Meeting of the Minds

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted September 01, 2000
by Joanne Cleaver

When nss corporation had its latest sales meeting, it swam with the sharks. Doug Pearson, the president of the 25-person, Bedford, N.H. company, which designs specialized software for the banking industry, wanted to make a splash with potential customers, so he booked space at the New England Aquarium. Sure, participants had fun looking at the stingrays and starfish during coffee breaks, but Pearson also saw his staff drowning in details.

As anyone who has ever planned a meeting knows, the bigger the meeting, the greater the likelihood that something will go wrong. Pearson says that working out the details, from major (making sure that the available A-V equipment was adequate for NSS' computerized demos) to minor (lining up the right selection of pastries and coffee), soaked up hours of preparation time. And it cost a fortune too.

In searching for a more efficient and cost-effective way to plan and conduct meetings, Pearson learned about Web-based meeting services. He gave it a try and was sold. He managed to cut in half the $10,000 that NSS was spending for its quarterly 50-person sales and technical update meetings. (The online meetings typically cost $40 to $75 per person.) And he says it takes one-twentieth of the time that it would take to arrange even the smallest in-person meetings.

MAKING THE PLANS

Pearson found that planning off-site meetings "is like living in a bubble": every possible logistical glitch threatens the whole endeavor. Given its location, NSS doesn't have many meeting options that are immune to bad weather conditions, which can snarl set-up, and even force long-awaited meetings to be postponed. And Pearson says that anticipating the arrival of the featured speakers and the customers giving case histories is always a nail-biter.

Now Pearson has burst the bubble. His sales team uses the Web to deliver presentations to the audience in real-time and respond to their questions. Instead of constantly worrying about the weather, the forgetful speakers, the distracted attendees, and how many Diet Cokes need to be ordered for the day (at $2 a pop), they've taken to conducting many small group meetings, presentations, and training sessions through the Internet. And, somewhat paradoxically, these gatherings can sometimes actually be more intimate than the larger, face-to-face meetings that the company has traditionally depended upon.

Several online meeting services now enable small companies to include sales prospects, employees, contractors, and other far-flung businesspeople in meetings held over the Internet. These online services allow anyone, anywhere, to log into such meetings, with minimal preparation on the part of the participant. Businesses can subscribe for regular service or arrange meetings one at a time.

GETTING CUSTOMERS TO RSVP

It would seem that only businesses whose customers are relatively tech-savvy can even consider online meetings ­ you don't want to force too much technology on an audience that's still marveling over PowerPoint. But that's exactly what Pearson had to do.

Most of the community banks that comprise his market have been slow to adopt new technologies, and many are in rural areas that can't get fast Internet access. For example, Pearson says that at some rural banks, where Internet access is slow and not distributed throughout the office, the audience of three or four people has to jam into the one office that has the best Internet connection. That complicates life for the presenter, too, because he knows that not every audience member has equal access to ask questions.

For the NSS sales reps, adjusting to the online venue was rather easy, because they were already well versed in giving PowerPoint presentations on their notebook computers. Still, they did get some coaching from Premiere Conferencing regarding how to pace the online presentations to match the speed of users they couldn't see.

When conducting an in-person meeting, one can easily pick up on verbal and visual cues and determine whether or not people are catching on to a concept. So when giving presentations online, it's important to make sure that the audience is comfortable with functions like instant messaging, which enables them to signal that they need more information on a particular point.

NSS staff members also learned to smooth out some annoying verbal habits, such as saying "like" every few words. In addition, Premiere trainers showed the NSS salespeople how to give participants verbal cues about what's going to appear next on their screens, so the viewers aren't surprised by what appears. Finally, every meeting presenter had to become comfortable with responding quickly to participants' questions and with using their own computer toolbars and mouse to run the presentation.

MEETING PROBLEMS HEAD ON

Even when the company can work around the technology problems, setting up online meetings is by no means headache-free. There's a good amount of preparation necessary before an online meeting can take place. For one, each participant must have the right connection and software. Audience members can usually get live help from the conferencing company, but they would need to be notified in advance. There are also issues that have nothing to do with the technology. Online meetings are certainly easy to get to, but they're also easy to leave ­ one reason they will never completely replace in-person meetings.

Pearson says he doesn't think they should. He says NSS will never rely completely on the technology, mostly because it can't help with the initial icebreaking visits where they create the customer relationships.

Online gatherings do the job quite well, though, for routine meetings, staff training at new client sites, introducing additional product features, and especially for "make-or-break" follow-up presentations. "There's a lot of stuff in the hour-long demo," he says. "You can understand why someone would want to see it again."

With their recent success, online meetings have become an essential part of NSS' sales strategy, so you can bet their customers will be seeing a lot more of them.

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