Virtual meeting software is changing how small businesses operate. The speed with which it can allow business owners to communicate with remote employees, regardless of distance, has allowed geographically dispersed businesses to start up and thrive.
Sarah Dillon runs two businesses using virtual meeting services. She’s a professional translator working in French, Spanish and German, and also runs a company called ePCD Webinars, training professional linguists online.
For the webinar business, Dillon uses GoToMeeting as a virtual meeting solution, and finds that the ease it lends to global communications greatly improves the company’s productivity.
“Our business is built on it. We wouldn’t be able to organise what we do without GoToMeeting,” says Dillon. “We’re able to very easily get online and get face to face contact with our speakers who are based all over the world, and conduct our planning meetings.”
Over and above the value of being able to quickly and easily set up a face-to-face with an employee in another country, virtual meeting services often allow users to share their software and desktops with their collaborators, allowing for much more direct educational exchanges.
“As a virtual business, our biggest outlay is this meeting software,” says Dillon. “If we were a bricks-and-mortar business, we would put that money into rent or something else. For us it’s an investment, and well worth it.”
Alternatively, Dillon uses the free service Skype for her translation business, as it offers a slightly more cost-effective and more informal mode of communicating with clients one on one.
“I’ve had very good results using it, and a lot of my clients through the translation business prefer to use Skype,” she says. “It’s low-cost or no cost, and it’s just more flexible. With GoToMeeting, it’s more of a corporate option. It depends on the image you’re trying to project.”
Dan Turner, CEO of Unity 4, has been using virtual meeting software to run his remote call centre business since mid-2000. “What we wanted to do was enable all of our call centre agents to be recruited and to work from anywhere, irrespective of geography,” explains Turner. “We have in the range of 300 people that are literally spread right across Australia and now also in the UK. They provide call centre services on behalf of major organisations.”
The benefits of this type of software to such a large and fragmented small business operation are clear. The company uses virtual meeting software Persony to both train and manage all its remote employees.
“We have an online training room, which is also used as a meeting room, which enables everybody to meet and share and collaborate on documents and desktops, but it also enables us to use virtual whiteboards, chat sessions, pop quizzes and the like as well,” he says.
“Every meeting function we do outside of our head office is done virtually,” continues Turner. “The software enables the business. You literally couldn’t run as many remote workers as we do without being able to have effective meetings and effective collaboration. Without it we would not operate.”
Both Turner and Dillon report that they have had little to no trouble with the functional aspects of their respective solutions, though Turner notes that the software and the connection it used did present the occasional hiccup 11 years ago.
The major barrier to the widespread uptake of virtual meeting services is two fold. It’s partly to do with the task of educating staff, but largely due to the effort required in setting up and integrating the technology within a business. A virtual meeting room is still worlds away from a physical one, explains Turner, and this is something that he would like to see the software address in future.
“I’d like to see virtual meeting and training rooms built into the everyday platforms that we use, having them integrated into Google calendars or Open Office,” he says. “For me the virtual classrooms need to be as accessible as just walking into the room next to you. You’ll often hear of people trying to organise conference calls or virtual meetings, and the effort of organising them seems to be a barrier to using them. I’d like to see the technology on demand at the click of a button while you’re in Outlook.”
Hazel Theocharous, having identified this barrier, established Assisting U Virtually, a remote virtual assistant business.
“I work mainly for small businesses, and businesses that have been set up to work from home,” says Theocharous. “Basically, I assist them with all sorts of admin, data entry, bookkeeping, paying their invoices, typing, transcription, newsletters – a variety of things, anything that you can think of that’s administrative.”
Assisting U Virtually is run primarily with Skype, also making use of Zoho, a software that allows clients to grant her access to their computers so she can do their work while they’re out of the office.
“Because it’s given me flexibility it’s given my clients flexibility, and it’s increased the amount of work they’ve given me, because they realise that they don’t have to be sitting at their computer,” she explains. “They basically can be doing something else, they can be marketing themselves, or they can be out meeting clients. I’ve logged into their computer and I’m doing the work for them. The flexibility for them as well as myself is the biggest appeal factor.”
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