For most, meetings and presentations conducted over the Web still seem like a pie-in-the-sky promise or a fond figment of a few salespeople's imagination. But for some, they are already a vital business tool, and the number of establishments venturing into the wilds of Internet meetings are growing. So is the technology that supports them.
Sales personnel know the drill: Find several leads in a single geographical area; catch a flight, rent a car, make a bunch of calls; finally come home a few days later, completely wiped out. Companies may look to the Internet to help their travel-weary road warriors. Though Web conferencing is a relatively new phenomenon, many salespeople now hop on line, rather than on a plane, to meet with their customers.
"It's hard for me to emphasize enough the impact of it," says Eric A. Montgomery, vice president of sales and marketing for OutlookSoft, a software company based in Stamford, Conn. "We have eight sales reps who can easily give demos to anyone in the world, right from the office."
Montgomery uses WebEx, an online conferencing service. Darren Henderson, director of market development for Way2Bid, a clearing house for companies bidding for government contracts, uses Astound Conference Center. Using these services, PowerPoint presentations can be shown to people all over the globe. Documents and applications can be viewed and edited in real time; in addition, they have the capability to share both voice and video.
Montgomery tells the story of a prospect that was close to buying from a competitor. His sales rep wasn't able to meet the prospect on such short notice, but Web conferencing saved the day. "We found out about it on Friday, gave a Web demo on Tuesday, and we made the sale, just like that," he says.
Other examples aren't quite as dramatic, but still point to important benefits. For instance, Montgomery says that personnel can use Web presentations to quickly gauge how serious a potential customer is. "The last thing you want is to get on a plane and learn that it wasn't a good lead," Montgomery says.
Most importantly, Henderson and Montgomery both say their employees are now more efficient and can sell more to customers.
"When you find a high-caliber sales representative, you want to leverage them to get as much productivity out of them as possible," Montgomery says. "I'd estimate that using Web conferencing means as much as 30 percent more productivity out of a good sales person. The difference is very dramatic."
Customers, too, save time. "They can sit at their own desks," Henderson says. "It's just like watching TV."
WebEx and Astound offer fairly similar services. Both enable presentations, invite people via e-mail, and conduct text chat. They also have application sharing to show remote viewers what is on-screen. This allows sales staff to use a Web browser to walk customers through the support section of a site. Both services work through corporate firewalls and allow archiving of presentations and online meetings.
However, there are subtle differences. Astound converts uploaded presentations to standard HTML Web pages. By contrast, WebEx converts slides to images. Both approaches have their advantages: HTML pages load faster, while images feature dynamic graphics. WebEx supports files such as Microsoft Word or Excel, while Astound is limited to using only presentation files. Conversely, though both services have text chat, Astound permits the moderator to make chat a part of the meeting, while WebEx separates it from conferences.
Way2Bid and OutlookSoft are both in the technology business, so it's not surprising they were willing to try these new technologies. Any company, however, would admire the results they've seen.
The cost of conferencing can vary widely from company to company. Both WebEx and Astound offer a dizzying array of pricing schemes. Three people can use Astound's service for free, while WebEx allows four people to conference for an hour at no charge. For frequent users, both charge on a per-event basis and on an annual-subscription basis. Astound charges about $500 per seat per year. WebEx charges between $.20 and $.35 per minute per person, depending on whether the conference requires application sharing, teleconferencing, or video, which the service also supports. The cost of such capabilities can add up, but they're still a bargain, Henderson says.
"We average three Web sales conferences a day," Henderson says. "That's three fewer times we have to hop on a plane. Since we usually can't book flights way in advance, we figure that's a savings of $1,000 a trip." Henderson says that his company is saving roughly $15,000 a week using Web conferencing.
Montgomery estimates that his company saves one flight per month for each of its eight sales representatives. Using an average airfare of $700, that's a savings of $5,600 a month, or more than $67,000 per year in airfare alone. Both Montgomery and Henderson stressed their figures were preliminary, as they had started using the services just a few months before this interview.
The Usual Caveats
Web conferencing does save time, and can improve the sales process. But it isn't the total solution for sales people. "Web conferencing helps us qualify leads and sell," Montgomery says. "But once you get them interested with a Web demo, you still have to meet them face-to-face." Since images appear on all participating screens simultaneously, it is an ideal tool for software vendors that can demonstrate products directly. However, it isn't a viable choice if a product or service does not translate visually.
Web conferencing is designed to run over a standard 56Kbps modem, but we found that performance at that speed was inconsistent. We recommend using a high-speed Internet connection. Most services offer video and voice capabilities, but a DSL or T1 line is usually necessary to take advantage of those options.
Neither Henderson nor Montgomery use such advanced applications -- both feel that present voice capabilities hinder more than help the sales process. Henderson says his employees rig up a conference call so prospects and sales personnel can talk during the Web presentation.
It will take time yet for these types of conferences to replace face-to-face meetings, and they never fully will. Both customers and salespeople may find it hard, at first, to adapt. But both you and your reps will appreciate the increased efficiency, as well as another unexpected benefit: more time at home with friends and family. "I can't see selling our services without it," Montgomery says.