Can't Get to a Meeting? Make It Virtual

Rising transportation costs make Web conferencing a boon for small business.

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Mark Fritch, owner of Fritch Custom Log Homes in Sandy, Ore., has a problem: The office of his engineer is dozens of miles from his own office. To have a face-to-face meeting with his engineer, Fritch says, "I can figure it's going to take three or four hours out of my day and 50 miles of driving." With today's gas prices, traveling that far is also a drain on Fritch's wallet.

But Fritch has a solution that saves him time and money: He uses a Web-conferencing program to set up a virtual meeting with his engineer. It allows them to view on their individual computers all the documents and photos of their latest home-building project as if the materials were spread out in front of them on a table. Fritch says that holding virtual meetings, which he has done for the past three years, has substantially cut his travel costs. "When I look at dollars and cents, I'm saving time, I'm saving fuel—it's a win," Fritch says.

Web-conferencing software is an example of how technology has made staying in the office—and saving on fuel costs—work for more and more business people. And the technology has become increasingly affordable for the small fry.

Brett Caine, the president of Citrix Online, a designer of Web-conferencing software, says that "traditionally, large companies have had a lot of [information technology] infrastructure, access to the wherewithal to try and buy pretty much anything that meets their needs." But Citrix's GoToMeeting program, for example, is available for $49 a month, or $468 a year, which puts it within the reach of small businesses, too. Adobe Acrobat Connect, Microsoft Live Meeting, Convenos Meeting Center, and WebEx Meeting Center are other examples of conferencing software, which often is offered in various versions.

Some small-business people might be intimidated by the idea of upsetting their schedule or their customary way of operating. Rick Albiero, president of Telecommuting Advantage, a consulting group that helps companies design programs that reduce travel costs, says that it does require a time investment to figure out which tasks can be done at home through Web conferencing and which still require a physical presence. "If they really take the time to do it, they look at it and say, 'I can design my job differently. Who are the customers who can be dealt with in person, and who can be done remotely?' " he says.

Precisely because of their size, Albiero adds, small businesses are probably in the best position to judge their customers' needs. They also can use Web-conferencing tools to cater to those customers. Fritch says virtual meetings have helped him impress existing customers and net prospective ones. "I have to create a sense of professionalism," he says. "When I can do an online meeting, [customers] know I'm an equal."

How can a small-business person figure out which conferencing software to buy? There are at least two main factors to consider.

First, figure out exactly how many bells and whistles you need, and eliminate software packages that try to throw in features you won't use. For example, if you just want to talk with partners or clients about documents that you can view together, having video features might be unnecessary—and unnecessarily costly. "There's actually one company that will sell you the video feature with really low quality and then say, 'Oh, well, good video costs more,' " Albiero says.

Second, the quality of a product's customer support could be a deciding factor. Try to gauge the quality yourself by asking for references of other users and checking them. "Yes, a vendor is only going to send you to their best customers, but by questioning how that customer uses the tool and asking specific questions about issues, shortcomings, size of installation, effectiveness of support and training," says Donna Garfield of the Telework Consortium, a consulting group, "you can ferret out where the weaknesses are and whether those things are important to your installation."

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