05/07/2012 @ 10:08AM

“Because every business should be thinking about building mobile applications today.  It’s not a fad or a passing trend.  It’s customer service”


Your Business Checklist: A Website, A Phone Number,

A Mobile App

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It’s time to stop playing games.  Smart, boring, conservative companies are getting serious about mobile applications.  Slowly but surely, they’re waking up to the potential..no, the needto utilize these applications to develop more business and keep their customers coming back.

Of course, there are consumer-facing companies doing this every day.  Like restaurant chain’s P.F. Chang’s new mobile application to help their customers find a location, make reservations and order takeout.  Or Ally Bank, whose recent mobile offering lets their customers check account balances, search transaction history and transfer money between accounts.  Most major airlines allow their boarding passes to be sent electronically and a visit to Cinderella’s Castle wouldn’t be complete in this day and age without using Mobile Magic, Disney’s official mobile app, to navigate its parks.

These are big, well-known companies creating cool apps for their customers.  But other companies, both big and not-so-big, are quietly creating mobile applications too.  Boring apps.   But essential to the future of their businesses.

Home Depot’s mobile application allows its contractors to order and pay for supplies from their phones.  Pharmaceutical giant Merck recently released a mobile application to help people with type 2 diabetes.  Chemical maker DuPont’s new mobile application gives service technicians refrigerant data on the go, enabling them to make quick and reliable system diagnostics.   Dayton Superior , a provider of nonresidential concrete construction and paving products recently launched two free mobile applications to give their customers access to product and technical information on demand.   Indianapolis– based Firestone Building Products Company, LLC, just unveiled their own mobile application to help their customers (building owners, facility managers, roofing consultants) get quicker support.  A mobile application software developer, Jomar Softcorp International Inc. is reporting a strong demand for its products amongst its manufacturing customers.

These companies know that mobile apps are not toys.  These are tools.  When it comes to mobile, we’re just getting started.  I believe that the mobile application industry is about to explode over the next few years.  And it will be fuelled by millions of small and medium sized companies who will soon realize that having a mobile application is as necessary as having a phone number and a website to do business.

I can think of two of my own clients who are considering this new reality.

One, a roofing company, wants to enable their customers to have immediate access to their customer service team when a truck is not onsite.  They want their customers to be able to download information about the materials being used on the job, check on their job’s progress, schedule service calls and look up their estimates and job totals.   They want their guys in the field to use a table so that they can fill out work-orders, check their own schedules, get directions and make sure materials are in-house.

Another client of mine manufactures packaging materials.  They want their customers to have mobile access so they can check on the progress of their jobs, order more materials and look up prior jobs.  They also want to make sure their customers can get pricing quotes and place orders from wherever they are.  Oftentimes their customers need more detailed specs about some of their products which they want to view from their smartphones or tablets too.

Think about it:  we can all save whatever files, music, videos and photos for next to nothing on Amazon, Dropbox or other such services.  Why can’t businesses allow their customers to do the same?  Why shouldn’t every estimate, order and invoice be stored on a shared server?  Why can’t I view product specs, safety information and environmental releases about the products I’ve purchased? Why can’t I immediately get my order history, job status and credit availability from a supplier?   Why can’t I get more personalized customer service?  And why can’t I get this from whatever device wherever I am?

And what do I get in return, as a business?  By offering a free mobile application to my customers I’m (at least for now) differentiating myself from my competitors who aren’t thinking this way.  I’m saying to my customers:  “Once you’re part of my community you’ll be treated specially.  You can access us anytime from anywhere with our mobile app and get whatever information you need.  Because we value your time.”  I can use the mobile application to provide special incentives to my customers.  And even if the mobile application is not widely adapted, I’m at the very least giving some of my customers who prefer to do business this way a process that’s desirable for them.  It’s all about choices.  And ease.  And time.  Customers appreciate that.

There are plenty of software companies developing mobile applications and this trend will only continue grow.  But what’s unique about today’s development environment is that it’s relatively inexpensive to have your custom mobile application written for your company.  I tell most of my clients to expect to spend about $5,000-$15,000 in external fees.  That’s not a lot.  Why so low?

Because there seems to be an unlimited amount of developers around the world who can be found on Craigslist, LinkedIn or through outsourcing sites like Elance, Guru and Freelancer.  These developers have access to thousands of free programming apps to help them do their job quickly.  Geography has been neutralized with our ability to monitor their progress and check their work using remote access and collaboration tools like Join.me, Gotomypc, Box and Basecamp.  We don’t have to worry about potentially compromising our networks either.  Instead we can push data to hosting services like  like Amazon, Rackspace and countless cloud infrastructure firms where our customers can access their data easily and securely.  The most significant cost is the internal time that a business owner or key manager has to take to supervise the execution of the project, let alone designing the specs correctly after getting input from others.

The biggest decision is what platform.  In the days of Windows dominance it was easy:  you wrote (for better or worse) for Windows.  Today you have to choose between the iPhone or Android (sorry, but unless something dramatically changes and despite the recent fanfare over the Blackberry 10 I don’t see RIM being part of this discussion).

I prefer developing for the Android.  I believe there are more tools available for the Android programmer and the system is more open.  An Android application can be used on any device running that operating system (even Amazon’s Kindle Fire) and you’re not limited to just the iPad or iPhone.  And I just like Google as a more business friendly infrastructure than Apple, who has a lot of consumer customers to worry about keeping happy.  That said, I can’t deny the popularity of the iPad among businesses. If budget allows, many of my clients may be forced to do what most big companies are doing for now:  develop for both platforms.

But develop they must.  Because every business should be thinking about building mobile applications today.  It’s not a fad or a passing trend.  It’s customer service.

Written by: Gene Marks