Laptops may be getting displaced by smartphones as the device of choice for mobile workers. Pop into any café or “third place” where you hang out and you’ll see tables full of mobile workers, sans laptops and leaning back with smartphone in hand. When Skype asked me if I wanted a temporary evaluation unit, I jumped at the chance to review a new Motorola Droid X device by Verizon with Skype Mobile pre-installed on it.
As a longtime early adopter of new gadgets ( I won’t list them all here, but the Blackberry device is one that comes to mind), I found my productivity dropping a few years back and migrated to a “dumb phone.” I have been itching to test the true usability of the new generation of smartphone. Could they really be that useful for a super-busy small business owner? The answer is, hands down, yes.
If you’ve been on the fence over whether to get a smartphone, this review is for you. I was skeptical that even the newest, coolest, Android or iPhone, would really help a small business make or save more money. I am now convinced. Let me share four ways a smartphone can help your business.
1. Seeing what customers see on a mobile device. If you have a physical presence (a retail store selling just about any product with a barcode, a computer repair service, or any real world location), you need to a smartphone to see what mobile local search results look like. What are customers seeing when they search for your business on a smartphone? The make-more-money component is pretty straightforward: If customers can’t find you easily, they may not find you at all.
More than search, you need to think proactively about what your customer can do and will do when he or she is in your store, or near it. If you haven’t read Lisa Barone’s recent post about Google Places  or her post about local search , be sure to check them out.
2. Using barcode and QR code scanners. Nearly every smartphone can manage a barcode scanning application via the camera function. Most will also read the more intelligent, customized QR code. This means your customer can snap a quick picture of any item in your store that has a barcode and get instant data on that item, including comparison online shopping information. To be clear: Most apps are not able to report on locally available inventory, but online inventories are readily available and easy to access.
What does this scanning stuff really suggest? Customer service takes on a whole new meaning. It is so easy to buy elsewhere. Your store has to stand out with a great customer experience and service level. Also, competitive pricing is critical, as it has been for a long time. As some readers know, I’ve been working on a local business project and in one part of it, I wandered through local stores. Some asked me to leave when I appeared to be using my camera. Some didn’t notice. The point is: You can kick people out of your store for scanning a barcode; that is your prerogative. Is it a wise choice? I don’t have the answer, but I have opinions.
3. Encouraging foot traffic. Combined with Google Local, Facebook Local, Groupon, FourSquare, and a host of other applications, you can put your special offer in front of customers who are nearby. You can create a customizable QR code and put it in your store window. Then anyone with a smartphone can scan that code and receive a special offer or message, for free. If they were not sure about coming in, the QR code gives them an easy, nonthreatening encounter with your brand (the code may or may not contain a special offer). Consumers with smartphones are actively looking for more information about your business (or at least what you provide) as they move around town.
QR codes are easy to create; this open source site from ZXing (Zebra Crossing)  makes it super easy. With a little creativity, you’ll see a range of ways to use these.
4. Using Skype Mobile. I received this evaluation phone courtesy of Skype to test its functionality for the small business owner. Here’s the skinny: It works perfectly for Skype-to-Skype calls (this particular phone is powered by Verizon) and doesn’t cost you any money. I would highly recommend it because you likely know and have Skype users in your contact base. I know of several companies that run their customer service efforts through a dedicated Skype number, and if customers or prospects reach you on the platform, this mobile application can save you cell phone minutes.
The Skype mobile service via Verizon does not let you call a landline or another cell phone as it might if you had a Skype Calling plan from your computer. While I had hoped to be able to do this, it wouldn’t make sense for Verizon to allow this, as it would completely take them out of the cell phone equation. Everyone would load Skype mobile and use the cell phone backbone to make free calls. But, if you want the ability to make domestic and international Skype-to-Skype calls from your cell phone, this app and phone is a gem. Not all smartphones can run a voice-over-IP (VoIP) application.
Overall, a smartphone is more than a tiny device to keep you ever-connected to e-mail. It is more than a way to save money on phone calls, though that is important and Skype is one easy way to do that. The main reason to consider any smartphone is because of the tectonic shift to mobile by your customers. You want to be able to see what they are seeing in search results, on review sites, on coupon-offer sites and on location-based services like FourSquare. You can learn more about Skype Mobile here.