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A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words

How small businesses are using camera phones to improve their bottom line

Camera phones are becoming a critical tool for small businesses - helping to maximize their two greatest assets - time and money.

In today's economy, businesses large and small are looking for new ways to increase productivity and minimize expenditures - all while enhancing customer service. Camera phones, which are rapidly gaining in popularity among a wide variety of audiences, can satisfy this need, helping business owners capture important images and immediately share them with their customers, partners, and vendors.

According to Strategy Analytics, mobile-phone makers sold 25 million camera phones worldwide in the first half of 2003 - leapfrogging the 20 million digital cameras sold in the same period.

Carriers such as Sprint are recognizing the importance of instant visual communications and have recently developed offerings in this area. For example, Sprint's Picture Mail service enables PCS users to take digital pictures on their camera phones and send them to other PCS Vision phones or to computers by e-mail. With this service, users can also modify, manage, and store photos. Customer response has been overwhelming. In the third quarter of 2003, Sprint customers shared and uploaded more than 23 million pictures and that number is expected to continue growing rapidly as more and more business customers, in industries as diverse as insurance, construction and health care, use camera phones to take and send photos.

No More Snail Mail
Maintenance Systems Inc., a Chicago-based painting company, has been experiencing the benefits of camera phones for more than a year now. Maintenance Systems, Inc., arms each of its eight painting crews with a PCS Phone by Sanyo 5300 and Picture Mail. Once a crew completes a painting job at a retail store, they snap a picture of the final product and e-mail it to the hiring company for billing purposes.

Randy Sevcik, owner of Maintenance Systems, Inc., is ecstatic he made the decision to provide camera phones to his employees, as he no longer has to take a traditional camera to each work site and "snail mail" the pictures to his customer before the billing process can be initiated. Due to reduced shipping costs and increased communication between his crews and his customers, Sevcik estimates that the camera phones paid for themselves within the first few weeks of use.

"Not only do camera phones expedite the billing process, but they also save time mid-project as well," says Sevcik. "Now if the crew has a question, they can take a picture, send it to the client, and place a follow-up call to discuss exactly how something is to be done - all in a matter of minutes. Not only does this save time, but it also increases our ability to please our customers, as they no longer have to trek to the job site to see what we're talking about. The effect this has had on my bottom line and customer relationships has been incredibly positive."

Sevcik was also relieved to see that the new devices required minimal training time. "I gave my guys a 15-minute overview of how to use the phones, sent them out on the road for a three-week trip, and had no problems," continued Sevcik. Because of this success and ease of use, Sevcik has now replaced all his cameras with camera phones.

Pat Heroman, owner of Heroman Services Plant Company, LLC, has had a similar experience using camera phones. Heroman, a leading interior landscaping company along the Gulf Coast, provides custom design, installation, and horticultural maintenance services for commercial clients. By using camera phones and Picture Mail from Sprint, Heroman has instant visual and voice communication among his field specialists, saving time and improving the company's ability to quickly address customer questions and problems.

One way Heroman's field representatives use camera phones is to gain expert opinions from supervising horticulturists. Heroman technicians take pictures of sick, damaged, or newly installed plants and immediately e-mail them to the corporate office in Baton Rouge as well as to owner Pat Heroman's laptop via a wireless connection card. This new method of communication keeps the entire company constantly aware of any new client needs or troubles. After examining the photos, treatment recommendations or design changes can be made on the spot.

"Camera phones enable us to easily and quickly get Pat's or a supervisor's expert opinion at any time," said Pam Culbertson, a Heroman employee. "This leads to faster, more accurate decisions and diagnosis."

Prior to using camera phones, sample leaves of a problem plant had to be trimmed and sent to the corporate office for examination, or a supervisor had to be dispersed to the site to look at a plant or access a design move - a process that could take days to complete.

"By using camera phones and a wireless laptop card we are able to significantly reduce costs on shipping, labor, and replacement of plants," says Pat Heroman. "Better yet, we are able to better serve our customers, solving their problems and answering their questions in record time."

But these advantages don't just apply to paint and plants. CS Bechtold Designs, an Ohio-based kitchen and bath design company that supplies custom cabinetry to the high-end market, uses PCS camera phones to prove its case to vendors when incorrect shipments arrive at customer sites.

Christi Bechtold, owner, recently visited a job site and found a cabinet had been mistakenly finished on the wrong side. Bechtold immediately called the factory, which claimed such a mistake was impossible. She was about to ask for a supervisor when she remembered her camera phone. Bechtold took a picture of the cabinet and e-mailed it to the supplier. Five minutes later the truck was on its way to pick up the cabinet for corrections. There was no refuting visual evidence of the error.

"In this instance, my camera phone saved me countless hours of arguing with the manufacturer. One phone call - accompanied by proof - was all I needed," says Bechtold. "Many people see camera phones as a source of fun, but I see them as a way to maximize my time. The savings - in time and shipping costs - on one job alone paid for the initial cost of the phone. This was even before I received my first bill."

"Now, I'm trying to convince other contractors to get camera phones so that when they have installation questions that can't be easily explained, they can simply take a picture and send it to me," Bechtold continues. "I can look over the problem and call back with a solution without leaving the office. I can save so much time by not having to run to each job site whenever an installer doesn't understand the specs. And I don't have to worry about any work delays while contractors wait for me to arrive. No delays can mean more profit for everyone."

As evidenced in the examples above, camera phones are becoming a critical tool for small businesses - helping to maximize a small business's two greatest assets - time and money. And, wireless technology continues to evolve. Based on recent developments, businesses can now send videos as well as pictures using their wireless phones.

Regardless of the medium, instant visual communication is becoming a business imperative, and companies like Heroman Services Plant Company, Maintenance Systems, Inc., and CS Bechtold Designs are living proof of the impact of wireless technology on the bottom line.

More Stories By Bob Crawford

Bob Crawford is the director of small business marketing for Sprint; he has been in the telecommunications industry for eight years.

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