Getting a Handle on Handhelds

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2006-08-06 Print this article Print

The food services company turned to an expense management system to keep track of more than 4,000 handheld devices.

Getting a Handle on Handhelds

Sodexho isn't alone in deploying an expense management system. With wireless voice communications averaging $75 per user per month in U.S. companies—and up to twice that for those with data services like wireless e-mail and Internet access—many companies are turning to these packages to help them get a handle on their telecom costs, says Lisa Pierce, vice president at Forrester Research. Capital One, Best Buy and Ikon Office Solutions are just a few businesses that use telecom expense management software to oversee their wireless programs, according to software vendors and media coverage.

Ingalls says the software application from Fairfax, Va.-based Rivermine was appealing because it could handle the entire life cycle of wireless services—procurement, asset management, invoice management and deactivation. And Rivermine could host the Web-based application on its own servers, which worked for Sodexho because, according to Ingalls, the company was replacing many of its data center servers and didn't want to take on additional applications.

Sodexho would not disclose how much it paid for the Rivermine software and consulting services project team. Mark Logan, Rivermine's CEO, says customers typically spend between 1% and 3% of their annual telecommunications budget for the software and implementation, and that the package is best suited for companies that spend a minimum of $6 million to $8 million annually on telecommunications.

But before it could deploy the software, Sodexho first had to assume ownership of all voice and data lines. "We realized the only way to get a handle [on wireless] was to own the phone numbers and liability," Ingalls says.

Until then, Sodexho employees with handheld wireless devices had individual contracts with wireless providers. Managers in laundry facilities, warehouses and other locations purchased mobile phones from the local offices of wireless providers. They chose the phone, the plan and signed the contract, Ingalls says, thus gaining ownership of the number. Each month, those employees submitted paper invoices or an expense report for reimbursement to a regional manager. Managers would approve—or reject—the documents and mail them to Sodexho's finance division in Buffalo, N.Y., for processing.

The process was paper-based, Ingalls says. Managers had to sign off on invoices and expenses with a hand-written signature. "You had hundreds if not thousands of people sending in their individual invoices each month," he recalls. And with so many invoices, he says it was very difficult to identify errors and problems, such as overcharges or plans that were incongruent with usage patterns.

Sodexho tackled the invoice problem on two fronts. First, it asked all employees to transfer wireless ownership of devices and contracts to the company. Then it negotiated a single "pooled" plan with primary carriers Verizon Wireless, Cingular and Nextel so that workers could share minutes.

Today, the company receives a monthly invoice for each device with detailed usage, but the vendors consolidate the invoices and send them electronically—Verizon Wireless by e-mail, and Cingular and Nextel by CD via snail mail. Ingalls says the invoices on the CDs, written in the electronic data interchange format, include more account information than the carriers could provide in an e-mail version.

The electronic invoices get uploaded to Rivermine's Finance Manager, and their contents, such as the number of minutes allocated per month, are checked against the device and contract information residing in the Inventory Engine. If there is an error, like an incorrect rate plan, Finance Manager will flag those accounts in an "exception" report.

The system generates reports that are uploaded to a spreadsheet and e-mailed to finance managers who combine current and historical numbers to review metrics such as number of devices purchased and monthly changes in wireless spending. Finance Manager also analyzes invoices and generates reports suggesting more cost-effective plans for workers who use their devices significantly more or less than their current plans allow.

But the uploaded invoices are used for more than just checking and analyzing bills. In the past, it used to take several months and past due notices from the wireless provider before an idle account was identified. Managers in the field were responsible for making sure the wireless accounts of their departing reports were terminated, and there was no system for tracking whether an account was actually turned off. With Rivermine's Service Order Manager, Ingalls says he can quickly submit account deactivation requests directly to the wireless providers for employees who are no longer with the company. Payroll data, such as employee name and termination date, is uploaded to an Oracle table in the Rivermine software each week from Sodexho's human-resources payroll database and checked against active wireless accounts in the Inventory Engine. The software scans the data for recent termination dates and automatically generates text messages in the electronic records of the wireless accounts that need deactivation.

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Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.

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