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Slam Dunk

With easy conferencing on the rise, remote collaboration is more than just a solution for the travel-weary executive set. Conferencing is finding a home with businesses of all shapes and sizes, and vendors are looking to agents to spread the word.

“In the past couple of years, the industry has gotten away from attended services and towards an on-demand, unattended platform,” says Ben Sullivan, executive director of wholesale sales for North America at Genesys Conferencing, maker of the Genesys Meeting Center, an integrated multimedia desktop video, audio and Web conferencing solution.

Sullivan credits Meeting Center’s 121 percent sequential growth from third quarter 2003, to third quarter 2004, to its ease of use. Genesys also has adopted a flatrate approach to pricing, so the customer can take audio, Web and video services, or just use one, for the same rate per minute, per participant.


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“The key is access to information, putting the power back into the customers’ hands in a noncomplex way,” says Susan Gilbert, international sales manager with Enunciate Conferencing. “We use a Web portal, so customers can look at billing details by department, date or moderator … it’s a dashboard, and you can also log in by PIN number and to see who is dialed into an audio call.” As for functionality, Enunciate’s long-term plan is to simplify use by using voice recognition technology instead of passcodes, and to let customers launch a conference from Outlook.

As far as service sets, simplicity is translating to adoption. Video conferencing has seen growth as low-cost solutions have appeared on the market.

Raindance launched a simple, Webcambased, desktop multipoint video service last summer that costs less than $500 to get going and requires no technical know-how. “Joe and Mary Lunchbucket don’t understand how video conferencing works,” says Emmet Tydings, owner of master agency AB&T Telecom. “And the Polycom entry-level solution is for three users and carries a $30,000-to-$50,000 investment in gear. So you’re stuck with that, and it’s not upgradeable. But now you can do a decent call with a Webcam with Raindance - although it’s low-end and the speakers see a three-second-or-so delay. But it will help overcome the challenge of explaining the video message.”

Enunciate is launching a multipoint video service this month. “And the market is actually expanding, as opposed to other telecom services,” says Enunciate’s Gilbert.

“Workers are under more pressure now than ever before with employers trying to squeeze out as much as possible from them, and video is a key to that.”

Web conferencing is on the rise, too.

“We’re finally seeing a lot of demand for it as more and more remote offices get broadband,” says Evan M. Gillman, founder of master agency Transit Broker LLC. “The productivity gains with doing online PowerPoints, Visiographs, whiteboarding, etc. are hard to argue with.”

The most recent improvement has been in the streamlining of Web products, says Greg Plum, alternate channel manager at the Conference Group. “There’s no longer a learning curve,” he says. “Our main concept is simple passcode access. Agents can easily put a link on their Web site and generate business that way. And, it’s easy for the user. At our portal, customers and agents can get instant passcodes, send out Web links or do credit card transactions. It sounds basic, but it’s important.”

Accordingly, he says there has been an uptick in reservationless Web conferencing lately, as smaller companies are starting to adopt it. “Agents need to go back to the well, and if they aren’t, then, they’re leaving money on the table,” he says. “They need to become well-versed in Web conferencing products in the market, because people are starting to demand that on a fairly regular basis.”

Web conferencing also is becoming more integrated with other business applications, reducing business process complexity. “Users want to integrate that Web conferencing link in with what they already have,” says Kevin Lynch, vice president of e-learning and collaboration at Macromedia Inc., maker of a rich media solution called Breeze, which strives to live up to its name. Flash, which comes standard on most PCs, is the only requirement for using Breeze. Macromedia also offers standard APIs for integration with other applications, such as Outlook and Salesforce.com.

“Web conferencing is only at 10 or 15 percent what it could be in penetration,” says Lynch. “It’s an $800 million market, and growing.”

The growth in conferencing in part stems from an increase in remote working. The Economist Intelligence Unit conducted a global survey of 254 senior executives and in-depth interviews with business leaders on behalf of AT&T Corp., and found that 66 percent of executives said most of their staff is able to work from home regularly. A full 81 percent believe providing remote access is a ‘critical’ or ‘important’ network goal. Employees, says the research firm, can work longer and bolster productivity, while employers reduce office overhead and are not limited to hiring within their geographic areas.

Gone are the days when remote working was an enterprise activity. Small and medium businesses are now targets for conferencing services. “That’s where most of our adoption rate has been,” says Gilbert. “They are restricted in their ability to travel or to dedicate space for boardrooms.”

A big usage area for any size company is in training or sales and marketing, says Lynch. “So companies that want to be more efficient, in the health care or financial verticals, are good targets. Those that need to do regulatory compliance training or talk about 401(k) plans are also potential customers. Salespeople can use Webinars to explain their product, so Breeze can be used in the qualifying process. A salesperson could follow up after sending out the invitation to the Webinar, and we offer persistent meeting rooms. So you can save the sales situation for the next meeting.”

To tap the growing Webinar market, Netspoke Conferencing has acquired the intellectual property of eStudio Live, a Massachusetts-based Webcasting company. Netspoke expects to add TV-like archived video production capabilities to its feature set in 2005. Additionally, “We see the growth in conferencing coming from voice-over-IP technology as well as from presence-based conferencing, such as is available with instant messaging integration,’ says Traci Rigano, channel manager at Netspoke. “Our roadmap includes development along both of these lines, and will keep us at the forefront of the industry.”

For an agent, the idea is to not leave money on the table. “Conferencing is an additional block of services to sell, and “once they have it, they never go back, so it’s a customer for life at that point,” says Gillman. “Once you’ve disseminated a bridge that everyone is using, it becomes entrenched.”

Tydings says any company with two-dozen employees or more needs conferencing. “The only reason they don’t have it is because no one has talked to them about it,” he says.

That marketing and sales challenge is the main obstacle to selling any type of conferencing successfully, industry players say. “There are so many end users that are not familiar with just how easy it is, so it is a question of education about the fact that this technology is easy to deploy and use,” says Gillman. “It fits almost everyone’s budget and size, because it is about newer, faster ways of doing business. The education factor goes a long way for some of the smaller businesses.”

Particularly since key systems usually offer three-way calling, or smaller businesses may simply call and buy on the fly at very high rates. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to get in there and talk about,” says Tydings. “It’s fast turnup and fast value and can save them money. But that message isn’t making it out to the businesses.”

It’s not just end users that need education; a lack of understanding among agents is also an obstacle. Tydings says one of his missions for 2005 is to get subagents selling at least audio conferencing. Very few subagents are ‘conferencing guys,’ he says. “They may be voice or data experts, but it’s not their core. And conferencing is one of those services that needs to be positioned the right way. So we need to get them out there selling it.”

While conferencing is a fit for most businesses, some agents simply don’t think to pitch it to their customers along with other services. “We can build a sales model for customers built on need - for instance, the average traveling customer costs $54,000 per year, so we use that,” says Sullivan. “But for agents, it’s all about mindshare. Some folks tend to overlook it, but there is a tremendous opportunity for customers to use conferencing, and agents can ratchet up the commission with an additional 20 percent. Plus, you see a bump in audio usage once you add the Web conferencing.”

Vendors are hoping to court agents with a range of programs. Agents typically will find themselves making margin with conferencing, rather than earning commissions on monthly revenue. Partners for Genesys, ILD Telecom Inc., Enunciate and others are given a buy rate per minute that they can then mark up as they wish. The vendor still performs the billing and provisioning.

“They sell the branded Genesys service and provide first-tier customer support,” says Sullivan. “We offer a dedicated service delivery manager for each agent, and we have an extranet for reporting and trouble ticketing.”

Genesys also offers a commission model, where agents earn between 15 percent and 20 percent.

Netspoke Conferencing has launched a ‘Super Master Agent’ program with the intention of providing better support to smaller agencies and individual agents. Independent agents will earn commissions, while the Super Master Agents will get aggressive buy rates that become more competitive as their bases grow.

Joint sales is another commonality in the conferencing world. ILD asks agents to bring them leads so they can help close the deal. “We understand that an agent’s biggest asset is the relationship with the customer, and we don’t expect our agents to be experts in conferencing,” says Camille Andersen, vice president of sales for ILDs conferencing division. “We are there to help them put together a sales plan that works with that customer.”

Enunciate’s Gilbert says her staff is available to ride shotgun on sales calls, so “agents can learn things through osmosis.” Netspoke Conferencing’s channel team will guide the agent from evaluating the clients needs all the way through to the provisioning of the account.

Macromedia meanwhile offers bronze, silver and gold levels for VARs and negotiates a partnership depending on what the VAR brings to the table.

Despite the mindshare hurdles, conferencing is becoming more popular among agents. Greg Praske, CEO at master agency Association Resource Group, sells for Genesys, Premiere Conferencing, Intercall and others. He sees ARG as a preeminent channel partner for conferencing, and says that “many of the agents we’ve exposed conferencing to over the years are embracing the product more and more.”

Agents would do well to embrace the service. “Conferencing is one of the easiest things to sell,” says Gilbert. “You don’t need a strong telecom background. The learning curve is short, and the products are not that complicated. It is often the office manager that makes the decisions.”

Links
AB&T Telecom www.abttelecom.com
Association Resource Group www.myarg.com
AT&T Corp. www.att.com
Enunciate Conferencing www.enunciate.ca
Genesys Conferencing www.genesys.com
ILD Telecommunications Inc. www.ildtelecom.com
Macromedia Inc. www.macromedia.com
Netspoke www.netspoke.com
Polycom Inc. www.polycom.com
Premiere Conferencing www.premconf.com
Raindance Communications Inc. www.raindance.com
The Conference Group www.conferencegroup.com
Transit Broker LLC www.transitbroker.com

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