Discovery channel

In the first of a two-part report, IT Reseller talks with a number of leading Auto ID resellers about some of the current key issues in the world of solutions and service supply.

The changing face of demand in terms of technology, service & support not to mention those all-important value-added touches of fairy dust is being constantly readjusted and redefined. But, from the point of view of resellers and VARs in the front line, what are the predominant talking points that stand out in 2009? Also, how are recent developments in terms of solutions and service offerings helping to give the channel greater leverage within chosen vertical sectors, as well as providing enhanced benefit to the end customer?

To kick off the discussion, Simon Rowland, CEIO at Customer Research Technology (a partner of distributor ScanSource Europe) highlights what he sees as one of the key developments within CRTs core services armoury. We provide a number of unique services within the research arena, by capturing point of experience feedback through a range of touch devices, he said. Our ViewPoint Research Control Suite (ViewPoint RCS) enables clients to license an online software suite that takes care of all customer feedback requirements; from setting up surveys, deploying them to multiple offline devices (such as Touch Screens, Tablet PCs and PDAs), capturing customer feedback, analysing results and providing standard or complex reporting. Our clients typically need to understand the voice of their customers how happy or otherwise they are with the service they are receiving. In the public sector their customer is a service user, such as a member of the public visiting a hospital or a police station. In retail its the shopper.

More demanding

Rowland added that CRTs clients have become more demanding, requiring a higher level of reporting and analysis support. This has enabled us to respond with value-added services, where we now fully manage some clients. This means we consult with them in the detail of their strategic aims in order to create the right survey for the feedback data required, and also the right reports design at the back end. The reports must be fast, accurate and provide the business information needed to drive service improvement change.

He pointed out that one customer, Specsavers, uses 100 ViewPoint Touch Screens, with the IBM APKs as the kiosk of choice. We rotate the kiosks around all 600 UK stores and provide a bespoke weekly and monthly report to enable customer service improvement rapidly, he said. Rowland also explained that CRT captures feedback from browsers; those visitors to store who dont go on to buy anything. This is extremely valuable data to a retailer, he remarked, adding that many NHS Hospitals also use the ViewPoint RCS system for patient feedback. Tablet PCs and Touch Screen kiosks are ideal within waiting areas and wards for engaging the patient in a service satisfaction survey, said Rowland. The instant feedback is then available through any web browser or, in many cases, our fully managed service provided automatic reports, to whoever requires them, on time.

In addition, he points out that the need for genuine user-friendly systems has never been greater. Software solutions have improved to the point that users will not tolerate shoddy, unreliable or hard to operate technology, he said. Weve worked hard to create a customer feedback system thats easy to use. Diane Loughlin of Patient Focus Public Involvement and Health Promotion Lead, commented: The accuracy of interpreting information in ViewPoint is just great we can produce a report very quickly the devices are extremely user friendly.

Abuse included

Paul Clark at BlueLeaf (a partner of distributor Blackroc Distribution) cites developments in the maintenance field as worthy of note; in particular, an abuse included arrangement. Clark makes the point that some company employees within the end user space tend not to respect equipment bought for their benefit and have the view that if it breaks the boss will simply buy a new one. This used to be expensive for employers, but now for a relatively small initial outlay they can have peace of mind for three years that it will be repaired free of charge, whatever the circumstances, he said. As a reseller, it is easy to add on these incremental benefits to the quoted price for a job and it helps to sell the package against competitors who do not offer this service. Clark added that leasing is another valuable option, as the incremental cost of the maintenance can be spread over the lease period. One of our customers, Reliance Secure Task Management (Prisoner Transport), always takes the full cover option on its handhelds as it cannot afford downtime or mistakes with its prisoner data logging, explained Clark.

James Hannay, VP of Northern Europe for Zetes, reflects that, historically, VARs have always been defined as providers of both software and hardware, which is combined as a solution. This ability to combine the two was how the supplier added value, he said. Now, I believe we see traditional software and hardware provision increasingly being commoditised and the added value the client is looking for in a supplier is the ability to understand the underlying business process and integrate a variety of interlinked solutions to optimise these business processes. Hannay added that, because of Zetes ability to offer business process consulting and integration services, he does not really consider Zetes as a VAR. We define ourselves as a supply chain integrator, he said. We do offer a wide range of point solutions but customers come to us because of our ability to integrate these solutions across their supply chain to solve the underlying business problems.

Difficult to differentiate

While many more manufacturers have entered the barcode market place, Adrian Harris, sales director at EXPD (a partner of distributor Varlink), believes that, if anything, we are seeing more of the same and not too much that is new or innovative. Using mobile data collection devices as an example, there are now numerous devices available to us, but its very difficult to truly differentiate between many of them, he said. The VARs contribution is to guide us with an endless supply of information; so much information is available at our finger tips through the Web. Information such as pricing, specifications, stock availability, accessories, options etc, makes our job as a reseller easier and in turn ensures the end user gets the right product, on time and on budget.

In the view of Les Morley, financial director at Pen Mobile (a partner of distributor Varlink), a resellers business strategies can typically be defined by its cost-versus-service axis. At the one extreme, there are companies who pursue a low-cost, low-margin business model that is predicated on high-volume sales, typically to end users who know (or think they know) what product they want, with what specification, he said. The route to market for such resellers has been considerably enabled by web sales and e-marketing, alongside more traditional telesales functions.

Morley added that end users have for some time been aware that investment in IT solutions must be judged on much more than the headline hardware costs. The history of large IT projects is littered with examples of dissatisfied customers who have failed to crystalise the anticipated ROI, because what they ended up with was not what they really wanted, he said. There is a host of issues that they need to consider around product selection, total cost of ownership, support, integration etc.; particularly if the requirement includes bespoke software development, delivery and implementation. There has been a trend towards trusted partners, certainly among bigger corporate enterprises (no-body ever got sacked for choosing the Big Blue) and we see that cascading down among SMEs.

Consequently, Morley explains that Pen Mobile follows a strategy that is based on establishing strong relationships with a high focus on service. Our key value add is our expertise in the range of hardware available and its suitability to a particular customers needs, he remarked. What many customers need is a solution, not a product, and therefore understanding those needs in detail is key to ensuring that the recommended solution is the best currently available. That does not necessarily mean the most sophisticated package; the customers main considerations may be price, brand preference, availability of support, usability, size, weight, etc.

Exceeding expectations

Morley recognises the value in understanding what the customer wants, by when, and the price that he is willing to pay; then exceeding his expectations. For sure, there are some who will seek your advice and pick your brains, only to place their order with a box shifter, but the vast majority welcome having a strong relationship with an IT solutions company that they can trust to guide them through an ever changing maze of products and technologies. Stephen Burnett, managing director at the Retail Data Partnership (a partner of distributor ScanSource Europe), reflects on the benefits of providing regular price file updates to customers, and also keeping their special offers up. In effect, we do for independent convenience retailers what the head office IT department does for multiples like Tesco or Morrisons etc., he said.

And what of some of the key changing end user requirements in terms of technology or service & support in recent times, and how have resellers striven to satisfy these requirements? Rowland maintains that, in research, the demand has been on the increase for more instant feedback data. He adds that, to provide feedback thats from the point of experience is also more in demand, as powerful research carried out by Gartner in the US has proven that feedback captured at the time of the experience is 40 per cent more accurate that feedback gained only 24 hours later. This has meant that from the point of gaining the initial customer feedback we have had to look closely at how best we can quickly filter, analyse and disseminate the data in client friendly reports, said Rowland. Our patent pending Valid8 analytics ensures that data is filtered and quarantined automatically, guaranteeing high quality feedback reports with all false responses segregated.

Burnett points out that, in the retail sector, it is not changing user requirements that have specifically driven the focus of the Retail Data Partnership. In our sector, end users have typically suffered from very poor levels of support from the reseller or system integrator; so our focus has been on delivering and maintaining excellent levels of service, he said. This is paying off with increased sales and profitability for us.

Main drivers

In Clarks view, GPRS, GPS and Bluetooth have been main drivers for BlueLeafs business offerings. One of our main offerings is remote data collection and data reporting, he said. Increasingly, even SMEs want instantaneous updates of what their employees are doing or where they are. We have van sales systems that log customer visits back to a central server via GPRS the minute the salesman leaves the customers premises. The user can either log onto a domain in the central server of a company or can access a website in cyberspace to exchange files. GPRS also works the other way in that the business owner can send data to the handheld showing the balance owed by a customer; so the salesman can collect the outstanding amount before carrying out another sale. Clark adds that wireless BlueTooth printing has also been a boon to BlueLeafs systems, as the salesman can take a customers order and print an invoice, delivery note or receipt in the van while collecting the goods.

From Harriss perspective, end users have become more knowledgeable. Not long ago resellers would propose a full turnkey solution, but such is the familiarity with wi-fi, Mobile devices etc; often the requirement is to simply supply to a hardware specification, at the best price, he said. It is important for true added-value resellers such as ExPD to maintain its focus on customer-specific requirements in terms of the application. It is key that end users get more than just a box they need more and they need a reason to want to be served by the reseller again.

Longer-term relationship

Hannay sees customers looking for a longer-term relationship with their suppliers. They want to work with suppliers who can add value in different ways to the traditional VAR/user relationship, he remarked. For example, when you have a business-to-business relationship with a customer, this involves helping that organisation to resolve its supply chain issues over, say, a 10- or 15-year period and, ultimately, developing an interdependent relationship. In other words, the customer looks to you not only solve their operational problems in specific areas, but also to bring to them innovation, new ideas, and market insight. So for instance once Zetes has completed the first deployment of a solution, we look to help our customers to optimise other areas within their supply chain. Increasingly with customers, our relationship goes beyond simply selling them a solution they look to Zetes as a flexible extension of their IT department, with specific expertise in mobile solutions.

Mobility, mobility, mobility is the mantra of Morley. We have all seen the migration from huge mainframes to the ubiquitous PC, and then lap-top, he reflects. The last few years have seen a variety of mobile computing devices with various form factors competing for market position. These vary from tablet PCs to smart phones and a whole host of something in between. Whichever form factor fits the customers requirement, the common expectation is for enhanced mobility and robust communications whether by GPRS, or wi-fi.

Morley cites one example of this as the outdoor events/music festivals market. Here we have had some success in developing gate management solutions for green field sites. With little or no IT or comms infrastructure, potentially incomplete power distribution, negative topography, and sometimes with little shelter from the elements, this is a pretty hostile environment to be creating a temporary WLAN linking multiple gates, where systems availability is mission critical. You really dont want your system going off line just as 50,000 festival goers are about to come streaming through the gates.

Morley is given much advice on which form factor will become dominant. If anyone knows the answer please let me know. Last week a major client insisted that the future for their strategic mobility platform would need to be an iPod-type device, with Google Android. The week before, another client was looking to move away from their Smart-phone/PDA platform because too many were getting lost. Could we suggest something ugly and industrial that wouldnt be subject to such shrinkage. In short, I think the jury is still out, and all we can do is give customers the options, advise on the features and benefits, and help them make a choice that fits their model.

Turning to service, Morley points out that we have all had to deal with the call centre syndrome, situated in some far-off land where they dont play cricket, and you have to play a Beethoven concerto on the telephone keypad before you can get through to someone, anyone, who might help. And while this methodology is no doubt cost efficient, Morley doesnt know anyone who has a good word to say about them. We may be swimming against the tide, but we believe that if our customers have a problem, they want to pick up the phone, talk to their account manager and he will deal with their problem. Each customer is allocated an account manager who keeps in regular contact and is the gateway to all of the support services, in house or off site. He will take ownership of the problem and keep the customer informed of progress in resolution.  High cost model? Well, yes, but as a lad I was taught that every problem was also an opportunity.

People have to eat

And what of the strongest and weakest vertical end-user sectors at the moment? Clark points to retail, as the credit crunch is obviously impacting on this sector. Retail has also tended to be a low-margin business for many resellers and they need large numbers of unit sales to maintain their businesses, he adds. I suspect resellers who are exposed to this sector will struggle. Having said that, people have to eat. We have many van sales systems in the market selling foodstuffs to restaurants and high street shops that are bucking the credit crunch. is one of our van sales systems customers, with 15 field-based handhelds, and the company has recently opened a shop in Kensington that has been so successful in its first year its profits are paving the way for a second shop in London. Sales in the shop are carried out on Palmtop machines and receipts are printed via Bluetooth to local printers (no tills in the shop at all). So I would say field data collection is a strong area at the moment.

Encouragingly, Hannay observes that one of the strongest sectors currently for Zetes is the tier-one customers in retail; along with logistics and manufacturing who are continuing with their planned investments and developing their businesses. We are seeing a high demand for our services within these sectors, he said. Morley, on the other hand, reflects that retailing is going through a bad patch at the moment, and he is witnessing the knock on in manufacturing, logistics, transport, etc. These are also typically mature markets where certainly the big players have quite sophisticated systems, he said. Competitive advantage and ROI at the margin is therefore more challenging. However, there are still some smaller retailers who are seeking to catch up, although cap-ex budgets are typically well battened down at the moment. And surprisingly, we still come across a significant number of SMEs that have still not embraced technology to any great degree for whatever reason technophobia, or the absence of vision and knowledge that would allow them to embrace change. Handle with care. They are a fragile breed, easily scared off and in need of much coaching and coaxing.

According to Morley, areas of growth and development are seen where the social/business model has changed. This leads to a proliferation of new young enterprises jostling for market position as they move into a more stable and mature phase, he said. Street services and parking management is one of those areas where inner city congestion has led to ever more wardens and vehicle clampers. Our entry-level parking management solutions have proved particularly effective in providing enhanced on-line real-time event management, delivering not only improved operational efficiencies, but also increased revenue streams for the operators. Morley is also seeing an increasing focus on health & safety concerns, such as lone-worker protection, and are currently evaluating various customer needs and the best way that these can be addressed. And, in the wider security arena, Morley anticipates an increase in biometric-based solutions over the next few years, albeit this is still reasonably early days, he added. 

Cost justification

Harris points out that, while it has not affected EXPD, he understands there are businesses that specialise in the automotive sector who are having a hard time; likewise he has found some high street retail outlets also holding off project implementation. There are times when a cost justification can be demonstrated, but it is still very difficult to ask a business to part with a sizeable investment while at the same time making other cutbacks, he said. In contrast, Harris makes the point that there are other businesses, such as airparks (airport car parking) that are using this current economic climate to invest in the future by implementing systems that will provide the customers with a much greater service level, while at the same time realising savings for the business. ExPD has found that the current difficult economic time has put greater pressure on customers to better use the existing fixed asset base; therefore we have continued to develop our own asset management product, Asset-i, said, adding that being able to track every asset in a business means that equipment is can be redeployed rather than replaced; thus raising funds against a true and accurate asset register is easier to justify.


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