Handheld technology increases sales for GE

Graduate students at the Heinz College have developed new methods and technologies that have allowed a division of General Electric (GE) to improve its efficiency. As a part of their final project, graduate students Ashish Mehta, Pramod J. Mallapragada, Joseph Morse, Venkatesh Narayan, and Nitika Sharma (all of whom are part of the Master of Information Systems and Management program) developed programs and processes that allow GE’s truck-leasing division to work more efficiently.

The basic premise of their project is to simulate industry-standard processes in the college environment and to get a feel for the way organizations work. This will also help them get some experience before actually going on to their jobs in professional life. According to their adviser, Christopher Kowalsky, an adjunct associate professor in the Heinz College, their project “followed the best practices” of process management and each person played a part similar to one they would play after graduation. Kowalsky said that they “worked as if they were professionals,” with concrete goals and regular evaluations.

The goal of the project was to work with the sponsors at GE to find a way to improve the productivity of GE’s truck-leasing division. This division has two types of customers: the first are long-term customers who draw up contracts for many months or years and whose plans are known well in advance. The methods for dealing with such customers are well-established. The second type of customers includes those with “short cycle sales,” one-time assignments that are often on the spur of the moment. The second type of customer is harder to pursue because the customer’s needs have to be dealt with quickly. GE noticed that these shorter-term customers represented an opportunity for the company to grow.

It was this opportunity that the team from Heinz analyzed, resulting in the creation of a website allowing salespeople to access GE’s central databases without having to actually be at the office. “[GE] needed a better tool to help its field-deployed sales team connect wirelessly back to their branch offices and the business Customer Care Center,” stated a Heinz College website press release. A solution was needed “to link existing database systems and deliver data in an online application, accessible from mobile handheld devices.” GE’s salespeople can now complete many of their duties by using just their Blackberrys. The team also extended GE’s existing infrastructure to allow their application to work seamlessly. Being able to complete all the required work in the field is essential, as many of GE’s customers are far away from their offices, and this application allowed the salespeople to spend more time selling and less time in the office. It also helps the salespeople work toward realizing GE’s ambitious goals of contacting five times as many customers and doubling their customer base. The Heinz team also came up with processes that allow the necessary data entry to be done quickly and painlessly by reducing the number of pieces of data that salespeople need to input.

As a project, this took up a significant amount of the students’ time. “The team spent, individually, about 23 or 24 hours per person per week over the 14 weeks,” Kowalsky said. The team also worked with GE personnel to ensure that it met its goals and provided the results GE wanted. GE had a transition of the technology at the end of the term and is now employing it productively and also continuing to develop and extend the results of the project.

It is interesting to note that this is just one of many projects that the Heinz College has under development. Previous projects have been carried out while working with companies like Ernst & Young, Bearing Point, and UPMC. Giving students insight into the inner workings of companies provides tangible benefits. “This has been a big win, and a competitive advantage for our commercial team — very helpful during a tough economic time in our industry,” said Brent Russell of GE, as quoted on the Heinz website.