A Web Conferencing Success Story

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted December 27, 2004

Can you sell a client without ever sitting across the table from him, using nothing more than a high-speed Internet connection and Web conferencing tools? Probably not, but as Desire2Learn Inc., a small software company based in Kitchener, Canada, has discovered, you can pre-qualify customers and start the selling process in a Web conference.

Desire2Learn (D2L) saves a significant amount of money using integrated Web and conventional audio conferencing services from Enunciate Conferencing for sales calls, as well as training and technical support, although financial services manager Bill Trick admits it's difficult to calculate hard-dollar savings.

D2L develops and sells learning management system (LMS) software. It's used by colleges and universities across North America to build online courses and to manage Web-based learning. The company's clients have a combined student population of 1.5 million.

When D2L started selling outside its regional base a couple of years ago, sometimes to institutions on the other side of the continent, travel suddenly became a significant cost. Trick estimates that it costs at least $800 to send a sales person from D2L's eastern Canadian head office to visit a prospect in California.

And if there isn't a good fit between the D2L product and the college's needs, as sometimes happens, nothing comes of the meeting — which might only last an hour. It's a long way to go and a lot of money to spend for such a short amount of time with nothing to show for it.

So now, whenever possible, D2L sales people set up Web conferences with new prospects before getting on a plane. They can give PowerPoint presentations, demonstrate the product interactively, and even give attendees control of a D2L computer to explore the product for themselves. Then if the customer is still interested, they visit in person.

"If we do a Web demo, it's a matter of pennies-per-minute versus dollars," Trick says. "It never completely replaces travel, but it helps. Our travel budget continues to increase, but it would increase faster if we weren't using this technology."

The technology D2L outsources from Enunciate combines conventional audio conferencing using a conference bridge with computer-based Web conferencing. It could also include video, and it's possible to do the audio and video portion using IP technology and services.

Small businesses can purchase Web conferencing services from suppliers such as Enunciate or Web Conferencing Central — there are many such service providers. Or they can purchase Web conferencing software such as Microsoft's NetMeeting (part of MS Office), WebEx, or www.gotoMyPC.com and set up their own Web conferences.

Service providers like Enunciate make it easy, though, by offering a one-stop shop — Web and conventional audio/video conferencing from the same supplier. D2L chose Enunciate for that reason, and because it liked the price. The company pays on average about $670 a month for audio and Web conferencing. And Trick says the price is trending downward.

How It All Works
In most Enunciate conferences, participants make a phone call to a conference bridge and use a browser to surf to a portal site where they log in for the simultaneous Web conference.


Enunciate's logon screen
Colaboration Starts Here — You log on to Enunciate's Web conferencing system as a participant or a moderator.

The moderator in a Web conference can show a PowerPoint presentation that all participants will see on their computer screens — and use the audio portion to proivde commentary. With virtual white boarding, he or she can create a slide online in real time and use onscreen writing and drawing tools to scrawl agenda items, sketch diagrams or whatever the meeting requires.

Moderators can also open a document in an application such as Word or Excel and edit it so participants can follow the process and comment on it over the audio connection. Application sharing lets the moderator switch control of an application to a remote participant who can then continue the editing process. Desktop sharing takes it a step further, allowing one participant to take complete control of another's computer.

Some Web conferencing tools and services even provide a facility for soliciting votes or responses to simple questionnaires from participants and displaying results on the screen. Most also let participants exchange private text messages while the meeting is in progress.

Trending Up
Web conferencing is still leading-edge technology. Enunciate CEO Frank Cianciulli says it represents just five percent of the company's audio conferencing traffic. Enunciate was a conventional audio audio/video conferencing service provider first and only relatively recently added Web conferencing.

"Our Web conferencing minutes are growing at about 20 percent a month, though," Cianciulli notes. "And we've really only started promoting it heavily in the last six months."

Market analyst firm Wainhouse Research reported recently that total Web conferencing minutes worldwide had increased 20 percent year over year between second quarter 2003 and second quarter 2004. So the technology is beginning to be used more widely.

The business case for Web conferencing is similar to audio and video conferencing. It's about avoiding direct and indirect travel costs. The direct costs to have one employee on the road, according to most estimates, run into the hundreds of dollars a day. An audio/Web conference typically costs less than $100.

Employees are also more productive because they're not wasting time in transit — a more pressing concern now with longer airport waits resulting from beefed-up post-9/11 security.

Selling Yes, and Training Too
D2L is also using Web/audio conferences for customer training. "We're finding it's quite effective," Trick says. Customers have the option of in-person or virtual training. Since the company typically builds travel costs for onsite training in to its pricing, the customer saves with Web conferencing. D2L saves, too, on indirect costs.

D2L will sometimes insist on in-person training if it feels the classes are too large to handle effectively in a Web conference. "But if it's a one-on-one or one-on-two situation, then doing it virtually is definitely easier on our training staff — easier on their personal lives not to be away, for one thing," Trick notes.

For training, D2L typically uses integrated IP-based audio conferencing rather than conventional audio. Participants wear computer-telephone headsets — which the company sends them if they don't have their own — and they sit at their computers for the lessons.

The virtual training sessions are completely interactive. Students can click an onscreen button to put up their hand, ask a question, and get an immediate response from the instructor.

Besides cost savings for D2L and the customer, using Web conferencing means the company can set up a session on much shorter notice. "If a customer wants an onsite training session in five days, for example, it's hard for us to set it up that fast. But if it's virtual, we can do it within a day," Trick says.

The speed of set-up, and the fact that D2L doesn't have to make a reservation to set up a conference, means it can use the technology for techical support, too. Using desktop sharing features, the agent can take control of a user's computer and make configuration changes or demonstrate a procedure.

The company has not used video conferencing to any extent, and probably won't, Trick says. It is, however, considering including digital video in the PowerPoint presentations it uses in Web conferences.

D2L also hasn't used Web conferencing much for internal workgroup meetings. This is mainly because virtually all its employees work out of a single office. The company recently opened an office in Idaho, however, and is looking at establishing another one on the eastern seaboard.

Helping distributed teams communicate and work together is one of the principal applications for Web conferencing. It's one more way the company can benefit in the future.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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