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There’s an app for that

By Bridget McCrea

Ever since the App Store debuted in 2008 there’s been a rush to produce user-friendly, useful mobile applications for the masses. And while Angry Birds (for the gaming set) and Quickoffice (for business users) continually rank as the most downloaded apps, a percentage of offerings are business-specific. That is, they help a specific contingency of current and prospective customers buy from and interact with suppliers via their iPhones, iPads, Android devices, and Blackberrys.

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If the idea of building an app for your distributorship sounds daunting, think again. Put simply, an app is just a piece of software that your customers and business partners can download onto their mobile devices (either a phone or tablet) and then use to place orders, check stock, and follow up on expected deliveries. Unlike traditional software programs, apps are lightweight, usually free for users, and can easily be updated to accommodate new services and features.

Not just fun and games

Companies like eBay caught onto the app craze fairly quickly and today, claims that more than 15 million individuals in nearly 200 countries have downloaded its mobile software option. But you needn’t be a global conglomerate to benefit from a company app. In fact, electrical distributors are prime candidates to offer mobile options to their customers.

“With so many professional contractors accessing the web from the jobsite, distributors need to be sure their websites are mobile-, video- and app-ready,” says John O’Hara, partner and leader of the Contractor Insight specialty at integrated marketing communications firm Eric Mower + Associates (EMA). “A mobile app should help contractors do their jobs better and enhance the mobile experience.”

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To make sure that happens—and to ensure that contractors aren’t frustrated by the mobile experience—O’Hara says a distributors’ first priority should be to make sure their websites are readable and usable from a mobile device. Contractors should be able to see product information from their devices on the jobsite—what’s available, how it should be used, what the specs are. “The industry is adopting smart phones and tablets at higher-than-average rates,” O’Hara adds, “and distributors need to adapt to contractors’ new habits.”

One NAED member that’s doing just that is Elliott Electric Supply of Austin, Texas. Phillip Hale, CIO, says the distributorship developed a mobile app in-house in order to meet the needs of its increasingly mobile customers. “We just keep trying to push the envelope when it comes to servicing our customers,” says Hale. “With so many contractors using tablets, notebooks, and iPhones, it just made sense to offer them a mobile platform for doing business with us.”

Already equipped with a robust IT infrastructure, Elliott Electric developed an app that complements its online presence and extracts information from the same sources as its website. The first phase of the distributor’s app is for use on the iPhone and the iPad, and an Android version is currently under development. The app was designed primarily for customer use, says Hale, although company employees also utilize it. Information accessible through the app includes stock availability, order status, price quotes and financial calculators.

Up next for Elliott Electric will be a new mobile app specifically designed for the firm’s inside and outside sales teams (some of whom currently use the customer-focused app). The app will give reps information on customer accounts, real-time quotes, stock availability, and other pertinent information that in the past was only available via the web. “It’s a great tool for anyone working in or out of the office,” says Hale, “who needs easy access to information in order to make quick business decisions.”

More than just an order taker

Mobile apps give distributors more than just the ability to take orders submitted via iPad and Droid. They also allow you to send push notifications to user phones (a big improvement over email); give users turn-by-turn directions to your distributorship (through the device’s GPS); and give your business exposure in the app stores, where users submit tens of thousands of searches daily. Finally, having “an app for that” allows customers to connect with your distributorship in a social and mobile manner, and sets your company apart from those that don’t offer an app.

If you’re still not convinced of adding an app to your company’s lineup, consider the fact that more than 73 million mobile users access their browsers on a regular basis. This number is sure to grow, which means that those firms that create apps can position themselves as market leaders, extend their brand awareness, and make it convenient for individuals with “mobile lifestyles” to do business with them.

Convenience may come at a small price for the distributor. According to Hale, the biggest obstacle with app publishing is simply keeping up with the rapidly changing mobile market. “Once customers know that they can get real-information from an app—and that they don’t have to log into a website or make a phone call to get that information,” says Hale, “they want more features and capabilities.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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