While some financial analysts have questioned the $1.54 billion price that VMware this week agreed to pay for mobile device management (MDM) startup AirWatch, it seems justified in the context of the company's dramatic growth trajectory
Broad enterprise uptake of a new generation of smartphones and tablets is only a part of the story. Speaking to AirWatch customers such as field marketing agency Big Picture, it becomes evident that new ways of working that rely on secure use of mobile devices are equally important drivers.
During the holiday sales season, many of us have been shopping for digital consumer goods, either online or in stores. If you were looking for a camera or a printer in a UK electronics retailer such as Dixons, PC World or John Lewis, the chances are the person who showed you the product is an employee not of the store itself but of Big Picture.
"We can market anything with a chip in it," explains general manager Julian Duncan. The agency helps technology manufacturers with a range of 'below-the-line' marketing activities — anything from selling products within retailers to training call center staff or working with public sector buyers.
In today's increasingly disaggregated business world, it should come as no surprise that the in-store staff who demonstrate consumer electronics products are funded by the product manufacturers rather than the retailers themselves. With the rise of 'omnichannel', the manufacturer has the bigger incentive to invest in the sales cycle, as the consumer may well end up buying elsewhere.
This season's retail sales figures have underlined the inexorable rise of online, although Duncan emphasizes the role that stores still play:
"If you have a look at the likes of John Lewis and Dixons, yes their online sales have gone up but that's not necessarily at the expense of retail ...
"The customer journey includes research, recommendation, try-before-you-buy. The research and some of the recommendation will be done in store. Consumers now will go into a store which may act as a showroom for the Internet."
Personal contact is still important in many sales scenarios, he adds:
"A lot of consumers would prefer to buy from the person who has gone through the whole cycle of demonstrating it, because they know someone they can go back to if they have problems ...
"We're very loyal to our retailers. We might be selling a camera but that retailer might also sell a specific exclusive case that goes with it that has a bundled price with it.
"The worst thing that can happen is that a person can buy a device and get home without all the accessories they need. It's more important that the customer feels they have a brilliant experience and come away with everything they need."
Most of Big Picture's store campaigns now use tablets after a trial quickly proved the value they add, says Duncan.
"Within the quarter of that proof of concept being delivered, we went out and invested in tablets for the whole team.
"It's about people selling technology through technology. It's very important for consumers to go into a store and talk to a real person about their real usage.
"Now we've got the ability to have technology being sold by people using technology. It's a lot easier to say to people, you can do this, and show them rather than just explaining it."
Big Picture's applications can show features that are not easy to demonstrate within the store environment, such as a camera's ability to capture panoramic landscapes. The sales tool will demonstrate what the end result looks like.
AirWatch's MDM functionality has given the agency more control over when content is downloaded to its employees' mobile devices. It can automatically update the applications with new information to coincide with the exact time of a product launch, rather than distributing it in advance.
"There will be an embargo date when it goes out at [for example] 09:00 that morning. Normally we push it out so that we can be assured they've got the latest information. That's normally co-ordinated with the press release. There's nothing worse than a customer knowing about something before you do."
Using AirWatch provides valuable instant feedback on how consumers are reacting to new products, by monitoring which particular features are being accessed, says Duncan.
"We can sit in our darkened rooms and speculate but until you start demoing it to customers and see what's really hitting their buttons, you don't know ..."
"In such a fast moving market, [this is] one of the key areas that is most important to us in any strategy ... Quite often what the consumer wants is something you see from human experience not necessarily from facts and figures."
He emphasizes the importance of human interpretation and context when analyzing the data being collected:
"Automated data analysis doesn't see the wierd and wonderful patterns that a human can see. When it comes to the analysis, there's always at least one human involved ..."
"The human element is as important as the technology piece. Unless you have that human interaction, you can't put it into context."
Freeing up time
Mobile access has also freed up staff time that used to be spent on record-keeping. Some merchandising teams visit stores on behalf of a portfolio of smaller manufacturers and have to record stock levels. In the past, keeping these records was a manual process fraught with inconsistencies, says Duncan.
"I remember the days, six or seven years ago, when people were filling out forms in store, putting ticks in boxes. They take that home, go online and they have to put that in the system."
These staff now use their own tablets or smartphones running Big Picture's reporting software, which is managed on their device using AirWatch. They input data directly into the app while in store, which removes the opportunity for errors that used to crop up when transferring handwritten data later in the day.
"Our data integrity is far better, the speed of reporting is immediate and our staff are much happier because it's quicker.
"It's live, it's more immediate."
Big Picture has its own in-house set of applications that provides functions such as product marketing and information, sales reporting, timesheets, territory management, customer feedback and much more. The applications can be delivered to BYOD devices using AirWatch MDM. The agency is authorized as an enterprise developer for Apple, Android and Windows Phone platforms so that it can also make its apps available on devices it can't directly manage, such as the tablets that store employees use to demo products when its own agents are not available.
With Big Picture creating a lot of its IT using in-house resources, the decision to use AirWatch is a tribute to the vendor's continued innovation and its responsiveness to customer requirements, says Duncan.
"As much as possible we like to own our own technology ... We haven't really had any instance of AirWatch starting down a development route that we don't want. We try and use as many different facets of their services as possible."
This year, Big Picture will aim to exploit more of AirWatch's capabilities, he says, including using device location to manage what capabilities and content are available:
"To have geosensing, where we can actually start to do things by individual stores or regions, that's a lot more exciting.
"We can start to manage the mobile communications side of it — if an employee is working in a specific store nine-to-five, we may be able to allow 3G during those working hours and stop it outside of that time. From a management point of view we can have greater control over elements the business is funding."
The acquisition by VMware offers additional scope for extra capabilities, says Duncan, responding via email today:
"I think it is potentially a great partnership, linking virtualization technology with mobile device management. This could give the business world greater flexibility in choosing both software and hardware solutions without the restrictions which currently exist in the market. We currently work with Parallels and see the benefits of virtualization with our customers on a daily basis."
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