Joining the apps revolution

20th of March 2015
Joining the apps revolution

If you have a smart phone or other mobile device, you probably use apps – to play games, access news, books, weather reports and much more. Easy to download and user-friendly, apps are now becoming essential tools for business operatives out on the road. Hartley Milner looks at some of their uses.

Mobile phone technology has come a long way since the 1980s when boorish young city types bellowed into ‘bricks’ pressed to their ear, much to the irritation of people on adjoining restaurant tables.

Today’s mobile phones are more discreet, as are their users, and a thousand times smarter than the cumbersome early models. In truth, most of us would struggle getting through the day without one.

Calls, though, account for only a quarter of the time spent on the new generation of mobiles. Tweeting and web-browsing are the two most popular uses, with the camera function for ‘selfies’ and those dreadful party shots not far behind.

And trading off our dependence on these clever little devices is a vast market in off-the-shelf and custom-built mobile apps. Almost every business function is covered; from managing your invoices and receipts to setting up and shipping out product orders.

“It’s amazing the range of daily office processes that can now be conducted on mobile devices,” said apps developer Steve Templeman. “It doesn’t matter whether you are a large corporation or a sole trader, big productivity gains can come from being able to work efficiently while on the move.”

The main drivers of the apps revolution are 4G networks and cloud computing. 4G networks deliver mobile broadband at speeds of up to 60 Mbps, faster than most fibre optic broadband. The apps are stored in the cloud and accessed by phone or tablet, usually for a monthly subscription.
In the UK, the largest is EE’s 4G network, which already covers 75 per cent of the population and is on track to reach 98 per cent early this year.

“Giants like Amazon, eBay and Gap started promoting their brands and merchandise with mobile apps a few years ago,” Templeman continued. “Then their suppliers began to see the benefits, some of them quite small businesses, and now a host of industries have jumped onto the app wagon, which is gathering pace and picking up more converts.

“Businesses have come to realise that mobile apps are the most affordable and effective way to reach out to customers these days. PC and server-based applications are simply becoming out-dated. Businesses are incorporating mobile and wireless solutions into their day-to-day processes to reduce time and improve performance. Mobile applications enable you to manage these various processes without interruption, no matter where you are located, so freeing you up to actually do business.”

One area where app development is playing an increasing role is in the daily management of the people who are essential to the success of your business – your customers, suppliers, and employees.

Nurture relationships

Successful businesses grow and nurture customer relationships. A custom app, branded with your company name and/or logo, enables your customers to by-pass call centres and email channels to make direct contact with the person best placed to solve any issues they may have. With the client information at your fingertips, you will be able to respond instantly to their concerns and find a solution or, in the case of a product order or service request, act to ensure that it is attended to promptly.

Often known in the industry as a ‘help desk’, a customer service app is essential for companies that field support requests from different channels, not just phone and email, but also Twitter, Facebook or by live video conference. In the world of electronic communications, they are the nearest thing to face-to-face contact with the customer. Apps are increasingly being developed to provide customers with information about services in real-time.

One company that has reached out to its customers in this way is bus operator Arriva UK Bus, owned by German public transport provider Deutsche Bahn.

Arriva rolled out its mobile travel companion app in June 2014 following a pilot in one of its regions. The app, which also allows customers to plan their journeys and view timetables in real-time, is now being promoted across marketing channels throughout the UK. On a typical weekday, the app supports bus services across 1,200 public routes, 31,000 individual journeys and 48,000 individual bus stops.

“We’re on track with the project which is very exciting,” said marketing manager Mike Woodhouse. “However, this is just phase one. We are already planning new functionality and thinking about how we can improve the app and what it will look like in 2015 and beyond.”

The real-time function within the app updates vehicle location information as soon as it is received (currently every 22 seconds) so customers know exactly how long they will have to wait until a bus arrives at their stop and can plan their journey accordingly.

While the app is already proving popular with customers, with a take-up of 195,000 by the end of September last year, it is also providing invaluable information for staff at Arriva garages and customer service teams. They can use internal systems to view the same real-time information as customers, resulting in improved service delivery. The information is also being fed into the new website to be shared with local authorities.

“This has been a fantastic team effort from many people around each of our businesses, in particular the data schedulers and those who manage our ticket machines,” added Woodhouse. “The challenge now is to capitalise on the good work done to date and to ensure the data is constantly monitored for accuracy.”

Industry-specific apps are now widely available for almost every sector, including contract cleaning. Facility managers and building service contractors have an increasingly number to choose from, ranging from online payment systems, virtual chequebooks and expense monitors to inventory trackers and managers.

One app for automatically calculating payroll payments after tax is both a time and labour saver for new companies, or smaller operations carrying out this function by hand or spreadsheet.
In our industry, bidding for a cleaning contract can be a complicated process – calculating labour time for a job, chemical quantities, travel expenses etc – but there is help here too.

There are apps that calculate time and labour costs for tasks such as floor cleaning, dust removal and janitorial services. Input the type of cleaning, hourly labour rate and frequency and the annual time and cost is calculated according to the listing. The app can also complete basic conversions for liquid volumes, eg. gallons, pints and quarts to metric measures.

Other apps take basic customer information then log room types, sizes and give job time estimates. If a user records measurements, the total square footage will be listed along with any input production rate. Initial cleaning charges can be logged and other services can be added for specialty cleaning tasks.

You can now pick up mobile apps to create service form and inspection reports. Forms are also available to produce cleaning checklists, cleaning proposals, cleaning work orders and for contract bidding proposals.

Using a smartphone or tablet, data can be inputted, filtered and analysed to enable managers to rate a cleaning service and improve it if they or the client chooses. The data can be stored online where it is available for managers and clients to use for monitoring a cleaning job.

Of course, whatever sector you are trading in, your business may well have processes that are not catered for by off-the-shelf mobile apps. In that case, you may turn to a custom app developer.

Maintaining your supplier relationships can be simplified immensely using a custom application. For example, you can use a custom app to streamline your ordering and fulfilment process. The possibilities include pulling all your regular ordering together into a simple, push-button mobile telephone application that lets you generate instant purchase orders when your inventory reaches certain thresholds.

A key relationship for every business is the one it has built up with its employees. Many HR functions can be incorporated into a custom app. For example, you could manage employee time tracking and communications. You can also allow employees to sign in and out of the workplace or communicate directly with management using their phones.

Now many businesses are going a step further – by creating their own custom apps. Thanks to an abundance of smart frameworks for web, desktop and mobile development, anyone with the right mindset and focus can build data-driven apps for almost any platform.

“The advantages of creating your own app are that it targets a specific function or processes that are integral to how you run your business and it can save money,” he said. “Getting started can be daunting, but there are plenty to tutorials available on the web.”


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