Web conferencing offers alternatives

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Steve Fogel, president of Denver-based Exemplar Systems, knows how expensive it can be to make out-of-town sales calls.

So rather than waste time and money on visiting prospective customers who might not be truly interested in his company's software development services, Mr. Fogel now conducts sales presentations over the Internet.

He uses Web-based conferencing tools "as a first layer of customer qualification" before scheduling an on-site visit for customers who are ready to buy.

Using Internet conferencing as a sales tool, Exemplar staff can easily and inexpensively present an analysis of a customer's needs and "our solutions," Mr. Fogel says.

Applications for Internet conferencing include financial presentations, sales meetings, product launches and distance training sessions.

Immediate reaction

One advantage online conferencing has over typical Web publishing is the ability to answer questions immediately and "see how people react to material," since the presentation is live, Mr. Fogel says.

Overall, the company has a virtual in-person meeting with potential clients for a fraction of the cost of an actual visit.

"There are thousands of people sitting in meetings, each for an hour or two," says John Metzger, president of E-Conference, a Boulder, Colo.-based electronic conferencing consulting company and service bureau. "Someone gives them a PowerPoint presentation and then they go home."

Mr. Metzger suggests companies reduce the number of in-person meetings by substituting the Web.

He points out that the majority of businesses already have access to the minimal tools needed to conduct or participate in an online conference: A computer with Internet access, Windows 95 and a separate voice telephone line.

Marc Church, service director for E-Conference, estimates that a half-hour Web conference with three to four audience members and one company representative costs about $200.

As for the client, Mr. Fogel says Internet conferencing "allows us to control the technology on everyone's Web browser," interacting with customers simultaneously by pairing Internet tools with a telephone conference call.

But Web conferencing solutions are not without glitches. For example, Mr. Fogel says, slides don't always appear the same on a Web browser as they do during a presentation using a laptop, presentation software and a projector.

He advises frequent testing on the Internet long before the big day.

In preparation for their first Web presentation, arranged through E-Conference in February, the Exemplar staff prepared a PowerPoint presentation, which was later converted for use on the Web.

Several options

There are a variety of options for electronic conferencing, including M.Show, RealAudio, NetMeeting and Contigo, but not every company can afford the time and expense of buying, installing and distributing the hardware and software to customers and other company locations.

E-Conference evaluates and recommends several tools, then incorporates them into a turnkey Web conferencing solution, based on a client's needs.

With the emergence of service bureaus, such as E-Conference, to evaluate and recommend Internet meeting alternatives, Mr. Metzger sees thousands of people communicating in this way over the next few years.

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