When Charlene and Chandler Clark, owners of Signature CanvasMakers in Hampton, Va., wanted to improve their business, they turned to tablet computers. The mobile devices—an iPad for Charlene and Android for Chandler, purchased last year—proved their worth right away. “It allowed us to engage the customer in better, more active ways, and to get immediate feedback from the customer,” Charlene Clark says.
The tablets were time-savers, too. “Chandler has been able to give quotes right on the spot while he is on the customer’s boat,” Clark adds. “It closes the gap in the sales process, and when he comes back to the office, there isn’t a big pile of paperwork.”
Small-business owners, particularly those in the field-service sector dealing with job estimates, are discovering the potential of tablets. Of 1,000 iPad buyers from December 2011 through April 2012, 21 percent planned on using their tablets for business, according to a report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.
These days, consumers are used to getting immediate answers from their mobile devices, and they expect the same from the people with whom they do business. “People sit at a restaurant and talk about a topic, and suddenly they don’t know the answer to something,” says Rami Zwick, professor of Management & Marketing at the University of California, Riverside. “Immediately somebody searches the web on the mobile phone and comes up with an instant answer. Consumers are expecting such immediacy, and companies that do not offer it are at a disadvantage.”
In fact, offering a quick answer or quote to a potential customer presents a competitive advantage. “If you are able to make the estimate on the spot, there is a better chance of the client immediately going with you rather than waiting for estimates from other companies,” Zwick notes.
Tablets, Clark says, have allowed Signature CanvasMakers to shorten lead times over the traditional job-estimating method. “By the time we would come back from the first meeting with the customer, put the information together and go back and forth with the client, it would be several days before getting back to them with a quote,” Clark says.
Tablets mean smart business
In addition to providing an immediate quote or estimate to the customer, the marine fabricator can use iPads or other tablets in a variety of ways. “Rather than printing out a big portfolio with pictures, we have a photo gallery of all our work on the tablet to show the customer,” says Clark, who counts the ability to manage emails and contact information as an additional benefit to the Android and iPad. “The pictures not only relate to our work in general, but to other boats like theirs that we have done. It gives us the appearance of credibility and professionalism, and we start to build trust with the customer.”
Similar capabilities may be available on a smart phone, Clark notes, “but you are doing all this on a tiny screen versus having something that you can actually read.”
Bill Ashley, owner of Seafarer Canvas in Norwalk, Conn., and self-described “tech nut,” has explored numerous capabilities with his iPad in the last year-and-a-half. For starters, he can pull up his website and Facebook page to show customers examples of past fabrication jobs. He can access bank accounts and plug the tablet into a printer if necessary. He issues estimates and final bills via email, and even has the ability to take payments right on the spot. “I have a device that I can connect to my iPad that allows me to take a credit card,” Ashley explains. “You can just sign with your finger.”
Ashley praises the iPad for its time-saving capabilities. “My efficiency is up by probably 100 percent,” he notes. “I am not generating any paperwork. I very rarely use my desktop anymore, and I can give my laptop away.”
The successful use of a tablet translates into a better experience for both the business and client, says Christopher Chapman, chief evangelist for Marathon Data Systems, which provides web-based software for field-service businesses. “The bottom line is that the business owner is happy as he has the pulse of the business at his fingertips at all times, in addition to higher closing rates,” Chapman notes. “The customer is happy as he has a clean proposal to review in a quick manner, and deeper trust in the professionalism of the company he is selecting to do business with.”
Some challenges do exist in the world of mobile devices. Sometimes, compatibility issues arise. For example, Signature CanvasMakers uses an application that integrates with its QuickBooks software for estimates, although some features on the main desktop program aren’t available on the scaled-down mobile app.
Another potential problem is visibility of the screen itself outdoors. “When you are out on a boat and you are trying to show the customer pictures of your work or give them a quote, sunlight can have a very powerful impact on the screen,” Charlene Clark notes. “Then, of course, there is always the danger of the tablet going overboard, which has not happened yet, but it has come close. The beauty of tablets is that everything is backed up somewhere else. So, you lose your investment, but not your information. It would be a painful oops.”
A general wariness of technology may prevent business owners from using a tablet, but Ashley believes these devices should not be feared. “If you can draw [the tablet] to its simplest form, and start users off with the basics where they achieve some accomplishments, that moves them forward onto other things,” he says. “You show them the advantages of using it and how much time they would save in running their business, or how they would have better control of their business.”
If the technology confounds the user, support is often at the ready. For iPad users who are experiencing technical difficulties—or just want to learn more about the device’s capabilities—Ashley recommends the Genius Bar available at all Apple retail locations. “You tell them what you are trying to do, and they walk you through it in a simplistic way,” he explains, noting users also can access help online. “They’ll show you all of the things you can integrate on your iPad.”
Like any new piece of equipment, learning about tablets is often a matter of trial and error. “There are so many different apps that could help,” Ashley says. “You just have to determine what fits your business.”
Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer from Pine City, Minn.
There’s an app for that
The iPad, Android and other tablets offer thousands of applications to assist business owners. Signature CanvasMakers uses an app called Measure and Sketch, which allows them to take a picture of a boat and make measurements while at the job site. Other apps used by the shop include Dropbox, a file-sharing program accessible from multiple computers and mobile devices; Google Tasks for managing schedules; and weather apps to help determine wind or storm conditions at the site of a customer’s boat.
For his part, Bill Ashley uses Invoice ASAP. The app allows him to create a sales receipt, as well as gives him access to invoices, outstanding estimates and information on past and current customers—all while integrating with his QuickBooks software to manage accounts.
Costs of applications vary, but as Charlene Clark points out, “Pretty much all these programs are free, or you at least get an entry-level app that is free. But if you want additional features you can pay for the next access level of that app. You can try things out really with no risk.”