Driving change

The Al Batha Group is among the first in the region to experiment with using iPhone applications to reach out to its customers. Imthishan Giado reports.

Tags: Al Batha GroupGoogle IncorporatedSAPUnited Arab Emirates
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Driving change
By  Imthishan Giado Published  November 26, 2010

For those unacquainted with the world of automotive dealerships in the UAE, owning a car can be a torturous experience.

From the process of buying it, to dealing with the service staff afterwards for maintenance and support, the UAE’s dealerships have long had a reputation for being just plain obtuse at the best of times, and downright obstructive at the worst.

At the heart of this perception is the common belief that UAE dealers make little effort to reach out to their customers. This assessment looks with the release of a new iPhone application from UAE BMW dealership, Arabian Gulf Mechanical Center (AGMC).

Parent company Al Batha Group designed the application on behalf of AGMC. Saji Oommen, general manager for group IT, explains that the new application – which is available for download through the iTunes store – is basically a tool to get closer to the customers, and an extension of their existing SMS-based system.

“Now the trend is for people to have information available anytime and anyplace. It’s difficult for us to provide the information that people want to see over the web,” he says.

“We’ve been using mobile devices for the last few years, implementing SMS services around five years ago. What we are doing is making announcements to users through the SMSs – we had a facility for customers to make service bookings for the workshop this way. When the car arrives at the workshop, we do the pricing estimate and send it to the customer so they can confirm that order using the SMS system. Of course, they also receive a message when the car is ready for collection,” continues Oommen.

At present, the technology remains exclusive to AGMC’s dealerships, although Oommen admits that it’s a far from a revolutionary concept – presenting information in a simpler manner.

“It’s not a breakthrough technology – it’s about having certain catalogs on the mobile platform. People can browse through them for new and used cars, book appointments, and get information about the location of the service stations, workshops and so on, as well as receive announcements. It’s also integrated with the GPS system so if you need directions to the workshop, the app can guide you there,” he says.

With so many platforms available to choose from – Android, Blackberry and now Windows Phone 7, many would ask why AGMC has limited its reach to just the Apple platform. In Oommen’s view, the device has proved popular with regional BMW owners – and can be easily rolled out to other platforms.

“The iPhone has got a lot of penetration into our clientele. Smartphone are being used by more people and a lot of multimedia applications are converging into that. We will start with one platform, and once we have the framework ready, it’s very easy to roll it out to any platform you want. You don’t have to really re-develop the mobility portal which we have created. That will be 100% compatible with any kind of front-end or phone that you use,” he believes.

Al Batha Group did not have the skillsets inhouse, so it outsourced development of the application to its long-time partner Farabi Technology Middle East. The latter previously worked with Al Batha on maintaining its IBM AS/400 based applications, and with its deep understanding of the automotive business, completed development of the iPhone application in just one month. Oommen says that the main drivers were AGMC’s sales force.

“From our side, it was mostly the sales people who were involved in defining the requirements and identifying what’s critical for us. AGMC has got an IT team but it was primarily driven by our endusers from the sales and service section . The first version which is available did not cost a substantial amount to develop and version 2.0 is going to be released very soon,”  he reveals.

“It involved two days of information gathering from our side, followed by database and application design and documentation. Then the development started towards the end of last year in December. It went live early this year in the January-February timeframe. We got it hosted on an external website so there was not much extra infrastructure required for us. Now we will have certain technical involvement because we are going to integrate with some of the back end systems,” he continues.

With applications of this kind, there are often difficult tales of integration, particularly with something that’s so new to the region as mobile app development. Oommen is pleased to report this was not the case as development went smoothly.

Post-development, delays came from an unexpected source.  “The major challenge if it’s going to be an iPhone application is the certification from Apple. If you want to publish this application in the iTunes App Store, they need a lot of compliance following stringent rules. This took a bit of time for us. For us, it took almost a month to get certified. Prior to that, we completed our testing of the application. Only after our testing does it go to Apple because once it’s approved by them, it cannot go through any further change,” he says.

As stated earlier, version one of the app has been available to download from iTunes since February this year, and version 2.0 is very close being approved. Post-implementation, Oommen’s pronounced himself happy with the response to the application and is now looking to roll out similar initiatives to other parts of the Al Batha Group.

“We’ve had a lot of emphasis on the mobility applications. We have 250 van salesmen using the handheld devices integrated with SAP eight years ago. Since then, we’ve been rolling out a lot of retail applications. Our retail platform E-City uses mobile devices for goods received, physical inventory and so on. The next level is to have more transactions happening through this platform where you’ll able to build some user communities. We can also look at rolling it out to the other businesses. Now we are looking at the feasibility of using it in our electronics retail: it’s not possible to stock all the items in every store, “ he explains.

“But if the customer can see the product on the mobile, he knows where it’s available, he can place the order and also come to the right store to pick it up – all these kinds of things can be done. The possibilities are plentiful,” concludes Oommen.

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