John Hoelz, principal of the New Berlin, Wis.-based rep firm, J.F. Nolan & Associates, is all over all things technical. An admitted “techie,” he's the guy in the office who actually enjoys the IT stuff — setting up the email accounts, teaching people how to sync their smart phones, etc., because he loved messing with technology.

Except for a short stint with a technology consulting company that helped schools and churches incorporate technology into their operations, for most of the past 20-plus years, Hoelz, with the able assistance of Christina Lueck, now the company's vice president of operations, has harnessed technology to make life easier for the salespeople of J.F. Nolan & Associates as they call on customers throughout the Milwaukee area, and the far reaches of Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Now he wants to make life easier for other reps and distributors with RepFiles, an end-to-end file distribution system that makes manufacturers' up-to-date product information available 24/7 so they can access it on sales calls via tablets without being connected to the Web.

The story of RepFiles actually begins in J.F. Nolan & Associates' pre-computer era in the early 1990s, when John Hoelz first joined the rep agency. He laughs now when he thinks that back then the most advanced electronic device the firm had in its office was a fax machine, and that in those days he was pretty vocal about how he would never own a computer. The company got its first personal computer around the time Lueck joined the agency in 1992 so they could work with a lighting control program offered by GE Lighting Controls, which they still represent. “Christina set it up and got it working,” he says. “Programming was written to a floppy disc that you would insert into to a lighting control system to load the program as to when relays would turn on and off.”

Remember when

They eventually started using that computer for basic word processing and e-mail, when that became available. As new technology came to the electrical market, it seemed like J.F. Nolan & Associates was always one of the first companies to adopt it, whether it was personal computers, laptops, cellphones or smartphones. Like many reps, Hoelz lived through the evolution of the cellphone from a brick-sized device that you had to haul around in a bag to the smartphones many of us rely on today. His agency's salespeople also started packing laptops for their sales calls.

“We were right there,” he says, “As soon as you could mount cells in cars, we had them. As soon as they introduced PalmPilots we had them. They just had basic contact info and some primitive notetaking, if you could learn how to enter the text using “Graffiti.” There was always the inherent problem of how do you synchronize what's on there with what you have on your desktop. Back in that day all data was local. Everything sat in one spot and you had to return home to get that kind of info.

“We were pretty early adopters of that type of technology. Standard Electric Supply once asked me to speak to their local NAED group about technology and what it was doing for our industry. I will never forget that presentation because I talked about fax machines, cell phones and pagers, which was high tech at that time.”

But to Hoelz, at least two things were missing that he would eventually build into RepFiles. First was a dependable link that would allow salespeople to access the most pertinent product information for sales calls when they needed it most — at the point of contact on a sales call with that customer. Also on his wish list was a centralized depot of up-to-date product information accessible from the field that wouldn't require Christina to constantly e-mail the latest files to salespeople.

During this era, reps were having all sorts of challenges with IT management. J.F. Nolan & Associates had a techie on call in Hoelz, but most reps didn't have that luxury. “One of the challenges for an agent is who manages their IT,” he says. “We all expend a tremendous amount of energy trying to find a solution that's right for our agency and none of us are on the same page. We are all going down the same road, but we are not talking with each other.”

One of the answers to Hoelz's questions about data management for rep firms that he built into RepFiles was the advent of affordable cloud computing solutions for small businesses. Think of the cloud as an off-site resource where you can remotely store all the information your company needs to function, instead of storing it on a central server in your office or randomly on various laptops. It takes a leap of faith to trust the cloud in terms of unfettered access and security, but there's little question that much of Corporate America is moving that way. Hoelz and J.F. Nolan & Associates took that leap about five years ago.

Going with Google

A key moment in the development of RepFiles was when he moved J.F. Nolan & Associates to Google Applications cloud-based business software. It gave him valuable insight on off-site data storage and document sharing that he would eventually build into RepFiles. For $50 per user, per year, Hoelz says Google Apps gives J.F Nolan & Associates more-than-adequate email and document storage space and completely removed nearly all of its dependence on any technology provider to satisfy every requirement it had for e-mail, collaboration and document storage, and allowed the company to develop a file-sharing system that would revolutionize its business operations — and form the basis of what would become RepFiles. The company scans and digitally stores all sales orders locally so they are immediately available, but most company sales and marketing information is now out on the cloud.

“Where we had a Windows server sitting in the backroom serving up our mail, files and documents, now I have a $300 Windows PC sitting there and all it does is local file storage,” he says. “The local storage is still important because you still need to have that speed on your local network for people in your office to access things quickly, make changes, annotations, add stamps or whatever. That software only performs when you have the speed to open it up and save things properly. But the second a file is changed there it gets sent to the cloud. When we moved to Google Apps for document sharing and emails in the cloud all on our J.F. Nolan domain, nobody knew we made a move to Google and Gmail. It's transparent to the outside world.”

Hoelz says the fact that Google Apps worked “seamlessly” with different types of smartphones was also a huge benefit. “When we made our move to cloud, some other things came to light — the document sharing aspect and the fact that since Android used a Google operating system and we all carried Android phones, it plugged in completely seamlessly to Google Apps for everything — shared calendaring, documents, emails, instant message and video conferencing.”

Then came tablets

Right around this time Apple's iPad and other tablet computers came out. Hoelz immediately saw the show-and-tell potential of these devices on sales calls, and in Dec. 2010, he gave the J.F. Nolan & Associates' salespeople Viewsonic tablets for Christmas. “Right out of the box they would not work for what we needed them to do, but I was fortunate to have some IT background,” he says. “We started to investigate how we could share the files salespeople needed so when they were in front of a customer, they were 100 percent prepared with any pricing info, sales materials and either training or demonstration videos.”

Like other reps, J. F. Nolan & Associates was getting much of its product information and collateral from manufacturers on thumb drives, which was an easy and widely accepted method of information delivery. But it had the inherent flaw of providing content that could be out-of-date the moment it was copied onto the drive. And when you figure that most reps carry at least 12 to 15 product lines, that's quite a few thumb drives to manage. Lueck and Hoelz started looking for ways to store the most current product information from manufacturers on a cloud-based, centralized resource. After experimenting with cloud storage and sync solutions such as SugarSync and DropBox, they discovered that none of them could really duplicate how product data moves in the electrical market.

“They worked but were very cumbersome to manage,” says Hoelz. “If Christina was managing files, she would have to invite other users to share. It was too cumbersome. We went out and had an application developed. The application didn't start out as RepFiles; it started out as a way for Christina to be a single point of reference in the office. When incoming data was of value, she would essentially save that from her e-mail to what looks like a network storage folder on her computer. But that network storage folder really resides on the cloud. She would save it there and it would be uploaded to the cloud. The application we had built had several specifications around it where it would go to that cloud storage location, look for new content stored there and download it to the mobile devices. It would download that content, find anything that was moved or managed to either a more effective location, or renamed because it was easier to find. In essence, she was controlling the structure and content on the field salespeople's devices. We started doing that last December and January.”

The word gets out

The content management system that Hoelz and the J.F. Nolan team developed caught the attention of manufacturers and other reps when he showed it to them at last year's NEMRA Conference in Boston. Soon after that meeting, he started getting calls from other reps about what it would take to develop something similar. While Hoelz was glad to help them, he quickly realized that if everyone started developing their own method of distributing content on electrical products, it could quickly get pretty confusing. After some conversations last spring with Ken Hooper, NEMRA's president, and the NEMRA Manufacturers Group (NMG), NEMRA agreed to assist with some of the development and to distribute RepFiles' apps to members.

“I called Ken in March and said I think we really have something here. There is an opportunity for NEMRA to standardize on content distribution for our fellow reps and the industry. It's a seriously professional, very well-done suite of applications. This is not an app that just goes on your phone or tablet. It is an end-to-end system to distribute and manage content for a field sales team.”

Electrical manufacturers will pay an annual fee for access to the system, and that fee depends how many data storage bucket/application combinations they have. Explains Hoelz, “That's how the cloud model will work — How much you take down, put up, and have there. If you are a NEMRA member, then the apps are free. NEMRA members can also pay to have their own storage bucket/application customized for their agency. There has been a lot of interest in it. Contact sales@repfiles.net for pricing.

“NEMRA has been promoting RepFiles and setting up demonstrations of the system for its rep and manufacturer members. More than 300 attendees have registered to attend one of the sessions on RepFiles at this year's NEMRA Conference,” he says.

Two very important features of RepFiles are that since it's not platform-dependent it can be used on either iPads or Android tablets. J.F.Nolan & Associates uses Android-based tablets and its employees enjoy the ease with which they communicate with the firm's Google Apps-based operating environment, but Hoelz says other companies may prefer Apple iPads. He says a big part of the decision on which tablet to buy is simply to find out which device the salespeople find easiest to use. Hoelz says once they get comfortable using a tablet they are more apt to use it on sales calls as a tool to help them to discuss new products.

Another big feature of RepFiles is that once users synchronize their mobile devices with the RepFiles data on the cloud, they can access the data at any time on their device, whether they are online or not. They don't want to be in the middle of a sales call and have to waste time connecting (fingers crossed) to the local WiFi network. “A critical element is storing that sales collateral remotely on the device so it's available 24/7, 100 percent of the time,” he says. “All you have to do sync the information before the call.”

Lueck says RepFiles and Google Apps have really made her life easier because users can access most sales information themselves without calling and asking her to send it to them. “Outside salespeople don't always have everything right on their fingertips,” she says. “Manufacturers are constantly sending us updates, and dispersing that information is difficult. RepFiles helped us tremendously. I don't have to worry that something out there is old anymore because I can just delete an old file and pop in a new one. It's more reminding salespeople this information is on the cloud.

“In the beginning the salespeople still called me for things they wanted me to send them, and I would have to remind them it was already in RepFiles. They do that a lot less now, and even call and ask me to put things in RepFiles that aren't already there. Catalogs are outdated the minute they're printed, so it's great that manufacturers can send us updates electronically, and they can be instantly accessed on RepFiles. The most current, up-to-date information is available at all times. The big thing in making it work is reminding everyone that the information is already there, in RepFiles.”

Lueck and Hoelz say another big advantage of a cloud-based operating system is the lack of downtime and maintenance. If a field salesperson's laptop crashes, since critical information is out on the cloud, they can access the information from another computer. Says Hoelz, “When we moved everything to Google Apps and now RepFiles, there is no device maintenance. That has been mammoth. If a salesperson can walk into Best Buy and buy a computer or tablet and go to the nearest Starbucks (for free wireless access) and he is back in business in 10 minutes, that really changes how you do business. That has been the biggest change.”

Down the road

Hoelz believes RepFiles will eventually be used for more than distributing product sales and marketing material in the field to outside salespeople. He sees the day when tablets will be used extensively at distributor counter areas to market new products. He has already installed some small seven-inch tablets “preloaded” with product content at some select distributor counter areas in his market area.

“I believe this tool will be a huge benefit to NEMRA agents,” he says. “My competition is not the other NEMRA agents in my territory. It's the factory-direct guy. I want to help NEMRA members be better prepared.”

Tablet Tips

Storage on tablet recommendations

Hoelz says if you purchase models with 32GB of storage you will have room to spare.

File types

Save the information that you don't want to be edited in a PDF; save the files that you want to be editable in doc, docx, xls; and save videos in an mp4 format with files sizes of about 6Mb-7Mb per minute of video.

Apple vs. Android tablets

When purchasing tablets for employees, Hoelz says it's more important just to get a tablet in their hands that's easy to use. “Buy them what they will use the most,” he says. “If that means they are going to play games on it, browse the internet while they are watching TV or change channels on their TIVO with it, if they have it in their hands, they will become familiar with it. If they become familiar with it they will use it in front of the customer.

“If you give them something that they don't understand, then they are not going to use it no matter what you do. From a device standpoint, as far as operating systems and Android versus Apple, it's what is available to us at a point in time and what is the best way to use it. No one knows what the future may bring.”

Training users on the cloud

Christina Lueck says after giving employees some basic instruction on how your company will be storing information on the cloud and how to access it, it's important to remind employees the information is already on RepFiles and that you don't need to send it to them.

Data packages on tablets

Hoelz says the RepFiles system is designed to work on a WiFi connection and doesn't require that a tablet have a data plan through a wireless carrier. But if you want your salespeople to use their tablets for email retrieval when they are out of range of wireless hotspots, the data plan might be worth the investment.