Google+ Hangouts: A Smart, Free Small Business Tool

by Jamie Bsales

Don't let the social-media leanings of Google+ fool you. Among the personal sharing and communication features lurks Google Hangouts, a handy collaboration feature for your small business.

Between Gmail, Search, Maps, Android and the up-and-coming Chrome browser, it's almost assured that Google is part of your daily business life in some way. But if you're like most business owners, you haven't considered Google+ as a serious business tool.

You're not alone. Since its public debut in late 2011, Google+ has been building a following as a collection of social apps and services -- a social site where people can post updates about themselves, share photos and videos, and more.

Google+ Home Page

Figure 1: The Google+ home page.

ut while most of the Google+ offerings are clearly aimed at the Facebook set, the video-chat feature, called Google Hangouts, begs to be exploited by business owners as an easy—and free—way to pull together ad hoc online meetings with remote employees and clients.

Meet and Collaborate with Google Hangouts

As with the big-name online meeting services, Hangouts lets you invite a group of people to a virtual conference. Using the webcam and microphone on supported devices—desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet—participants can, of course, share their voice and video streams. But, and here's where it gets interesting, they can also share what's on an individual's screen, collaborate on a shared document stored in Google Docs, view a presentation, watch a YouTube video together and more.

If a team member can't join the video meeting, you can opt to dial-in the person by clicking on the "Invite" button and then the "+telephone" link. Calls to the U.S. and Canada are free, and international calling rates are surprisingly low.

The second best thing about Hangouts, after the fact that it's free, is that it's easy for you and your team members to use. There's nothing to install. With the typical online meeting services, participants have to be reminded to click on the link in the invite 10 minutes in advance of the meeting, since inevitably the service wants to download an applet or check that the PC has the latest version of this audio player or that video player.

Hangouts operates more seamlessly. As long as all participants have a Google+ login, you can launch and enter a session with just a few clicks. In addition, meetings in Hangouts can be impromptu, since there is no need to log into a service to schedule a meeting. Simply select which of your "circles" (Google+-speak for the groups of contacts you create in the service) you want to invite, and invitees receive a notification (via Gmail, Google Chat, or Google+) for the hangout.

You can also use Hangouts for public events for your customers and potential customers. For example, LateRooms.com, an online travel site specializing in last-minute hotel deals, scheduled a hangout to share travel tips on Venice and promoted it via a Google+ event. The company now runs regular hangouts covering all its different destinations. On a larger scale, app developer Rovio launched the "Angry Birds Star Wars" edition of its wildly popular game franchise via a hangout, counting down to the midnight game debut.

Engage Remote Workers with Google+ Hangouts

Hangouts can be especially useful for small business owners who struggle to manage a remote workforce and minimize the time they spend on IT chores. A prime example is Matt Kelley, president of Gold Metal Waters, a fee-only wealth management firm based in Denver, Colo. The company provides financial services to individual client as well as to businesses looking to set up retirement plans for their employees. Kelley employs two full-time advisors, a part-time advisor, and an operations coordinator. The employees work remotely the vast majority of the time, either from home or at clients' sites.

As with many entrepreneurs, Kelley typically handles all of the IT chores himself. That siphons valuable time from interacting with clients, finding new business, and managing the current employees. "When it was just me and one or two PCs, it was easy," recounts Kelley. "But now, with a distributed workforce, it can be a nightmare."

Before discovering Google Hangouts, Kelley set up a daily conference call for the staff, with the occasional online video conference when the need arose. Kelley's business first entered the Google orbit in 2009 with Google Docs. Using the online word processor and spreadsheet programs let his employees share and work common documents no matter where they were located or what operating system they used, without having to log onto a file server remotely or (worse) email files to one another.

Google Hangouts

Figure 2: Google+ Hangouts.

"Then we started using Google's chat feature, and it provided a lot of efficiency," Kelley recalls. "So when Google added Hangouts, we jumped right on it."

As Kelley notes, one of the pitfalls of working remotely can be the dearth of human contact. "You get isolated when you're working by yourself," Kelley says. "You lose the creative spark of the face-to-face interaction." In fact, Kelley reports that he lost one very good employee because of the solitude of working from home. 

Google+ Hangouts allowed his employees to interact in a more meaningful, personal way. Kelley reports that he holds three scheduled hangouts per week, plus ad-hoc meetings as needed. The payoff: He has seen moral go up, along with improved communication.

"A phrase in an email can be interpreted in different ways," Kelley explains. For example, "You need to work on this," meant as simple direction, could be taken as criticism. "Hangouts added the element of the verbal and non-verbal cues," he says. "As a manager, I can tell if someone is not having a good day. Or, if I'm really excited about something they've done, they can see that."

If he could ask Google to improve anything, Kelley says it would be on the training side. "Google moves fast, rolling out lots of new things quickly," he says. "I love that, but my 55-and-over staff members could use additional training as new features are added." Kelley would also like a way to coordinate hangouts with clients who don't yet have a Google+ login. For those instances, it's back to the traditional online meeting services.

Still, Kelley has been so happy with Google Docs, Hangouts, and other Google products that he took the next step and outfitted his employees with new Chromebooks. These netbook-like laptops run Google's Chrome OS and feature fast bootup times and malware-free operation. The machines aren't the right choice for demanding PC chores, but they are ideal for accessing Gold Metal Waters' cloud CRM system, surfing the Web, checking email, logging onto Google Docs, and of course participating in hangouts. "And they have lessened my IT burden," Kelley adds. In fact, he used to spend upwards of 50 percent of his time on IT issues. Now, with all the Google-inspired changes, that has fallen to about 5 percent.

10 Small Businesses Tips for Google Apps and Google+

-- Compiled and provided by Rich Rao, director of Google Apps for small business.

Want to get the most out of your Google login? Check out these tips just for business users.

1. Keep a smart calendar

Need to discuss time-sensitive projects, hold team check-ins or just hang out? Use the find-a-time or suggest-time feature in Google Calendar to book times that work for all your colleagues' schedules. You can also easily convert time zones while booking team meetings across the globe.

2. Share with your team

Create a Google+ circle for your marketing, sales and IT teams and start sharing articles, videos and posts with just them.

3. Stay on top of email, files and conversations while on-the-go

Sync your email with your phone's email client, view and edit docs and sheets using Google Drive for Android and iOS. Or you can reach your teammates while on the go with Google+ Hangouts on your mobile device.

4. Face-to-face-to-face collaboration in real time

Collaboration is more than just editing a document. With Google Docs in Google+ Hangouts, you can talk face-to-face-to-face with your team -- regardless of where they are or what device they're using -- while making revisions to your business proposal.

5. Convert scanned files into editable documents

Uploading files to Google Drive offers a handy optical character recognition (OCR) feature, converting high-resolution image files containing typewritten/printed text (like scanned letters and faxes or even a photo of expenses that you take with your phone's camera) into editable text.

6. Connect with customers

Keep your customers and partners in the know by sharing product news, tips and event information on your Google+ page. Page owners can post, comment, and interact with their followers directly from their mobile device.

7. Create a collaborative inbox for support

Does your team use email to process support tickets, sales inquiries, or other requests from colleagues or customers? With the collaborative inbox feature in Google Groups, members of your support team can receive and respond to email requests using a common address, as well as assign incoming messages to group members, track status, categorize posts so they're easy to find later.

8. Keep events organized…before, during and after

Whether you are having an office party or planning a networking event for your business, you can invite everyone with Google+ Events. You can even share photos with other attendees during and after the event using Party Mode.

9. Gather and visualize data with forms

Create a form in Google Drive to gather sales targets, headcount allocations and product feedback. Simply email the form to your colleagues or customers and keep track of their answers in one spreadsheet. Check the response summary to see how many people filled out a form and what their responses are, as well as display graphs and charts summarizing their responses.

10. Simplify business processes with Google Apps Script

Google Apps Script provides the capability to automate a variety of features in Google Apps, such as reading and changing values in Google Sheets, sending email and much more. Some examples of what you can do with Apps Script include:

  • Mail Merge: Use Google Forms and Sheets to deliver personalized emails. An upcoming integration with Google Maps lets you send out customized emails with driving directions.
  • Expense Report Approval: Build simple workflow applications via Google Sheets and Forms.
  • Leverage Google App Engine services from scripts: Google Apps Script can communicate with a Web service built on Google App Engine.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with more than 18 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Dec 18th 2012
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