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Handheld Database Application Provides Options for Mobile Sales Forces

By Frank Yacano, Director of Business Development, SYWARE, Inc. (

Handheld database application allows mobile synchronization with desktop system running in the central office.
Handheld database application allows mobile synchronization with desktop system running in the central office.

The ability to quickly integrate sales orders with central distribution and accounting systems is a fundamental ingredient of a successful business, allowing orders to be filled promptly and invoices to be issued in a timely fashion. Achieving this goal holds special challenges for companies with a mobile sales force that frequently do not share the same information infrastructure as the rest of the organization. When there are isolated "islands of information", the result can range from shipping delays to lost orders and cancelled sales.

Many sales personnel are still using paper forms, which then have to be re-keyed back at the office - a duplication of effort that also results in lost time and high risk of errors. Laptop PCs are an option, but they are expensive. They can also be awkward to use, especially when a salesman is on his feet.

Integrating with Corporate Databases
Lately the handheld PC has emerged as a valuable sales tool, providing the functionality of a laptop PC at a fraction of the cost. Paper forms can be readily adapted to handheld devices and the data collected can then be readily integrated with corporate databases. The handheld units can also be integrated into central sales management applications as part of a comprehensive strategy that complements existing sales capture methods such as desktop systems and web shopping sites.

For companies that are still using paper forms, a transition to handheld PCs and electronic forms is easier than they might think. Contrary to popular belief, application development does not have to a huge expense requiring teams of programmers laboring for months. Intuitive "drag & drop" tools have simplified application development, allowing even small companies to have their own customized solution. This also creates new opportunities for development companies and integrators that serve this marketplace.

One company working within this space is Bravo Software ( In business since 1985, the Kilbride, Ontario, firm creates customized software solutions that help clients extend the functionality of their current business systems. One of its flagship products is RemoteDesk, a software package that manages the collection of sales information and then delivers the data to a central accounting system such as AccPack or Great Plains. A desktop PC serves as a "traffic cop" to poll inbound orders from different sources, such as from a shopping cart, remote and local desktop systems, and laptop users. It also issues periodic updates of customer and product information from a central database.

The company recently extended its RemoteDesk application to run on Windows CE handheld devices, allowing mobile salespeople to use a handheld PC to collect sales orders and customer information. At the end of the day, the sales information is automatically synchronized with the desktop system running in the central office. This can be done by dropping the handheld into its docking unit or by sending an email message with the sales data as an attachment. The RemoteDesk software then processes the sales orders together with data collected from other sources, and posts the updated tables to the central order processing system.

Sample Application: a Beverage Distributor
One example of the solution in the real world can be seen at Premier Beverages, a small beverage distribution company on the Caribbean island of Antigua. The company has three salespeople who travel around the island collecting orders from liquor stores, restaurants, and other places where alcoholic beverages are sold. In the past, salesmen collected information on paper forms, which were then phoned into the office or delivered by hand at the end of the day. An administrator would then struggle to interpret all the chicken-scratchings and key in the data without making too many mistakes.

Today, sales order information is collected using Compaq iPAQ handhelds. In a typical scenario, a salesman walks into ABC Liquors and clicks to the customer record. The first screen contains information identifying the account and provides a window into customer status information such as total credit, current balance, and credit status. He then clicks to a "Ship To" screen to specify the shipping location and special instructions associated with the order, such as rush shipments.

He then clicks on the "Details" button, where he can specify that the customer wants three cases of vodka, ten cases of whiskey, and one case of gin, as well as the brand and the volume. Information such as brand names and quantities is already loaded into the handheld database. The salesman can select specific brands and quantities, or type in a partial name, and the software will search through the database to pull up the matching entries. The software also automatically calculates any applicable discounts based on the specified pricing structure.

After entering all details into the handheld, the salesman saves the order and goes down the street to the next customer, and repeats the process. The salesman can also print a copy of the order for the customer using a portable printer, with the connection provided through the handheld's IR port.

Synchronizing at the End of the Day
At the end of the day, the sales information is posted to the desktop system running in the head office. Two of the salesmen return to the office in the evening and place their handheld units in the synchronization holster to load the new order information into the central database. Information is converted to ASCII format for sharing between the handhelds and the desktop application, which is written in the Delphi language. The application processes the orders and creates a batch for posting to the accounting system.

The third salesperson is based further away. Rather than make a special trip to the head office, he emails the data from his handheld device. Once orders are captured for the day, a program on the handheld creates an email message with the order information provided as an attachment. The salesman uses the handheld device to transmit the information wirelessly, using either a built-in modem or an adapter card installed in the device. He can also plug the handheld into a cell phone, which acts as the modem, and then dial through the cell phone to send the email.

The new system provides clients with much faster, more accurate access to sales information without the need to rely on someone at the head office re-keying - which could take several days, especially if the person is out sick. Response to customers is greatly improved; orders submitted electronically can be shipped the next day.

The "Meat and Potatoes" of Order Processing
Bravo Software created the handheld application using Visual CE®, a database and forms building tool from SYWARE ( Designed for Pocket PC and Windows CE handhelds, Visual CE provides an intuitive drag & drop interface that simplifies application development, allowing programmers and non-programmers alike to build professional forms and database applications. Features such as drop down boxes and input windows effectively expand the small screen size, allowing 8-1/2 x 11 paper forms to be readily adapted to a palm-size device.

"We were looking for a Windows CE tool that would allow us to build an application quickly," explains Dave Repchuk, VP of Product Development at Bravo Software. "I definitely didn't want to get involved in C++ programming. For certain types of applications C++ is a great tool, but for writing business forms it's very laborious and tedious. We prefer to spend our time addressing productivity issues rather than dealing with the fine points of a C++ application. Visual CE allows us to get right to the meat and potatoes of what we do, which is order processing."

Repchuck is also eyeing a new SYWARE product called mEnable that allows databases to be updated in real time, rather than periodic synchronizing or email updates. mEnable uses standard wireless connections to write to or read from any ODBC-enabled data source.

Bar Code Data in Handheld Forms
Bravo Software has found a new market for its handheld application: companies participating in large trade shows for wholesalers and distributors. Handheld PCs equipped with integrated scanners can be used to capture product information without keying. Symbol Technologies has a scanning device that supports Visual CE applications.

Vendors may have samples of hundreds of different items mounted on a wall in their trade show area, each with a bar code underneath. Perhaps 15-20 sales reps will be guiding customers around the booth, each equipped with Symbol Technologies scanning device. A centrally-located printer as well as a desktop system for data collection are shared by all users.

In a typical scenario, buyers place orders as they walk around the booth with a sales rep, who scans the item bar code to display the item number and description in a form on the screen. The rep then simply clicks the quantity ordered. They can also print the order to provide a record for the customer. At the end of the day, sales reps load their orders into the desktop database. The data is then shipped back to the head office and automatically integrated with central accounting and distribution systems.

In the past, orders would be hand-written (and there could be thousands at a busy show). This would result in a massive faxing exercise to get the orders back to headquarters where someone would have to interpret and re-type all the order data. Customers frequently had to wait for weeks before they received the items ordered. Now orders can go out the next day.

Easy Route to Integrated Solutions
Companies with a mobile sales force may want to re-examine their current order entry processes, especially if they are still using paper forms to capture sales data in the field. Handheld devices can be used to good advantage to capture sales data efficiently as part of an integrated solution incorporating central accounting and distribution systems. The applications are also easier to implement than might be believed using productivity tools such as Visual CE. Mobile salespeople and the companies they work for no longer need to be held back with antiquated procedures, while developers like Bravo Software gain new opportunities and faster time to market.

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