The benefits of web conferencing

Technology is helping SMEs bridge the divide between the need for communicating with staff and customers and the need to streamline costs. As rising fuel prices make physical travel ever more expensive, virtual travel is become easier and cheaper.

It seems unavoidable that as a business grows, so does its travel budget. Interstate and international offices and clients mean increased costs in airfares and accommodation for management, sales and support staff; add to that the hidden costs of lost productivity.

But it doesn’t always have to be this way. As an increasing number of businesses are finding that technology is providing satisfying ways of linking remote locations using high-quality audio and collaboration tools. And where teleconferences and videoconferences have failed, web conferencing tools are providing the vital spark of interactivity that is making all the difference.

For the Perth-based software developer BMS Solutions, using a web conferencing system from WebEx means it can service customers in locations it couldn’t otherwise afford to deal with. BMS Solutions develops software for safety and risk management software for the mining, manufacturing and utilities sectors, and has offices as far-flung as Houston, Moscow, and Paris. Its customers are in even more distant locations.

According to BMS Solution’s technical services manager, Paul Pree, the sales cycle for his company can take up to three years. The cost of constantly visiting a prospect—which may be located at a mining site far from the beaten track—would be prohibitive.

“To have to visit them in far-flung parts of the world means we would either have to forget about that part of the planet, or find some other way of servicing them,” he says.

With the cost of having staff on the ground proving too high, web conferencing software from WebEx has become the answer. The system is also used for internal support purposes, to conduct knowledge-sharing sessions between head office and sales offices.

“That cuts out the to-ing and fro-ing in trying to get an idea communicated,” Pree says. “They can have a conversation across a group of 10 people and, at the same time, multiple people can take turns at controlling the screen to demonstrate things.”

Tech Spec

Web conferencing systems work by presenting each participant with a common screen view, delivered through their web browser over the internet. This can include elements such as a slide show or a whiteboard, which users can mark up during the presentation. Users can also swap control of the screen among themselves.

Audio is delivered via the phone network, with participants dialling in as they would with a conference call. Some systems can deliver the audio–and even the video–conferencing component through a broadband internet connection.

Systems differ widely in their features and cost. Major suppliers of web-conferencing software include WebEx, Citrix Online, Microsoft, and IBM (through its Lotus software division), and there are also numerous specialist suppliers.

The technology can both be managed and hosted by its supplier (this is known as a hosted model) or run by the company itself. Charges are determined in various ways, in some cases on a per-user or a per-minute basis, or as a flat-fee or on a standard software licence basis.

Every technology supplier markets a range of products, each with variations in functionality, usage and pricing, so it is wise to plan carefully what your requirements will be. Many of these tools integrate with other so-called presence technologies, such as Instant Messenger, to enhance a business’ collaborative computing capabilities.

According to David Mario Smith, senior research analyst at Gartner, a global IT research firm, the use of web conferencing solutions is growing rapidly among SMEs as they strive to find new ways of using technology to improve customer service while cutting costs.

“It makes so much sense to replace a certain amount of travel with a web conference,” Smith says. “It’s really easy to make the justification. But you have to make sure that you understand what kind of conferencing needs you have. If you are paying for something you hardly use, that becomes a detriment, so it is really about planning and understanding usage, and deploying it accordingly.”

Because not all forms of web conferencing need to be installed on the network (they are instead accessed through a browser) they are easy to set up.

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Multiple Benefits

WebEx reports that there are now more than 1000 Australian companies with host accounts, ranging from SMEs to large companies, and more than 11,000 Australians using WebEx for business meetings each week. The most common users are finance and IT companies, with buyers coming from functions including training, marketing, IT, strategic roles and management.

Increasingly companies are using the technology to reduce their impact on the environment. By reducing the amount of travel for staff and management, they also minimise their organisation’s carbon emissions. According to WebEx, using a web conference rather than flying one person on a round trip from Melbourne to Perth would save 734 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions.

But for most businesses, the cost savings alone are enough to justify the cost.

The Sydney-based developer of software for the real estate and strata management market, Rockend, uses Citrix’ GoToMeeting software for online sales demonstrations and to keep its far-flung sales team up-to-date on new product features.

Rockend’s national marketing manager, Alister Maple-Brown, says the cost savings have been significant. Previously, running a training session in Sydney for the company’s salespeople would have cost the equivalent of eight airfares, accommodation and meals, totalling between $2000 and $3000 each, and not including the time lost out of the office.

“Whereas now we can do that in a 90-minute or two-hour session for virtually no cost except for time,” Maple-Brown says.

Similarly, he says there are strong cost savings for both the company and customers when it comes to remote training. “If we’ve got someone in Mt Isa who needs to be trained, it might be a $2000 travel bill at the end of the implementation for the client, whereas now using GoToMeeting we don’t have that problem. A trainer can do a two-hour session in Mt Isa and then one in Ballarat and then one in Alice Springs, all in one day.

“We can change the presenter so that one person is presenting in Brisbane and 10 minutes later someone from Perth is presenting to the group, and we are all watching the screen while at the same time all obviously on a conference call.”

Maple-Brown says one presenter normally presents live with 10 to 15 attendees, but the sessions are also recorded and made available to those who can’t attend the live session.

The company is also using Citrix Online’s GoToWebinar software for full web conferencing to train third-party consultants in group situations. Maple–Brown says webinars are conducted on a regular basis highlighting particular features and upgrades of Rockend’s software.

Mixing Tools

In the future Rockend plans to make greater use of the GoToWebinar tool by running more training sessions, and then archiving these to its website or recording them to a DVD. Maple-Brown says Rockend is also using Citrix Online’s GoToMyPC software, which allows a person to remotely control another PC. Normally this software is used by IT support and helpdesk workers to navigate users through tasks such as installing software or accessing functions, but in the case of Rockend it is being used in sales demonstrations. An email is sent to the prospective customer, and after clicking on a link they are able to see the salesperson’s desktop screen and be talked through how the software works.

As with most technologies however, working with web conferencing can have a downside. Maple-Brown says it is important to understand that it is not a replacement for face-to-face contact in every situation. “We encourage our people to utilise their time as well as possible, but certainly from a sales perspective we also encourage them not to be lazy and use the tools at times when it would jeopardise a potential sale,” he says.

“There is nothing better than face-to-face contact and communication, and sometimes with these tools you don’t know if someone is watching the screen or not, or paying attention or not, or whatever. And in a sales situation, for someone in Dubbo for example you will make a bigger impact if you go and visit them, compared to doing a sales call online.

“But I think what is happening too is that people in these remote locations are starting to understand that it is just as beneficial for them to have someone online to show them and explain things.”

While the company is getting strong benefits out of the Citrix tools, Maple-Brown says there is still a lot of work needed to get staff hooked into using the tools effectively. With staff used to performing functions a particular way for a long period, switching to using remote software tools took some getting used to, especially as some support functions initially took longer.

The problems tend to be self-inflicted however, and can often be easily corrected. Pree says that one issue has been ensuring that staff are aware that there is cost in using the tools.

“We have had occasions where it’s been over utilised, and that incurred a significant charge because we went way beyond what we were paying for,” Pree says. “But in that case it was just a matter of education, because we had given access to someone who wasn’t aware that there were costs associated with extended sessions.”

Another issue is the world’s constantly changing time zones. “It’s when you book a meeting for 10am, and then realise the participants have been sitting there for an hour already waiting,” Pree says. “So we send emails around about our regular weekly training sessions to make sure people are there at the right time.”

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