With Cloud and Mobile Apps, More Companies Can Capture Data from the Field

Remember when you first saw the magic of wireless data entry at your door? It was probably used by a deliveryman from a major shipping organization like FedEx or UPS. With thousands of workers and delivery trucks, these companies had the capital to invest in custom wireless devices to scan a shipment at every transfer and capture signatures on delivery. With this info wirelessly uploaded to a database, managers had up-to-the-minute visibility into the location and delivery of packages. They could answer customer queries with confidence and accuracy. They could substantiate their service claims and employee evaluations. They could reroute trucks on the spot, if needed.

Everyone else – appliance repairmen, deliverymen, survey takers, insurance appraisers, etc. – still made do with pads of forms, pens and clipboards. They filled in the details, got the customer’s signature and returned the forms to the office to be reentered into databases, to the best of a data-entry person’s ability to read their handwriting.

Then came smartphones and the cloud, completely changing the affordability factor. Suddenly all the data-capturing features of the dedicated Motorola, Intermec or Honeywell device – and more – could be found in the phone in anyone’s briefcase or pocket. It became reasonable for business owners to assume their employees carried smartphones, and further, had a preference for carrying only one device. With that, data-entry processes no longer had to wait days for field workers to come to the office. They could take place on the spot, in mobile applications, over the same wireless network people used to run Yelp or Snapchat.

Today, on-the-spot mobile data entry not only captures up-to-the-minute data; it improves accuracy by eliminating the error-prone third party who types from handwritten forms. Errors are prevented further since electronic forms are easily built from templates with drop-down lists to choose from and validation routines to reject erroneous data fields. As data-capture applications have adopted the pay-by-the-month cloud model, they have brought the cost of deployment within range of even one-person businesses.

Capturing Data without Capex

Cloud-based, data-capturing applications are now commonly customized for specific kinds of businesses. Their end-user devices are already in employees’ pockets. The bottom line for small businesses? You can move your data-input processes out into the field – without capital investment. Here are four examples of this crowded corner of software as a service (SaaS).

VisitBasis is a data-collection app that starts at $20 per user per month. Popular with retailers and merchandising services, it’s used by field reps on store rounds to verify stock levels and shelf placement. The smartphone’s camera can be used for visual documentation, or its barcode reader to quickly search for a product when ordering. The phone’s screen captures the store manager’s signature. Like many such apps, VisitBasis makes use of GPS positioning too, verifying the time and location of stops.

Site inspection is another popular use case: GISCloud, also starting at $20 a month per user, allows you to create input screens and drop-down lists for any kind of data input, superimposing it all on a map layer. Think insurance claim adjusters, maintenance crews, real estate agents. Of course, photo and audio capture plays in here as well.

Magpi is an app that lets you design and send forms, collect and analyze responses and automatically follow up with targeted or broadcasted messages. The app offers a free account for up to 20 forms, 100 questions per form and 500 uploads per month. The World Health Organization has used it to conduct surveys in polio vaccination programs and Ebola outbreaks, gaining vital information in near real time.

Prescribed Workflow Ensures Data Goes Where It’s Best Used

A life sciences marketing application called Coverage Tracker serves as a good example here. Pharma and medical device reps have a much stronger pitch to prescribers when products win coverage from major insurance carriers. If an account manager wins favorable coverage on a particular drug and enters it into Coverage Tracker in a structured way, the app’s prescribed workflow takes over, routing that crucial information first to those who must approve it, then to the relevant field reps who can take the news to their prospects. Previously, such information may have gone unnoticed on spreadsheets or simply be told and forgotten.

No matter the application, you want it to work even when Internet access is absent, storing new data on your mobile device until it can sync with cloud storage. You also want the collected data to automatically flow not only to the back office but to those in the field.

Today, remote data collection is within reach of even very small businesses. If you could profit from fresher information or more reliable reporting from the field, you should follow these suggestions:

  • Investigate which applications already exist or might be easily adapted to your needs.
  • Read the case studies on vendor sites to see if these solutions solve the same problems or present the same opportunities you see in your business.
  • Ask to speak to pre-existing customers.
  • Start a free trial to experiment with replicating your paper forms and current workflow.