LBM dealers who give their employees remote access to company computers are finding that everyone from dispatchers to outside sales staff to the manager who occasionally works from home are more productive and have happier customers.

For some dealers, the recession slowed their evolution toward mobile computing, which uses smartphones, tablets such as the iPad, and Internet-enabled PCs and laptops to allow employees to log on to company information any time from almost anywhere.

In the meantime, more of the retailers and wholesale suppliers that your pro customers deal with both for business and personal purchases have started equipping their staffs with around-the-clock access to company systems and information so they can answer questions, make sales, and solve problems for their customers whenever the need arises and wherever they are when it does.

More of your competitors have, too.

If your drivers and sales crew are still using basic "feature" phones without Internet access, or if your company's databases and computer system are accessible only by those who physically work at one of your locations, mobile computing is the next step. Here are the benefits of being technologically advanced.

Be Accessible From Anywhere
Sales reps like Rick Wedding of McCabe Lumber in Cincinnati answer their mobile phones whenever they ring, whether they are driving to a jobsite, eating lunch at Burger King, or watching Sunday night football in their living rooms. Because the company has supplied Wedding a secure password that allows him to remotely tap into information about prices and deliveries via his smartphone or tablet, Wedding can quote prices, set up deliveries, create a purchase order, and check on the status of an existing sale—without leaving his chair.

"I can log right into the system and pull it up," Wedding says, noting a bonus: The system allows him to key information right into his smart device so he doesn't have to jot it down and then type it in when he gets to work.

And while his company doesn't track the location of its delivery trucks—a feature he says "is coming"—he can at least see if a specific run has left the yard and share that detail with a customer.

Track Your Orders
At Poulin Lumber in Derby, Vt., that technology is already up and running. If he's working in his home office and wants to know where a driver is, general manager Scott Flynn can log on to his yard's computer system and find out. So can any employee of the LBM chain's four locations.

"Knowing where your trucks are at all times is priceless," notes Flynn.

The company's old system, like most, involved clipboards and a 4-by-8-foot whiteboard with the week's schedule for the yard's seven trucks scribbled in dry-erase marker. "We had to continually erase and update," says Flynn. "And it was never 100% accurate." Besides, he adds, "Nobody in the company could actually see what was going where in real time. They sent an order to the dispatcher, but didn't know what truck it was on or when it was going to get there."

Connect With Customers
One in seven people around the world—more than 1 billion—owns a smartphone and can connect to the Internet from almost anywhere, estimates the high-tech research firm Yankee Group. Another billion will have smartphones three years from now.

By 2016, predicts Forrester Research, at least 760 million tablets such as the iPad and e-readers with Internet access, such as the Kindle Fire, will be in use. Businesses will own at least a third of them.

Among them are your pro contractors: According to research by marketing firm Eric Mower + Associates, half of contractors already use smartphones on the job and 21% have an iPad or other tablet.

Be More Productive
Technologies like the cloud and smartphones are changing the way people work—and making them more productive. A study by one online backup service notes that 18% of U.S. employees say they're using mobile devices to check their email or otherwise start their work days before 7 a.m. and typically put in an extra 46 minutes of work by the time they arrive at the office.

Still, just 20% of U.S. employers make it possible for their workers to access everything—including email, network drives and applications, and cloud services—on the go, even though there's a clear correlation between the amount of access they have and the amount of work they do outside of business hours. That number is far lower among LBM dealers.

What To Read Next
They're Getting Smarter: Builders and remodelers embrace smartphones and tablets
Clouds on the Horizon: Moving IT services to "The Cloud" is gaining traction at computer companies and fans among LBM dealers
It's Time To Reboot: To serve today's increasing demands and tomorrow's generation of contractors, tech is the ticket