Jan 01 2005

No Strings Attached

Wireless notebooks allow sales teams the freedom to seal the deal virtually anywhere.

National product rollouts are something OnlineBenefits Inc. does exceptionally well. Over the past four years, the company's annual sales growth has averaged 75 percent.


So when the provider of Internet-based HR solutions headquartered in Uniondale, N.Y., launched a new product for its group-benefits broker customers in late 2004, company sales engineers fired up their powerful mobile notebooks and hit the road.


The idea is to demonstrate new OnlineBenefits solutions one-on-one in broker clients' offices. "We use Web conferencing so brokers can watch a demo of the product on the screens of our sales engineers' notebooks," says Andrew Ceccon, the company's chief marketing officer.


And if existing customers and prospects have specific questions about the product—in this instance, a Web-based integrated sales, service and commission-tracking CRM (customer-relationship management) software package called AgencyWare—OnlineBenefits' sales engineers can walk them through step-by-step. "The demo is live, so we can respond when the customer says 'pull down that box' or 'show me that feature again,' " says Ceccon.


Mobile notebooks powered by Intel's Centrino technology have become an indispensable tool for many small-business sales and marketing people. According to RocSearch Ltd., a business research firm, over 90 percent of all new notebooks will be wireless fidelity, or WiFi, ready in 2005.


"Most hotels and many other establishments have wireless capabilities today, so business travelers can make good use of them," says Jim Haun, vice president of IT at Assurex Global, a Columbus, Ohio, risk-management, commercial insurance and employee benefits company. In fact, Assurex's field people no longer rely on desktops. Instead, they use mobile notebooks as their primary computers and connect them to the company's local area network (LAN) when they return to the home office, Haun says.


Our people "constantly use wireless notebooks in airports and coffee shops when they're traveling," adds Jon Mackey, manager of IT at OnlineBenefits. And when the company's sales engineers work remotely from the customer site, helping clients install and operate applications, the wireless machines keep the sales staff plugged into the home office.


"Wireless notebooks definitely are having a major effect on small-business sales and marketing," says Jay B. Lipe, CEO of Emerge Marketing in Minneapolis. "We're a mobile society. Today, salespeople need instant access to data and communications. Wireless notebooks give the sales force another flexible tool."


Not long ago, Lipe would walk through airline terminals and see people kneeling with their notebooks and laptops in the strangest places. "They were looking for hotspots," he says. Now, WiFi hotspots, where users can connect to the Internet, are popping up in hotels, airport lounges and coffee bars across the country. Researcher In-Stat/MDR predicts there will be about 130,000 WiFi hotspots in the U.S. by the end of the year.


The one consistent connectivity problem for OnlineBenefits' people occurs when they work remotely for a client with a VPN (virtual private network). In these instances, their network cards have to be changed so they can plug into the OnlineBenefits network through the VPN. When they return to the home office, they must reconfigure the network cards again—a task beyond salespeople's technical skills. With frequent business travel, these adjustments can be time-consuming. "It's a challenge," Mackey says.


When wireless notebooks eventually utilize cellular networks—a development Mackey believes is coming soon—"we'll be able to achieve gigabit transmission speeds," he notes. What's more, IT won't have to spend precious time adjusting network settings when a remote worker strays off the company network.


IT Takeaway
Here's how to help staffers feel like they're using a desktop PC even when out of the office:
  • Determine what type of data will reside on the mobile computer's hard drive. If the data is sensitive, include network and machine backup options for the user.
  • Make sure the notebooks are travel-worthy and durable enough to withstand road warriors' abuse.
  • Examine the total cost of the machine, including deskside and helpdesk support. Gartner Group estimates that most costs add up post-purchase.
  • Store an image of desktop applications. Notebooks get lost. If the company needs to send a new machine to an employee on the road, retaining a configuration image will save time and reduce end-user frustration.