In the late 1990s, personal digital assistants (PDAs) were the latest must-have technology toys. Now PDAs are everywhere, including in the palms of jan/san sales forces.

“Handhelds are a great fit for our industry,” says Marc Hoffman, vice president of Palmer Co., Inc., a jan/san distributor in Waukesha, Wis. “Any tool that improves organizational skills is a no-brainer.”

Palmer’s sales reps use basic handhelds for appointment scheduling, creating customer lists, tracking quarterly sales, drafting memos and more. “The applications continue to grow,” Hoffman says.

While many distributors are thrilled with their hand-held devices, some don’t believe the machines have lived up to their hype or potential.

“We don’t use PDAs,” says David Simmons, IT Director for JanPak in Davidson, N.C. “They are tiny and hard to work with.”

Bang For the Buck
There is one thing about which everyone agrees — PDAs cost less now than when they were introduced. And that is a real bonus for many distributors, particularly smaller operations that have limited technology budgets.

“It has gone from buying an expensive item to buying a disposable item,” says Howard Cohen, president of Columbus Janitorial Supply, Columbus, Ohio. “We brought PDAs three or four years ago and they were an expensive purchase. With the cost going down, now everyone has one either from us or their own.”

Cohen purchased 20 no-frills PalmIII devices for his sales team in 2000 for $300 each. Today it is easy to find a basic, color-screen PDA for less than $100. These starter models include calendars, address books, and word processing programs for writing memos or taking notes. They also have sufficient memory to hold an electronic price book. Some sales reps take orders using their PDA and then “hot sync,” or download, the information into the company’s main system upon returning to the office.

Columbus Janitorial Supply uses basic PDAs for sales staff scheduling, storing floor-cleaning time studies, and providing sales reps with up-to-date pricing information.

“Customers want to know the price of something when they ask,” Cohen says. “This offers a spontaneous response with the correct price. It’s important for distribution that the price is always current.”

Both Columbus Janitorial and Palmer Co. use PDAs as electronic price books. This change saved the companies substantial dollars in paper costs (not to mention the benefits to the environment) and helped increase margins because sales reps now always give customers current prices. These cost-saving benefits justified the investment in PDAs.

“We print one price book out per change versus 50,” says Cohen. “Now we just update the PDAs when there is a price change. We can do it on the fly when the sales reps are in the office. We either hot sync or infrared the new information into their PDAs. It takes 10 minutes.”

Top-of-the-line PDAs cost more than $400. These high-end devices may offer lots of bells and whistles, including built-in digital cameras, MP3 music players, and cell phones. With wireless Internet capability, new handhelds allow a sales person to have instant access to up-to-the-second inventory data. From any remote location, the user can check quantity, place an order, and even use e-mail.

“I think we will go wireless in the near future,” says Charles Ojserkis, president of the mid-Atlantic region for AmSan in Winslow, N.J. “It would make our data truly real-time and add to the accuracy of the information we give the customer.”

“More companies will use real-time applications because their management is getting younger, and young people understand and are not afraid of the new technology,” says Steve Epner, president of Brown Smith Wallace, a technology consulting firm in St. Louis.

Some distributors also give PDAs to their drivers who use them to capture signatures. In many warehouses, PDAs have replaced paper tickets. The handheld device tells the worker when an order comes in and where the item is located in the warehouse. When a delivery arrives at the warehouse, the PDA can also scan the items, confirm the order, and tell the worker where the items go.

Get With the System
Using good software is the key to fully realizing the potential of a PDA. As purchased, the handheld device offers little more than a calendar and address book. To customize the machine to a distributor’s needs, the company must invest in industry-specific software.

“I think a lot of companies in distribution aren’t utilizing their software from their main program to put this into use,” says Cohen. “Our software company is really focused on PDAs and that pulls us forward.”

Ojserkis agrees. “Your system has to be well written,” he says. “You can’t just take an existing system and plug in a PDA and expect it to work well.”

In fact, Ojserkis believes PDA software is more important than the machine itself. “If I was looking for the ability to use PDAs, I wouldn’t find the PDA I liked first and then see if it worked with the software,” he says. He suggests finding software that is PDA friendly and then selecting the hardware.”

Start with your current software providers. If they work with PDAs, explain to them what you hope to accomplish with handheld technology. They can tell you what their software can do and how it can be customized to fit your company’s needs.

Smaller Isn’t Always Better
Despite the varied functions PDAs can perform, some distributors forgo them in favor of laptop computers.

Timmy King is chief financial officer for Pro-Link in Canton, Mass. His company is a buying group of 75 distributors across the United States. While some of his distributors use PDAs, he says many don’t because of the screen size. Most PDAs have 3- to 4-inch displays.

“There is limited real estate that you can get on those and they just don’t lend themselves well to day-to-day business functions,” King says. “There’s just not enough space there to give the sales rep all the information he needs.” He says distributors also complain about the battery life and durability of PDAs.

JanPak doesn’t currently use PDAs but if the displays get larger, the company will probably invest in them. Simmons sees the potential benefits of PDAs, including affordability, portability and ease of use.

“You can’t get lost in the operating system,” says Simmons. “That’s an advantage from a simplicity point of view. The salesperson is just trying to get pricing on inventory — he doesn’t want to have a dialogue with the system.”

For now, however, JanPak deploys laptops, which cost about $900 each. But laptops also have faults, especially in real-world sales applications.

“You may be talking to the environmental services person in the hospital basement three doors from the Dumpster,” says Ojserkis. “There may not be a place to plug in your laptop and connect to the Internet. The PDA is much more suited to a sales call where you actually want to get the order.”

And because a laptop computer has a more far-reaching operating system, they are more difficult and costly to maintain. For a fleet of laptops, a company typically needs a full-time staff member dedicated to technology.

The day may soon come when the PDA and laptop computer meld into one machine. Already PDAs are getting larger (now coming with phone and Internet capabilities) as laptop computers continue to get smaller (some notebooks have displays as small as 10 inches).

“The two worlds are merging,” says Ojserkis. The day will come soon that a PDA will be no different than a portable computer. I think in the future you will see a real convergence of the two types of technology.”

Until that day, distributors are left with a choice: buy a PDA or laptop?

“Distributors want to give their salespeople laptops with all that power and capability but they can’t afford to buy them,” King says. “So they tend to give them PDAs because they are more affordable.”

A Look At Two PDAs, A Laptop, And Their Features

Which is right for your company: a basic PDA, a top-of-the-line handheld or an inexpensive laptop computer? Take a look at our comparison of a popular and inexpensive Palm PDA, a new high-end model, and a top-selling notebook computer.

Type   Palm M500   Sony CLIE PEG-UX50   Pavilion ze5630us Notebook
Price $149 $599 $1099
Processor Speed 33 MHz 123 MHz 2.3 GHz
Memory 8 MB 104 MB 256 MB
Camera No Yes No
Wireless No Yes Yes
Weight 4.0 oz 6.2 oz 7.5 lbs
Color screen No Yes Yes
Screen specs 160 x 160 pixels 480 x 320 pixels 15.0 inches
Included software
(partial list):
Address book, date book, to-do list, memo pad, mail, calculator, DataViz Documents To Go 3.0, MGI PhotoSuite Mobile Edition, MultiMail SE, and AOL for Palm OS. Address book, date book, to-do list, memo pad, mail, calculator, movie player, audio player, photo editor, movie recorder, remote camera, QuickTime, CLIÉ Mail, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Macromedia Flash Player, Palm Desktop 4.1 for PC, and Data Export 1.0 for PC. Adobe Acrobat Reader, Microsoft Windows Media Player, Microsoft Windows MovieMaker, MusicMatch Jukebox, HP Image Zone photo and imaging software, Microsoft Outlook Express, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Microsoft Works, and Microsoft Money.

Becky Mollenkamp is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer.




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