“There’s an app for that.” This phrase was coined several years ago by Apple, as it started promoting consumer-oriented applications available on the iPhone. Fast forward to today and you’ll find this sentiment is true for businesses of all sizes that are leveraging apps to streamline operations, reduce costs and enhance productivity of their mobile workforce (see Figure 1). 

While these enterprise apps are helping individuals do their jobs better, no matter where they are, they also require some thought from company management. Which device — feature phone, smartphone or tablet — is the best to meet employees’ needs in the field and what costs are associated with that decision? 

The market has many devices to choose from — iPhones and iPads, as well as Android- and Windows-based smartphones and tablets — and a myriad of different service plans to add to the equation. So how can you determine which is the right device for your employees?


Selecting the right device

First, let’s consider the various devices now on the market. To be able to leverage enterprise mobile apps, a simple flip phone is not sufficient. Employees will need to be equipped with either a smartphone or a tablet, which run operating systems such as iOS, Android or Windows. Whether a smartphone or a tablet, employees will have generally the same user experience with the interface, with the only difference being the size of the device.

The form factor of the device becomes more important when you consider who will be using the device and how it’s going to be used. For example, if you are equipping a plumber, the mobile device will likely be just another tool on his belt. In that case, a tablet would be too large but a smartphone would be a perfect fit. The smartphone is ideal for apps that enable mobile workers to clock in and out of assignments, track mileage, get details on each new job and fill out forms when working out in the field.

Tablets, on the other hand, provide greater flexibility to handle paper-based processes and to add new, more complex apps in the future. If voice calling is not necessary for the mobile worker, a tablet could be the better choice because you can avoid paying for a voice and data package through your selected carrier. 

As businesses seek to go paperless, using a tablet makes more sense for work orders, invoicing and other more detailed processes. On a tablet, because of the larger display, these electronic documents are easier to complete, review and sign. In fact, for many companies, a tablet is already replacing the bulky clipboard on which employees used to rely, because they can be used to share up-to-the-minute product and pricing data, as well as managing the paperwork.

Another aspect to consider is durability. While many smartphones are built for rugged use, tablets designed for harsh environments are not as common. A variety of cases are on the market to ensure the smartphone or tablet will not be damaged, but those will add to the bottom-line cost of the device. 

Many employers may only factor in the cost of a device when they think about equipping their mobile workers and often lean toward the smartphone option because it can cost considerably less than a tablet. But what businesses don’t always consider is the long-term, recurring costs related to using each device. 

While a smartphone may be less expensive than a tablet, the service plan, which would have to include voice and data, could cost $40 or more per person each month. On the other hand, many carriers are offering tablet-only data plans for $10 to $15 a month, which give workers the ability to be connected anywhere and use the enterprise apps. 

If your employees already have their own mobile phone, it may be more cost-effective over the long-term for them to use their personal device for voice communications and for the company to provide a tablet with its lower-cost, data-only monthly service plan.

Before making a decision on which device is best for your mobile employees, you should calculate the total cost of ownership, including the price of the device and the monthly fees associated with the service plan you will need to support that device. As part of that calculation, you also should factor in the estimated savings you will achieve from leveraging a mobile app. 

In many cases, saving an employee a couple hours a month through improved efficiency — such as requiring less time doing paperwork or eliminating the need to drive back and forth to the office — will more than cover the cost of supplying a smartphone or tablet and the associated voice and data plans. 


Associated savings

Whether you choose to equip your employees with a smartphone or a tablet, there are proven savings you can achieve by leveraging mobile apps. For example, let’s look at a scenario featuring a plumbing company with 50 employees in the field, who earn an average of $20 per hour (see Figure 2).

With the launch of a mobile app that enables workers to automate time tracking, fill out documents and get customer signatures for completed jobs, paperwork associated with these tasks is reduced. The company eliminates two hours of overtime per employee each week, for an estimated savings of $37,500 annually. 

By not having to constantly come back to the home office to file paperwork or pick up assignments, the company is able to reduce mileage each week by 100 miles, saving about $21,000 a year. Simplifying the back-office tasks of processing payroll and managing paper could save another $22,500 a year. In addition, productivity will increase, enabling mobile workers to complete more jobs per day, which could add estimated revenue of $62,500. 

Under this scenario, when calculating the impact of these various improvements associated with equipping your employees with mobile devices and apps, this company achieves a positive impact to its bottom line of more than $143,000.

Because the productivity and financial benefits of employing a mobile app, or suite of apps, can be great, the investment in upgrading to smartphones and tablets can often be easily justified. But, as you put a plan in place, it is important to make sure this investment can grow with your business. Once employees see the benefits of the first app they use, they will want to leverage their mobile devices for other daily business activities. 

For this reason, it is vital that the devices and service plans you choose have the flexibility to handle additional apps, and provide the best solution to meet the current and future needs of your employees and customers. 


Author bio: Howard Latham is vice president of sales and customer success at Xora, a ClickSoftware company, where he is responsible for all aspects of the Xora customer experience — from sales through customer engagement, retention and growth. His role includes channel management, sales, on-boarding, training, customer support, account management and enhanced solution support.