email and SMS in business applications

I recently had the opportunity to work in a couple of projects that evolved around “alternative means” of User Interface, other than the screen and keyboard of a typical PC. Also, the use of tablet PCs and PDAs was not the answer to the questions at hand.

The level of computer literacy of the users was one issue: There was a number of people that a) were mobile and b) had no or little knowledge and skills of modern user interfaces. The actions that needed to be performed by them were relatively simple, meaning that the User Interface was to be quite simple. In fact, they were required to provide simple “yes/no” answers to a number of questions. For those people the solution of simple text (SMS) messaging was selected. Here is the list of advantages that SMS messaging has:
  • Not everybody has a smart phone or PDA, but everybody has even the simplest mobile phone which can send and receive SMS.
  • Texting a message can be a real pain but when you have to simply answer Yes/No type of questions it’s quite easy and fast.
  • SMS are cheaper than a permanent mobile web connection.
  • In case of reimbursement of the cost, it’s very easy to measure usage and reimburse cash to the user.
  • SMS are much easier to digest for the not-so-literate user.

    Another application of SMS is the inbound messages. Let’s have a look at the example of booking of appointments: What if you were a service provider (e.g. a car repair shop or beauty parlor) and needed to open your work schedule to your customers, to book an appointment by themselves? The first obvious choice would be this of a web-based application which would present your schedule in a web site, show the open slots and let customers book an appointment. But, that way, you would provide no service to non-computer-literate people (and there are a number of enterprises that target on this kind of people!). So, what if you could be able to accept SMS messages and convert them to appointments, which would them fill in your computer-based work schedule?

    Email has definitely its place in this discussion: Of course, you could (and probably are doing it right now!) accept messages, inquiries and complaints from your web site (most enterprises are using the classic “contact us” form). But you could display even more “openness” if you provided the ability to accept direct email messages; you could probably setup a couple of email accounts, such as complaints@acme.com and internetsales@acme.com and split the inbound messages per area of interest. Now, what if you could instantly download those emails to your CRM and match them with existing customer records; or create new customer records and sales leads? No doubt, this would save your time and money from the manual or semi-manual processing that you are doing today.

    Finally, there is the area of the outbound email communication with your customers, suppliers etc. There is a number of issues that emerge from the processing of your ERP, CRM or any other type of enterprise application. You could certainly gain time and effort if you could send emails with issues (and supporting documentation, originating from your application) to the interested party, customer or supplier. For example, email a copy of a problematic invoice to your supplier or ask for a late payment to be expedited.

    That is to say, that alternate media of communication such as the “humble” email and SMS are now an integral part of your business applications. And while this is more or less obvious for a CRM type of application, there is a number of ERP or legacy applications that have yet some ground to cover. While integrating a web-based application with emails and SMS seems like a trivial task, there is a number of issues when we are talking about legacy applications, mainframe systems or other “closed” environments. But there is also some opportunity…
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