The iPad and its me-too tablet brethren are going to make their way into business use, including quite possibly in your business.
What follows here are some very practical lessons Mercedes-Benz Financial, a car loan provider, has learned the past four months putting the iPad into the hands of 40-some car salesmen and women. The company hopes that by having the iPad, the dealerships will do more business through its Web-based app, MB Advantage. Having declared its iPad pilot test a success, the lender's giving all 355 U.S. Mercedes dealers one 3G iPad.
Mercedes-Benz Financial provides car loans and leases. Salespeople can use the iPad to access the MB Advantage Web app for tasks such as taking back an end-of-lease vehicle, starting the loan application process, and checking for any financing promotions, all while staying close to the customer on the sales floor. The app users aren't Mercedes-Benz Financial employees, they work for the dealers, so it's a leap of marketing faith that the iPads will drive more business.
Tablet computers are going to impact businesses in two main realms. One is the consumer end, where businesses need to learn how would-be customers will use tablets in new, more mobile ways to reach Web content. The second is about how employees can use them to do their jobs better, and that’s mostly what this column is about.
Here are a few lessons I gleaned from speaking with Mercedes Benz Financial twice over the course of this pilot:
1. People want the iPad 3G cellular version
This wasn't an obvious call. Mercedes-Benz Financial figured salespeople would be using it on the car lot, within reach of Wi-Fi, so it wasn't necessary to provide the more expensive 3G version of the iPad. But once untethered, people wanted to stray beyond the Wi-Fi boundaries. For example, salespeople started bringing them along on test drives, so they could fill out paperwork while the customer drove, to do things such as start figuring out an initial price quote. The 355 iPads it's giving dealers will be 3G equipped, but dealers will have to pay the wireless service cost.
2. Coding for the iPad's fairly easy (compared with the iPhone)
Mercedes-Benz Financial already had a Web app, MB Advantage, that ran on Internet Explorer, which salespeople accessed from desktop PCs. The company was able to convert that so it runs on the iPad through Apple's Safari browser. It did so using in-house talent and without extensive development work. Changes to its Web app included replacing some Flash elements, doing some resizing for the screen size, and creating a custom icon that it puts on dealers' iPad to launch the app in Safari. In contrast, when the company built its iPhone app, it needed to bring in contract developers with iPhone experience.
3. It's about marketing, and sharing in the Apple glow
Mercedes-Benz Financial didn't choose Apple by accident for its mobile strategy. Mercedes sells its cars on innovation and style and reputation, and it likes the association with a tech innovator like Apple. Mercedes, which bills itself as the inventor of the automobile, "has innovation as our heritage," says Andreas Hinrichs, VP of marketing for Mercedes-Benz Financial. With the iPad, "Apple has created a new market segment," he says.
Mercedes-Benz Financial didn't volunteer costs for the project, but figure 355 mid-range 3G iPads at $730 apiece is about $260,000, plus development costs. Is that a marketing campaign that's worth it to get in front of your key sales channel, with a tool they might use everyday? Could be. The company can't yet track whether salespeople are accessing MB Advantage via PC or iPad; it expects to have that capability by November.