Go Mobile or Get Run Over
It's time to ditch the clipboard and embrace smartphones, Internet-ready tablets and other on-the-run customer service tools
In 2010, Rottler Pest and Lawn Solutions of St. Louis, Mo., gave each of its field technicians a T-Mobile myTouch smartphone. The reason?
"The cameras in them allowed our techs to take a picture of anything they encountered in the field they couldn't handle themselves," says Leslie Withoelter, Rottler's office supervisor. "Then they could email the picture back to our office and get help."
Rottler initially ran a mobile application called PestPac on T-Mobile Zinc smartphones. It later switched to an Intermec mobile computer because of its more rugged design.
Rottler is one of several service providers that has added mobile capability to its field force, both for recordkeeping purposes and to allow its people to serve customers better. That service can range from identifying a pest problem to creating invoices.
Created by Marathon Data Systems of Wall Township, N.J., the PestPac software must be run on Windows-based mobile devices, although the company is working on iPhone and iPad versions. The program is designed to increase field technician efficiency. "Our techs can enter what they did right into the hand-held, as opposed to writing a paper ticket," says Withoelder.
If customers need a ticket - as do most commercial clients - a Bluetooth printer can be purchased for that task. Withoelder said they provide tickets to their commercial pest control clients, though not to their lawn clients, most of whom are residential.
The hand-held units can also scan barcodes. Another benefit is that techs can email invoices to the clients while they are onsite. "We have small number of clients who prefer email invoices," she said. "From our perspective, they are quicker and more cost-effective than snail-mail."
Because Missouri has extensive state reporting regulations, the techs must file detailed activity reports at the end of each day about what chemicals they used where and under what conditions. These records are maintained at the Rottler offices and are subject to spot reviews by state inspectors.
"The hand-helds allow the techs to send that information directly to the office at the end of the day," Withoelder said.
Then, too, the mobile devices allow techs to access site-specific information, including such things as alternate phone numbers, past due accounts, the presence of locked gates and dogs, even a past history of practices performed there.
The mobile audience
One of the big reasons to consider creating a mobile app for your landscape firm is Internet access. "According to Google, 45 percent of its Internet searches are made from mobile phones," says Lynn Smith, founder of Shiny New Apps of Minneapolis, a mobile strategy and development shop. That means your customers are trying to connect with you when they are out of the house and on the go, or vegging out in front of the TV. It's a quick-hit. Either they get you and set an appointment or schedule a service or they go to your competitor.
Everyone does it. Smartphone and tablet ownership is spread relatively even across U.S. income levels, Smith said. "From 2008 to 2010, the highest growth in smartphone and tablet users was in the $75,000-plus per year households. In 2011, there was a rather large, low-income spurt, in the $15,000 to $35,000 per year households."
Another good thing about the mobile Internet audience is that it cuts across all ethnicities. Forty-eight percent of African-American adults have mobile Internet access while 45 percent of Hispanics do. Whites only account for 31 percent.
Research from Google's Thinkmobile service shows that 82 percent of the mobile audience both researches and reads news when they are connected, while 89 percent stay connected to the Internet as long as their phone is turned on.
Another interesting tidbit Google turned up is that smartphone and tablet users are multitaskers. Eighty percent use them while they are watching TV and 40 percent do so every day, raising some very interesting marketing possibilities for lawn care firms.
"The top five shows mobile users multitask while watching are reality shows, news programs, comedy shows, sporting events and food shows," says Regina McCombs, a Poynter Institute faculty member. Poynter is a nonprofit research institute located in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Sixty percent checked email, 59 percent looked for information related to the programs, and 46 percent surfed information unrelated to programming. "There was an equal split between multitasking during programs and during the commercials," she says.
Google also unearthed some numbers about how many smartphone users used their devices while doing something else. Seventy-two percent did so while reading newspapers or magazines; 33 percent did so while watching television; 27 percent while playing video games; 44 percent while listening to music; and 28 percent while viewing the Internet on another device.
By the end of this year, 51 percent of all cell phone users in the United States are projected to own smartphones. That's quite a large slice of the property owners in the country, considering 87 percent of all U.S. adults own a mobile phone.
What is a smartphone? "A smartphone is any phone that can download and install an 'app,' a mobile phone application," says Jason Barnett, executive director of The , a Minnesota-based online publication.
"In the first quarter of 2011, there were more smartphones being shipped worldwide than feature phones," says McCombs. "Smartphone sales are expected to exceed PC sales by the end of 2012."
Barnett partnered with Smith in a Poynter Institute webinar in early December 2011. Cell phones that are not smartphones are called feature phones. These phones can do a variety of things, such as send and receive email, view the Web and take pictures. They just can't install an app.
What's an app? An app is a program designed to run on a smartphone. Apps do all kinds of things: they can be used to monitor bank balances, pay bills, play games, book snowplowing or lawn care, make hotel reservations, check on a weed - virtually anything you can do on the Web.
More than half of app usage occurs while people are waiting for something or someone. "People flip through apps looking for quick hits, spending five to 10 minutes per session," says Smith. "Market research also points to heavy app usage while commuting." That means your customer is unlikely to be at home when using a lawn care app, but they are apt to have lawn care on their to-do list and will see their smartphone app as a way to get one more job out of the way before starting their workday.
In June 2011, Apple claimed to have twice as many apps for its iOS system than the Android App Market featured. At the New Year, Apple claimed it had 500,000 apps in its App Store.
The Blackberry brought us to the brink of smartphones in 2006. It was the business world's killer email application - a cell phone that could act as a walkie-talkie, send and receive email, and had a camera. It also featured a color screen, Bluetooth capability and GPS functions. Users bought Blackberrys with applications pre-installed. That has changed. Anyone can upload an app; prices range from free to a few bucks.
How to Design an App
The number one consideration when building a cellphone app is to make sure it has "cross-platform compatibility." This means the app designer you contract with to build the app makes it so both Android and iPhone users can install it.
Making an app for either the Android or the iPhone alone will significantly reduce the number of people who can be reached. To assure this, app designers should build your apps from a Web language core, preferably HTML 5.
- Retool apps for tablet users. "Although the underlying tech is the same," says Damon Kiesow, senior product manager at Boston.com, "apps need to be redesigned for tablet users."
Kiesow spoke at a webinar on reaching mobile audiences held by the Poynter Institute, a news media research and training institute, located in St. Petersburg, Fla.
- Choose experienced app design and development vendors. Ask potential contractors to show apps they have already placed in the iPhone App Store or the Android App Market. If they can't, find one who can.
It can pay to look for a familiar app developer, though. Check first to see if the Web design firm, PR firm or advertising agency your business contracts with also does app development.
- Don't try to cram everything into a single app. "Do multiple apps."
Minneapolis-based App Developer Lynn Smith of Shiny New App says it is important to keep the design simple. "Remember, the size of the screens is relatively small. Scale down complexity."
The app development process is straightforward. "Build. Test. Rebuild. Test. Deploy," she says. "Usability must be done before you deploy your app. Does the user use it as you intended it to be used?"
To assure this, be sure the design follows industry norms. "For example, the back button is always located at the top on the left-hand side of the screen. It's user-expected."
Another app design norm is the search window. Place it at the top of the first screen as well.
Beware of putting too much on the first screen, though. "Drill-down is understood," says Smith.
More than anything else, she says, monetize apps. "Make sure they are designed to generate revenue for your enterprise."
In quarter one of 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone and released it into a hungry public a couple of months later. Initially sold exclusively by AT&T, 15 percent of the iPhone subscribers had Internet connectivity plus the ability to choose and install their own applications, in addition to its standard features. In February 2011, Apple announced a deal with Verizon to offer iPhones to its subscribers.
By 2009, 17 percent of all cell phone users had smartphones. In the first quarter of 2011, smartphone users represented 36 percent. First to join the smartphone fray was Verizon Wireless and Motorola with its Droid phone in 2009. Purchased by Google in August 2011, its Android operating system took the lead in the smartphone market last fall with a 29 percent share, edging Apple's iOS operating system by 2 percent.
According to a December 5, 2011, comScore mobileLens survey (comScore is a Reston, Va.-based digital marketing intelligence firm), Google's Android owns just over 46 percent of U.S. smartphone subscribers. Apple's iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod) have just over 28 percent of the market while RIM's Blackberry has a 17.2 percent U.S. market share in the number three position.
RIM also set out to retain its market share in 2009 with the Blackberry Storm. The company was immediately beset with problems in its operating system. It also had a three-day service outage in October 2011.
Despite those setbacks, Blackberry has an 11.7 percent share in the worldwide smartphone market, according to a Gartner report released in the same month.
In October 2011, comScore reported almost 7 percent of all Web traffic originated from a Wi-Fi connection. Nearly two-thirds of that number is smartphones while "much of the remainder" comes from tablets.
The key to success is getting paid, says Ray Smith of EzBillMaker. It's now possible to send invoices and process credit cards using a smartphone.
PHOTO COURTESY OF EZBILLMAKER.
Tablets are larger, smartphone-like, hand-held communication devices that fit somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop. Leading tablet brands are iPads and the Kindle Fire. comScore reported the iPad accounts for 97 percent of all the tablet traffic in the United States.
As of this writing at the start of 2012, 8 percent of U.S. adults own a tablet. "Women are more likely to have e-readers while men are more likely to own tablets," says McCombs.
Smith says tablet sales will surpass U.S. PC sales by the end of 2012. Tablets are used during non-work hours and weekends, says research from comScore mobileLens. Seventy-seven percent of tablet owners use them every day and average 90 minutes per session. That is a lot of opportunity to put lawn service information in your customer's hands.
Fifty-four percent use them to check their email; 53 percent consume the news; 39 percent access social networks; and 30 percent use them for gaming.
iPads have a 10-inch screen while the Kindle Fire has a 7-inch screen. By contrast, Droid X phones have a 4.3-inch screen while the Apple iPhone 4 has a 3.5-inch screen.
Don't confuse tablets with another device in the mobile market, the e-reader. Used for reading books and periodicals online, they offer better visibility in bright sunlight and have longer battery life than tablets. Examples include the original Kindle and the Nook.
Shiny New App's founder Smith says smartphone users and tablet users represent two different kinds of content consumers. "Smartphone users want local information and fast information. Tablet users are far more likely to read in depth."
Video is a good experience on a tablet, she says. McCombs agrees. "Our research shows there are far more starts and completions in video when people view them using tablets and other mobile devices."
A product like EzBillMaker will simplify customer service at both the estimating and the billing end of the sales cycle. Currently available for Blackberry, the app will be available for Android sometime in Quarter two of this year and for iPhone a bit further out, according to Ray Smith, director of business development for the firm.
"The key to small business success is getting paid," says Smith. Every landscaper needs to get bills out in a timely manner. "When billing is neglected even the most competently run business runs into cash flow problems or worse," he continues. Thus, EzBillMaker with Credit Card Processing, which allows making and sending bills from a smartphone, makes sense. "It sounds strange at first, but it works great," Smith said, adding that anyone who can text or email from a smartphone can make and send professionally formatted bills. This app was developed by the same people who did a mobile project for John Deere Equipment and for GenPower Kohler.
"Their experience and unique design allows you to make complex invoices and quotes with very little typing," Smith says.
Like most other apps, it is designed as a general small business tool, but can be customized for lawn care, tree service and other uses. There are 10 drop-down descriptors that can be accessed immediately. This might be for mowing, mulching, fertilizing, irrigation service or leaf removal. Or, for customers where the same service is provided every time, the app will generate an identical monthly charge.
A landscaper can choose two of the four available basic document formats: invoice, sales estimate, time sheet or expense report. Assuming the first two would be the high-demand apps for landscapers, a company can equip an estimator with the app and allow him to go into the field, develop the estimate on the smartphone, then email or fax it immediately to the client before walking out of the customer's yard.
The smartphone app even allows you to make and send sales estimates, says Smith. "Being able to make a sales estimate at the job site saves a ton of time. Being able to make and send a bill from your couch is cool, too. We have some customers who simply use the credit card function to collect old bills. More quotes mean more business."
Technicians can use the app to bill the customer's credit card and the card never goes out of the customer's sight.
Empowering customers works. The Davey Tree Expert Company has a new, free app called Tree$ense. Created and powered by i-Tree Design, it is a software suite that helps homeowners calculate the value of single trees on their properties. It will compute the value of several aspects from energy savings to increased property values. Use it to figure areas to plant trees so the property owner gains the most benefit from their trees as they grow. To see the app, visit from a mobile device. The app works on most devices, including iPads and other tablets, iPhones, Android phones and Blackberry 6 OS. In return, the app will give the value of the trees, including how much storm water the trees will intercept, how much carbon dioxide they will sequester and how much air pollution they will reduce.
David Weinstock is an assistant professor of communications/journalism and holds a Mass Media Ph.D. Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from The Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics.
Ahead of the Curve
with QR Codes
by Ron Hall/Editor-in-Chief
The QR code on a new B&S Vanguard engine provides smartphone users with a wealthy of in-the-field, product-specific info.
PHOTO BY RON HALL.
Whether you've used them or not, you've almost certainly seen QR (quick response) codes, those oddly patterned square barcodes on products, billboards, advertising messages and even within the pages of Turf magazine. These strange-looking two-dimensional symbols are links to an incredible variety of information. Point your smartphone, fire up one of the numerous apps meant to decipher the code and take a picture, and you're whisked to a specific URL.
Starting this past January, Briggs & Stratton Commercial Power introduced QR codes to its Vanguard single-cylinder and V-twin engines. The smart barcode, after being scanned with a smartphone's barcode reader, takes the user to an incredible amount of information for that specific engine model.
Dan Roche, B&S marketing manager, says the "Vanguard Power Code" provides the equipment operator with troubleshooting information, whether in the shop or in the field.
The Power Code also provides access to: dealer location, parts list, recommended maintenance instructions and schedules and owners' manuels - in English or Spanish.
It's much too early to tell if landscape field personnel will find the addition of QR codes to equipment helpful in servicing their accounts. Similiarly, it's not known if other manufacturers will follow suit and add them to their offerings, as well.