While many companies are still testing large-scale wireless CRM projects, Pitney Bowes is an experienced practitioner. The $4 billion US-based maker of mailing systems first adopted wireless data in the late '90s. Since then, it has deployed a second-generation system for 250 field service employees in its Document Messaging Technologies division, which sells high-end inserter mailing systems (what's an inserter? This is. It churns out 3600 bills, documents or - ahem - junk mail items an hour). .

The next step for the company is a sophisticated wireless CRM system for its Global Mailing Systems division, where some 1,500 employees service Pitney Bowes machines designed for the low-volume distribution of mail.

The newest system connects field service staff to the call centre and service applications. Using pocket PCs, RIM 957s from Research In Motion and other devices, technicians can access a wide range of data from multiple systems. Such data includes information about inventory availability and whether calls are billable or covered by contract.

Small beginnings
The company's first wireless CRM system was more limited. It relied on Motorola "brick" devices (still available for the nostalgic). These connected to homegrown CRM systems, and retrieved service call data over Motient's wireless data network, says Ralph Nichols, service program manager at Pitney Bowes.

In 1999, the company began moving to low-cost RIM devices and started work on an integrated field service and call centre back end, says Mark Davis, vice president of customer service.

In 2001 Pitney Bowes installed field service software from Siebel Systems for its Document Messaging division, and it upgraded to cellular GPRS wireless service from Cingular.

For wireless connectivity middleware, Pitney Bowes uses Antenna Software's A3 and SmartClient, which links the field workers' RIM handheld devices to Siebel sales force automation software and Pitney Bowes' parts ordering system.

Network coverage was important, so the company tested several carriers and devices before settling on Cingular and RIM. Antenna was the logical choice for gateway software and services, says Paul Weston, vice president of CRM at Pitney Bowes. Its software had the most features, included systems management tools for troubleshooting breakdowns, supported multiple carriers' networks and was already Siebel-approved.

Ensuring the convenience and usability of the devices was also key. "If the thing is difficult to use, the people will find ways around it," says Weston. So his staff made sure that menus on the RIM devices were easy to navigate and included special product codes to help users place inventory orders.

The workflow starts in the system when a customer calls the contact centre to place a field service request. The Siebel application identifies the product needing repair, selects the representative to dispatch and pushes the request out to that technician's wireless device. The recipient then acknowledges the receipt of the order.

Messages from the devices are routed to Antenna's wireless gateways in New Jersey. XML-formatted data is then forwarded over a frame-relay or VPN connection to Pitney Bowes' data centre, where it passes through a gateway server before being routed to the back-end applications.

Delivering data
The system delivers customer data to field service personnel in near real time, including the service history for a given customer or piece of equipment. It also tells the technician whether work is covered by contract or is billable and feeds data for billable work into the company's billing system. When parts are required, the Siebel field service application determines if the part is in stock and sends information to a legacy inventory application that in turn connects to the company's SAP supply chain management system.

For areas where wireless coverage is spotty, client devices either use a dial-up connection or store information and forward it later.

Weston says that better information has allowed field service staff to solve problems faster and complete more calls per day. Managers now can get up-to-date reports on what activities service personnel are engaged in and what steps were taken to satisfy customer requests. And by flagging the problems that require the most technician time, Pitney Bowes has been able to save money by scheduling proactive maintenance calls.

"I'm more distributed"

The Global Mailing Systems operation has almost completely rolled out a similar system which uses smart cell phones, RIM 957s, pocket PCs or other handhelds and GPRS services provided by several carriers. By using a mix of carriers and handheld devices with Antenna's SmartClient software, Pitney Bowes estimates that it can cover 95 percent of its territory, up from 85 percent with the previous system.

This system is completely separate from that of the Document Messaging group. "There is a uniqueness between the organisations," Davis explains. "I'm more distributed (than the Document Messaging unit) with a greater breadth."

The Global Mailing rollout cost about five times as much as the Document Messaging unit's system. It uses more expensive Windows CE-based handhelds and required more extensive integration with the company's SAP, billing, call centre and other applications. With this setup, Pitney Bowes hopes to create a single system of record and avoid re-entering the same data in different systems. With the resulting productivity gains, the company expects the system to pay for itself in three years.

Weston has some advice for others trying to build similar systems: Test the hardware and software thoroughly, make sure the devices have adequate battery life, and plan for the change management such a project requires. "The key," he says, "is understanding how these processes interact with the rest of your business and understanding that it's not just field service. It affects sales."