July 2009 | How-To | Ten Tips

Choosing a Mobile Communications Solution

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Communicating with field workers should not be a chore, but without the right equipment, it can be. Jonathan Turner, chief information officer for logistics provider 3PD Inc., Marietta, Ga., offers these tips for selecting a new mobile communications system.

1. Look for hidden costs.Prices for mobile communications solutions can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per device. Bear in mind that the bargain-basement price of some devices is often merely a starting point. Many inexpensive options require you to purchase capabilities such as scanning for an additional fee.

2. Remember that not all users are computer gurus. The more intuitive and user-friendly the solution you choose, the more likely you are to see it deployed in the field—and to have it achieve its intended objective.

3. Keep piecemeal to a minimum. Accessories can be counterproductive. Additional equipment, such as printers and separate GPS receivers, provided to workers in the field increases the chances that something will be misplaced or left behind. Select a device that has everything you need on one unit.

4. Consider durability. Handheld devices are always susceptible to being dropped, especially in an industrial environment. Don't buy any mobile communications device without factoring in its durability rating. Be prepared to "drop" extra money if you want a more durable device.

5. Screen carefully. No one wants to tote around a clunky communications device, but sometimes smaller isn't better—especially when it comes to screen size. Make sure your chosen device has a screen large enough for workers to see clearly when they're capturing information; otherwise, you may find more input errors or partial entries.

6. Take it for a test drive.Build some time and money into your selection process to do a pilot project with a group of people who both represent your end users and can provide substantial feedback on the pros and cons of the test product. The pilot will verify the validity of your choice—or help you identify potential hurdles to address before you make a commitment.

7. Calculate a true potential ROI.Determining ROI for a mobile solution can be tricky because some of the returns are hard to quantify. Some of the most notable are hardware ($3,000 for a durable mobile computer with a three-year life expectancy), monthly subscription and hosting fees (which can range from tens of dollars to $100 per unit), accessories (up to $200 per device), a data plan (about $50 per month, per unit), and support personnel.

8. Invest in training.The training program for your mobile communications solution should contain elements specifically designed by your company, because only you know the scenarios your personnel will face.

9. Stay in control.On occasion, even the best mobile communications devices experience technical glitches. Consider investing in software that enables your tech support crew to take over any of your mobile devices from a remote location and work with them until they're fixed.

10. Hire enough tech support people to handle incoming calls. Many driver teams run on tight schedules. Failing to get through to a "live person" immediately could result in a string of late deliveries. Keep your tech support department adequately staffed and open for business any time you have teams on the road.

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