presentations, catalogs and quick access to answers to customer questions.

Salespeople are catching on to these tools and software providers are trying to make it easy. They're hard at work developing ways for tablets to hook back to their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, the brains that store and sort all the data electrical distributors use to do business.

This kind of customer demand is forcing ERP providers to make their systems better. It's not so much a matter of software companies playing “me too” in hopes of selling another system, in essence saying, “Hey this technology is neato, be the first on your block with a tablet-enabled whizbang!”

Talking to the software companies, one quickly gets the sense that they're on edge, that mobile devices represent a profound change that will affect their viability. They realize that failing to get mobile right could at the very least set them back significantly. For some, it could be a matter of survival.

The reasons for this don't have as much to do with the devices themselves as with the change they represent. Tablets aren't all that different from the laptops most outside salespeople have been toting around for years. In fact, they do a poorer job of some things — they don't have the on-board memory or power of a laptop (though this is bound to change), their virtual keyboards make anything involving heavy data entry and writing, even something as pedestrian as e-mail, a bit dicey. Surfing a website on a tiny smart-phone screen can be a frustrating ordeal. Yet the spread of tablet use is driving distribution software companies to improve their game. Why would a shift in the technology to a tablet or smart phone format make any difference at all?

It's not so much mobile device technology itself that matters but the systems software providers are having to develop to make critical information available to tablet-wielding warriors in the field. Expectations of information on demand have ramped up dramatically. It's also a demographic effect of the ongoing changing of the guard in the distribution industry. The generations who've grown up with computers and the Internet as a constant presence and the primary way of finding information are now the key young talent distributors are recruiting. And it's not just the youngsters. Seasoned veterans are just as likely today to have embraced and grown comfortable with technology and see it as an indispensible tool in their work as well as their private lives.

 

It may seem a little premature to say it, but there are many people on the technology side who think that in the shift to mobile devices the industry could be looking at a tipping point that finally moves distributor outside salespeople away from being mere “order-takers.” The slam on distributor road warriors for generations has been that they just show up at their established accounts with a box of donuts and an order pad, shake some hands, tell some bad jokes, book a tee time, take the order and move on.Trade magazine articles, association keynote speeches, white-paper studies and position papers throughout the history of the industry have implored distributor salespeople to be proactive, drive demand, add value and get beyond being a lowly order-taker. The fact that it constantly has to be said is evidence enough that the proactive, crusading distributor salesperson continues to be the exception, not the rule. But that may be coming to an end. The tools salespeople need to be proactive, value-adding demand drivers are maturing to support the mobile salesperson. Increasingly, they won't stand for anything less.

“What I've heard is that now that you've given them all this power, they want more,” says Stacey Pandeloglou, principal of Distribution Technology Group, a rep firm that handles software and hardware to assist distributors. “‘Why can't I look up their past 40 orders?’ Where we're going, there's nothing you can't do. People want more. It's not like you have to force-feed them. You can't just play golf every Friday and every other day tell your sales manager, ‘I had a good meeting.’ Today, on the customer side, on the owner side, both are saying, ‘What did you do for me lately?’ Salespeople used to ride pretty well from year to year. Even if they did everything wrong, sales grew 20%. Not anymore.”

The fact is, it may be one of the tiniest, most insignificant functions of computers that is really making this change happen: reminders.

Bob Wittig, sales manager of Ximple Solutions LLC, Kensington, Md., has been involved for decades in the electrical industry's information technology game as an IT manager on the distributor side and in sales on the ERP software provider side. Now, from his perch managing sales of ERP upstart Ximple (which traces its roots to the Rigel system developed by electrical distributors on the Atlantic coast in the 1980s), Wittig sees mobile devices as game-changers because the back-end systems are being set up to trigger instant action on the salesperson's part.

“When a customer special-orders material, and the material gets received, the system can recognize that and send notice to the salesperson to make sure the customer is alerted that the material is about to be delivered. There are scores of these kinds of triggers. Credit control, back orders, special pricing, lean notices kicked out, user-defined events to remind yourself to do something at a certain day or time. All these have enabled people to become proactive and get the information when it's meaningful. Pushing that to the application available through a tablet or mobile device, whether it's phone, e-mail, an app or (in Ximple's browser-based system) an employee briefcase is very different than the way things were years ago,” Wittig says. “The whole mindset of young people, and this extends to anyone under 50, is that they need information. They need it now, and the people that have the information and can deliver it in a timely fashion, and do it most effectively, will be most successful in the market.”

The experiences of distributors' customers, based on their personal lives as consumers using the same mobile devices, is reshaping what it means to be effective in sales.

Scott Frymire, senior manager of product marketing for Epicor, Dublin, Calif., one of the largest distributor ERP providers in the electrical industry, gives the example of someone looking to buy a home. “If you're looking for a new home, and you see a For Sale sign, within a couple of minutes you can find out everything about it — asking price, tax base, school districts, information about the owner — using a smart phone get access,” Frymire says. “In the business world, we want to bring that same consumer-like power to our customers that they experience in their everyday lives.”

The software providers active in electrical distribution ERP systems face a common challenge in providing that kind of consumeresque experience for distributor salespeople so they can get their customers the information they need. The puzzle is not a simple one. The ways information displays on a smart phone or a tablet are very different from the displays on a large desktop monitor. In a smart phone, for example, the screen's virtual “real estate” can be obliterated by the virtual keyboard.

This problem makes it necessary for software companies to build systems that work equally well on iOS (the iPad's operating system), rival operating system Android developed by Google, Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system and all the various smart phone systems with no drop in ease of use. The companies are taking a variety of ways to get there.

Infor Global Solutions, Alpharetta, Ga., the other giant in the world of electrical distribution ERP, is using a middleware system it calls ION (short for Intelligent Open Network) to make it seamless for distributors to gather information from disparate systems in all parts of their enterprise to obtain a clear, seamless picture of customer activity as well as internal processes. ION was developed to keep from having to build separate mobile interfaces for all the different ERP systems Infor has acquired over the years — SHIMS, A+ and Infor SX Enterprise are the best known in the electrical industry. ION makes it possible for its app development platform, Infor10 Motion, and new smartphone apps such as Infor10 Road Warrior CRM, to provide field sales with just the information they need.

 

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.