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Selling the Conferencing Services Continuum

Conferencing services run the gamut, from low-touch, self-service offerings to high-touch operator-assisted services or managed services. And within those service realms – which can become blurry to even the most experienced conferencing pundits – are varying degrees of partner and provider involvement. The agent’s job is to figure out not only which types of solutions will work for each individual client, but also the unique selling proposition of each type of product or service.

Self-Service. So many times in technology, we talk about “ease of use.” If that’s ultimately what innovators are striving for, wouldn’t the successful culmination be products that are completely self-service?

Greg Plum, director of business development at the Conference Group, said not only is there a trend toward self-service, but it has, in fact, been the trend for the last decade and continues to grow. “Software as a service is always on demand, and there’s no capital expense. Year over year, reservationless conferencing has grown by leaps and bounds,” explained Plum, adding that it is especially the frequent users that are drawn to this type of conferencing solution.

Rob Hughes, senior vice president of worldwide sales and support at conferencing technology vendor Vidyo Inc., agreed. “Having worked in the video conferencing market for more than 20 years, I’ve seen the growing demand for solutions that are easy to deploy and use, without the high costs of constant maintenance and monitoring of equipment and networks,” said Hughes. “If our resellers are any indication, the market is really hungry for products that allow customers to receive the highest quality experience with greatest ease and convenience. For our channel, that means an easily deployed, simple to use HD video conferencing and collaboration product that people can use without IT help, from their laptops, desktops, netbooks, over general IP networks like the Internet, at any time, from wherever they happen to be — in a hotel, on the road, at home or in the office. That is truly ‘self-service.’”

Higher-Touch. Gary Iles, senior direct of strategy and product management at ACT Conferencing, said a telecom agent can expand the appeal of his/her conferencing services and potentially reach more customers by offering high-touch services. “Integrated multimedia events, audio/Web, audio/Web/video, audio with Webcasting — people are accustomed to interactive content and expect this from their group interactions,” said Isles. “Engagement is higher and retention is also higher, so hosts are interested in using multimedia events to make a more impactful message and improve communications.”

the Conference Group’s Plum said a common place where high-touch conferencing works is with investor relations calls managed by a third party. These operator-assisted calls, which offer constant monitoring, carefully orchestrated question-and-answer sessions, etc., can mean significant margins for agents.

Iles agreed that the higher the profile and cost of the event, the higher the stakes are, and therefore the more attention that is paid to delivering the high-touch event. “One strategy that can differentiate someone’s need for high-touch services versus other services is the response to a single question: ‘What happens if something goes wrong?’ If the answer is as simple as ‘we meet later,’ then there isn’t a need for high-touch services,” Iles explained. “But if the response to that question is prefaced with a long pause and a litany of negative outcomes, then there is a need for higher-touch, operator-assisted services.”

Plum doesn’t expect high-touch audio conferencing to take a significant upward or downward turn in the near future; he said there will be a continuing need for such services. However, he said he expects an uptick in higher-touch video, such as corporate Webinars, as video communications gain further adoption.

Managed Services. Another conferencing solution flavor is managed services, which is a particularly popular model for delivering video conferencing solutions. In fact, Wainhouse Research estimates that the video managed services market will reach approximately $450 million worldwide in 2010, and continue to grow at a rate of 20 percent to 25 percent per year.

Plum explained that in the video conferencing market, the ultra-low end is something like Skype and the ultra-high end is telepresence. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot for agents, he said. “Where a conferencing agent does well is those browser-based services, whether it has a plug-in or not, and where you don’t have to have a proprietary endpoint,” said Plum. “Because it’s so close to Web conferencing, desktop video is not a quantum leap for an agent to sell. Agents can offer it just as a Web conference on steroids.”

Many conferencing providers are now offering these types of services because of the advent of video, in order to have a more complete offering. For example, ACT Conferencing’s Iles explained that ACT’s video managed services include everything from assessments and device monitoring to remote break-fix. “In the event that we are not able to resolve an inoperable device through our technical staff, ACT will act on behalf of our customers and open trouble tickets with their maintenance provider and manage the ticket through the resolution,” said Iles.

Brian Trampler, senior product manager for global video conferencing solutions at InterCall, said managed video is “absolutely integral” to the progress of small and medium businesses. “They want to be able to provide a good quality service internally, but don’t necessarily want to bring on additional staff resources,” Trampler explained. “Or the other issue is they are trying to run and maintain their own business processes and data processes internally, and so they’re looking for somebody who isn’t going to be multitasking, working on an e-mail server for five minutes, a video conference unit for another five minutes, and on the IP telephony for another five minutes. They want somebody who very much understands the capabilities of that environment and can come in and very quickly resolve any issues.” He added that the efficiency factor is also important to national and global organizations as well, but sometimes, those large enterprise execs are even more encouraged by the cost savings they would see by bringing in an IT partner.

InterCall will assess a company’s network and equipment readiness and then essentially become an outsourced IT department to manage the video services for that customer, doing basic troubleshooting, and, if needed, arranging for on-site maintenance.

Trampler agreed with Plum that the market is going to continue to see a trend toward managed services for video. And while Plum believes that all conferencing delivery models are continuing to see growth, he said that high-touch video in the way of telepresence is definitely on the rise.

To wit, Trampler said InterCall is expecting to deploy a managed service offering around telepresence in the second quarter of this year.


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