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Our iPads Pay For Themselves: One SMB's Story

Parata Systems recently upgraded its field reps from aging laptops to iPads--and proved ROI by saving on overtime costs and improving customer satisfaction.

Parata Systems followed the tablet trend not to be trendy, but to reap tangible business gains.

The Durham, N.C.-based company (with 365 employees) makes technology that automates the prescription fulfillment process for pharmacies. Parata has roughly 10,000 customers, and services 9% of prescriptions dispensed in the U.S., according to CEO Tom Rhoads. Some 390 million prescriptions ran through Parata's automation platform last year.

Like plenty of other small and midsize businesses, many of Parata's staffers (140 people) work remotely. Back in 2004, the company made a strategic decision to build an in-house field service team to support its far-flung customer base. It had tried outsourcing the function, but ultimately it was too critical to trust to another company. For Parata, customer support means more than handling a call from someone with a question about a bill.

"Our customers rely on us for uptime. We might be doing anywhere from 50% to 80% of their volume depending on the setting," Rhoads said in an interview. "It's very, very critical that their equipment is operating smoothly."

Enter the field service operation, which today numbers 82 engineers distributed across Parata's markets. A centralized call center handles incoming support requests and routes them out to the field. "We push all of our service infrastructure out to them to support them in field," Rhoads said.

[What's Google's master plan? See 9 Markets Google Wants To Rule.]

Dan Sullivan, Parata's director of field service, said his team was working primarily with a common road warrior arsenal: laptop and BlackBerry. As the team grew--and as those laptops aged--people ran into increasing tech headaches. In an interview, Sullivan described it as a "10-minute ordeal" just to boot up and get access to Parata's network. An increasing number of PC-oriented security challenges also weighed in, he said.

So Sullivan reassessed his mobile strategy. After kicking the tires on Android and other platforms, Parata settled on Apple's iPad 2 as the new centerpiece. The two key reasons: Ease of use and more business-ready applications.

There's a "wow factor" with iPad, but Parata's not out to impress friends and family--it's building its business, said Sullivan. While that glamour appeal has an actual business case for Parata--more on that below--the company found a return on the investment in decidedly unglamorous ways.

The first amounts to good old dollars-and-cents: Since shifting its field service engineers from laptops to iPads, the company has cut its overtime payroll costs by 3%, and Sullivan expects additional decreases as a result of hours saved from instant-on access and other streamlining.

"When you multiply that across 82 field engineers, that pretty much pays for the iPads," Sullivan said, noting that the reduction in hours worked recouped the cost of the devices in about three months.

Typical tasks for Parata's field service engineers include time and expense tracking, locating a replacement part, or searching the company's knowledgebase. Much of their work takes place in Excel, and the company bought a group license of Quickoffice, after it became quickly apparently that iPad's built-in apps weren't going to meet needs, Sullivan said.

The second prong of ROI is increased customer satisfaction. A key part of Parata's process is how it communicates to customers what has been performed at the conclusion of every service visit. In the past, that amounted to a broad summary--now the customer can get an electronic or written report on site, enabled by the combination of iPad and Quickoffice.

Though Quickoffice integrates with Box.net, Dropbox, SugarSync, and other cloud platforms, Parata uses email and an internal server (accessed via VPN) for most file sharing and storage needs. Some field reps are using their own cloud accounts to access and store certain files, but Parata still has some organizational trust issues when it comes to the cloud. Still, that's likely a next step in the company's mobile evolution--as is another phase of its iPad deployment.

The sales team is next in line for company-issued tablets. Some salespeople are already using personal devices, and rather than fight consumerization, Parata is using it to test for real business value. Sullivan said that for the sales department, value will come from the aforementioned wow factor, as well as efficiency improvements similar to other mobile employees.

"There's definitely an ROI for them as well, getting in front of customers and presenting materials and signing contracts," Sullivan said. Parata recently added an app to capture and save legally binding signatures, to enable salespeople to close deals on-site from their iPads.

Parata's field service team hasn't given up its laptops yet, but it's moving in that direction in the next 12 months or so. The company has also scaled back its BlackBerry data spending in favor of tethering to iPad wireless plans. When it comes to smartphones, Sullivan said field reps once constantly clamored for the latest BlackBerry, iPhone, and Android models. He hasn't received a single such request since deploying iPads.

"I think guys are past that, and they realize that the smartphone isn't the platform they want to work from--it's the iPad," Sullivan said.

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