Small business tips: mobile technology, the iPad, and your business

Last week I was struck by a news story that was unusual in several respects. I turned on the news to see video of a small group of rock climbers rappelling down the exterior of the Washington Monument. The sported the typical gear one would expect to see on such folks: harnesses, helmets, ropes, and what-not. They were also carrying small hammers and tapping away at the stone as they slowly made their way down the 555-foot tall obelisk. But what caught my attention was the fact that each of them was also carrying an iPad and were stopping as they went to record notes or data directly into the devices. Turns out that this was a team of engineers inspecting the structure to assess the damage caused by last month’s earthquake and they were methodically inspecting each of the 36,491 marble blocks that makes up the exterior of the giant tower. The iPads contained engineering data from the 1999 restoration of the monument.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

This is just one example of how businesses are embracing mobile technology. From data collection to forms management, from photos and videos to document creation and collaboration, mobile devices are finding their ways into many aspects of business operations. Yes, there are the basic functions: email, messaging, and entertainment, but here are five meaningful ways that small businesses are leveraging the iPad (and mobile tech in general) to increase productivity, service customers, improve communication, and improve workflows.

1. Accessing data.
Information mobility is critical and mobile devices give their users instant access to valuable data in the field. Repair technicians can access technical manuals while on client calls. Salespeople can view current product price lists and complete order forms on-site while visiting clients. Insurance adjustors can look up account information, create estimates, and upload photos of your dinged up bumper in seconds while they make you an appointment at an approved body shop in your town. There are many apps that allow you to access documents and data, but a couple of great value are Dropbox for access to any document stored on your office computer, Salesforce Mobile for instant CRM, Evernote for taking notes and collecting text, photos, and video.

2. Closing deals.
On my iPad I keep a crowdSPRING How-it-works video which I can pop up anytime someone asks me, “What exactly is your business?” The iPad has a beautiful large display and virtually screams out, “Use me! Touch me!” This comes in really handy when traveling and at conferences or trade shows when I find myself talking to lots and lots of people. The iPad can also be connected via a VGA adaptor to a projector and full-on presentations can be shared using Apple’s Keynote app, which is a full-featured presentation tool.

3. Staying connected and collaborating.
Apple’s iWorks suite of apps, includes Pages (a full-featured word processor) and Numbers (Apple’s spreadsheet program) both of which allow you to create, edit, and share documents. These powerful programs allow you to create graphically rich reports, record and manipulate data, and collaborate with your colleagues on the go. There are also apps like Skype and Webex which allow users to participate in online conferencing and meetings. The iPad is a way for your workers in the field to get rid  of those binders, clipboards, and accordion folders – all of that paper-based workflow can be replaced with document sharing, custom forms, web access.

4. Providing customers information.
Catalogs and product information are readily available whether the datas are web-based or stored on the iPad. salespeople can use the device as a selling tool, showing videos and photos of the product in action, quickly pulling up pricing information, or even completing sales forms and invoices. Car dealers are adopting the technology and issuing iPads to their sales staff to help them to stay with the customer from the moment one walks onto the showroom floor. retail businesses are using apps like CatalogApp and Bento to create interactive product books which customers can browse on their own and that are full of rich information such photos, pricing, and inventory availability. Some of these apps even permit the customer to create an online order to be shipped directly to them after they leave the store. Hotels are enhancing the Concierge experience by making iPads available at the desk which contain local information such as restaurant reviews, ticket availability for shows, and street maps of the areas which guests can access on their own.

5. Accepting payments.
Retail businesses are using issuing iPads and iPhones to sales associates and allowing them to take payment from customers directly on the floor, avoiding the cash register queue altogether. In the field, workers can swipe credit cards and process payments, read bar code data, or complete order forms. Square allows users to turn their device into a mobile credit card machine at a fraction of the cost of traditional credit card readers. In a similar vein, apps like Time Master allow professional services firms such as lawyers and accountants track billable hours, and even manage billing functions and Freshbooks manages hours and invoicing, keeps track of expenses, convert currencies, automate collections, and even collect payments online.

Video: MSNBC