More and more business people are finding themselves attached to their tablet computer, reports Diana Clement.

Tablets are changing the way SMEs do business. The lightweight hand-held devices were popularised by Apple's iPad and soon followed by Android.

Whatever the platform, more and more business people are finding themselves attached at the hip to their tablet computer. They use standard apps from Apple, Google and BlackBerry's download stores, or pay to have their own apps built.

Apps can be beneficial for all types of businesses. A hairdressing salon, optometrist, or chiropractic clinic could use an app such as Vagaro to manage client appointments. The app is a portable schedule allowing the professional to check his or her appointments from anywhere. It automatically sends email and text reminders to customers, which helps reduce no-shows.

Productivity apps and business process apps are some of the most popular across a range of SMEs. Examples of these productivity apps are:


Time tracking apps: Anyone who needs to track billable hours or manage their time better can use time-tracking apps such as Gleeo Time Tracker for Android and HoursTracker for iPhones.

Scheduling apps: An app called 'Work' and other similar scheduling apps allow businesses to manage staff schedules in the field. Work identifies the nearest employee to the work with time available to do it and assigns the job to that person. The staff member accesses the job through his or her smartphone or tablet and gets fed GPS directions to the site.

Calendar apps: Smartphones have built-in calendars which can be synced with other devices including tablets, PCs and internet-connected televisions. Whatever device the diary note or reminder is entered on, it is synced across all devices via the cloud.

Voice apps: Apps such as Siri for Apple, Skyvi for Android and Vlingo for BlackBerry, allow users to tell their smartphone what to do with voice commands.

It means that staff can be productive between appointments, telling their phone to call Joe Bloggs as they walk or drive between meetings. They can also schedule meetings, update Twitter or Facebook and if necessary cancel multiple appointments with one command.

Vodafone's Do Business Better website features hand-picked business apps. Or simply search Google for "best business apps" where readers can find dozens of Top 10 or Top 50 lists from business publications such as Forbes.

Medium-sized businesses are increasingly turning to developers to build or customise an app for their business.

Andrew Fraser of Auckland-based Sales App Centre says many medium-sized businesses are converting paper-based sales processes into tablet apps, which significantly shortens the trading window.

A branded app able to crunch numbers, show video and more can be very effective as a sales tool in face-to-face meetings. The instant access to data in the field impresses customers and promotes the organisation's brand.

In the past, says Fraser, sales staff might have been reluctant to fire up their laptops to open a spreadsheet or other computer-based application. Sometimes the three minutes to start the computer and open the application was enough to put staff off using it.

Most of Sales App Centre's customised apps are designed to work offline, which means that sales staff can use them wherever they are. One example is the Bell-Booth Cowculator app.

The Cowculator is designed to improve the buying cycle for Bell-Booth's products, which include mineral supplements for cattle. Sales reps use the app to enter customer needs and give sales pitches tailored to each herd's needs.

When the rep next has cellular coverage or connects to a WiFi network the order is transferred to Bell-Booth's server. The process generates confirmation emails to the client, the rep, and head office, cutting days from the sales cycle.

Bell-Booth's national sales manager Donna Pfefferle says her company's investment in smartphones, iPads, and apps, has more than paid for itself in the past two years. As well as the Cowculator app, Bell-Booth has turned a number of forms and applications into apps.

"It means we have continuity in the organisation with the same message being discussed in the marketplace," says Pfefferle. "It has improved the professionalism of the sales team and the sales process for all parties involved."

Bell-Booth has phase two of the Cowculator app planned. It will calculate the investment return on the product solution suggested and the cost of not doing it.

Another end to end information management app being developed by the Sales App Centre is designed for wine growers. The grower can use it to track back from the barcode on a bottle to the actual row of vines the wine came from.