Web Conferencing: Smartest Guys in the Virtual Room

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2006-03-06

Holding meetings over the Web isn't only about trimming the travel budget anymore. Beyond savings, Web conferencing allows companies to share information more quickly and lets them tap high-value employees' brainpower, no matter where they are.

The Web conference is now a familiar set-piece of business scenery: Someone flips through a deck of presentation slides or uses a desktop application, and the screens are broadcast to other participants' computers over the Internet.

But for Spectro Analytical Instruments, a maker of spectrometers and other specialized testing equipment, Web conferencing isn't just a cool way to hold meetings—the technology is helping turn its customer support operations from a cost center into a potential revenue stream.

Over the past few years, Dion Tsourides, the company's director of North American technical support, noticed that the number of support calls after customers installed new equipment was starting to spike. The problem: Over time, he says, customers were losing skilled operators who were experienced at troubleshooting Spectro's equipment.

Even $30,000 annual support contracts guaranteeing on-site technician response within 24 hours were money-losers, because expensive and time-consuming trips were required for what turned out to be minor fixes. "We were really getting hurt on support calls," Tsourides recalls. "It wasn't worth it for us."

The 400-employee company, a division of $1.5 billion industrial equipment manufacturer Ametek, turned to Web-based meetings, using conferencing services from WebEx Communications, to bridge the gap. With a Web conference, a Spectro support technician can connect with customers within minutes, remotely access their computers and demonstrate how to use Spectro's software to operate the equipment.

The company has found it can charge up to $2,000 per year for a 10-hour block of Web support, while also providing service faster and with the most experienced technicians on staff. "Now we can say, 'Mr. Customer, you're not just getting somebody who can fix a problem—you're getting a software expert, a hardware expert and a chemical materials expert at your beck and call,'" Tsourides says.

At brokerage and investment banking firm RBC Dain Rauscher, Web conferencing tools are now "a tool for talent management," says Shawn Spott, manager of learning systems. The Minneapolis-based company originally adopted Web conferences five years ago to cut the expense of flying trainers out to update 1,750 financial advisers across the U.S. and Canada on new products.

Today, online meetings provide a way to connect RBC Dain Rauscher's subject-matter experts with others in the company, regardless of where they are. "This enables us to travel strategically, and not have to lose access to someone when they're on the road," Spott says. "Without Web conferencing, this training wouldn't even occur."

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Still, it's nice to lop off a million bucks or so in travel expenses. Securian Financial Group, an insurance provider in St. Paul, Minn., provides ongoing training to 1,200 financial advisers on its sales software and new products. Before it started using Web conferencing in 2003, the company was flying groups of up to 60 to St. Paul for week-long training sessions, four times a year. The yearly bill for airfare, hotels and other expenses was about $1 million, says Michelle J. Brennan, a professional development consultant at Securian.

Web conferencing has cut most of that line item, and it has also let the company train hundreds of employees in a much shorter time frame, Brennan says. Training for the last big upgrade of Securian's EZ Data customer relationship management software, in 2003, took five teams of five people about 18 months of traveling to 55 offices. Using WebEx conferencing to train staffers on an upgrade of the system this year, Brennan estimates, will take two trainers a total of three months.

Plus, Securian's 1,200 advisers can now sign up for training whenever it's convenient for them. "Before, we set the schedule," Brennan says. "Now, they can tell us what's good for them."

But while Web conferencing is nearly as ubiquitous as e-mail, Securian and others still find outsourcing an attractive option. Providers like Microsoft or WebEx host the servers and bandwidth for meetings, and offer technical support for participants.

For chipmaker Texas Instruments, paying WebEx to handle 6 million online meetings that employees conducted in 2005 was less expensive than managing the infrastructure and staff to support that itself, says collaboration team manager Marshall Woolard. "The hosted model has turned out to be very cost-effective for us," he says, though he declines to detail TI's costs.

Yet products that let companies run their own Web conference servers, such as Cisco Systems' MeetingPlace and IBM's Lotus Sametime, are growing more popular. International Game Technology, a Reno, Nev.-based company that makes computerized slot machines and other gaming systems, runs Web and audio conferencing software from Interwise on its own standard Intel-based server, allowing its 5,000 employees around the world to hold their own online meetings.

Shawn Derifield, director of systems training and support, says the company's fast Internet connections—45 million bits per second at its major offices in Reno, Las Vegas, England, the Netherlands, South Africa and Tokyo—are more than capable of handling IGT's Web meetings, which range from two to 130 participants at a time. "The only slowdown we see is if somebody's on a dial-up connection and there's a lot of material to download beforehand," he says.

With the Interwise system, IGT employees can even connect to the audio portion of a meeting using voice-over-Internet Protocol technology, saving the company money on teleconferencing charges. But that's for internal use only. For customer presentations, Derifield says, IGT still relies on old-fashioned teleconferencing services from MCI to ensure good voice quality, noting: "We can't control customers' environments."