Meetings without leaving your desk

Would you like to reach your customers and collaborate with colleagues but save on travel costs and time out of the office? If so, web meetings might well be worth investigating.

For example, according to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, in 2005 his company saved nearly $40 million (approx. £22m) in travel expenses using their own Live Meeting tool.

More powerful computers, greater access to broadband and faster wireless connections mean that virtual meetings are becoming a viable alternative for a lot of businesses. If you couple this with the current weather problems, recent security threats and the focus on environmental awareness, then they become a very attractive proposition indeed.

A number of options

It’s also worth pointing out that we’re not just talking about large all-singing, all dancing seminars with huge production costs. There are a number of different options out there, offering different levels of functionality to suit all budgets and needs. But it’s probably worth pointing out that there’s no point in paying for things you won’t use.

These range from simple instant messaging tools, allowing two or more people to communicate in real time, to basic solutions that will allow you to run a PowerPoint presentation with an accompanying conference call.

More advanced systems offer more bells and whistles including video, audio, screen-sharing (great if you need to provide customer support), instant messaging and virtual whiteboards for collaboration. A lot of tools will also allow you to record the presentation or meeting and play it back online at a later date, handy if not all your invited audience can attend.

How they work

Most systems work in a fairly similar fashion. Meetings can either be instant or scheduled for a later date. Typically, the instant option tends to be used for more collaborative sessions with colleagues or suppliers, whereas the scheduled meeting can be used to run a workshop, presentation or training session.

Once you’ve set-up the meeting in your tool, an email is generated with all the details in it that you can just send out to your prospective audience.

Normally they can just click on a link to register. Depending on the system, the email might also have a link to automatically add the details to their calendar. Some will also automatically send out reminders nearer the event. 

When the time comes, it’s just a question of logging on, dialling in and kicking-off the meeting. There’s normally a small piece of software or plug-in to download but you only have to do this once.

Once you’re up and running, you’ll be presented with a simple interface that shows your presentation or demo and provides easy access to any widgets the system has. For instance, a simple question and answer box, drawing/highlighting tools and a “share screen” option.

For training and support the latter is great, as it means you can hand control of your computer over to someone else o practise what’s been shown. You can also let them take over the presentation, so you don’t even have to be in the same room  or even country as your co-presenters.

Things to think about

If you’re looking to involve a large number of people, then having a one-way call, (where your audience can only listen, not talk) is much easier to manage. Its also helpful to have an assistant to manage any questions you get. 

Our experience has shown that using a separate telephone or conference call is preferable. Not everyone can listen via their computer as they might not have sound enabled or work in an open-plan office. Offering a freephone telephone number to your clients can help to improve uptake. Watch out though, as you will have to pay the costs of the calls, plus any set-up fees. 

For tools like PowerPoint, making sure there’s not too much animation or moving around is quite important, as your audience might be using older computers or slower web connections.

In practice

We’ve being using a tool called GoToMeeting, from CitrixOnline, since last year. This was introduced to complement the existing ways we communicate with our customers, allowing us to offer greater support to a wider range of IFAs. Our consultants can easily demonstrate how a product or service works and then use the screen-sharing tools to watch the customer practise, guiding them as and when necessary. 

We’ve also successfully used it as an emergency back-up for a live presentation, when a security threat meant flights were grounded.

Internally, we’ve found a number of benefits, from meeting with suppliers to training. If we’re developing some new product plans or want to show someone a presentation we’re working on we can just click on a button and we’re up and running, meaning fewer flights, quicker decisions and less early mornings.