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Getting on Board With Online Meetings

How to remain close to your long-distance customers, partners and employees from far way

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During the course of doing business, there will come a time when you need to meet with customers, employees, partners or advisors but don't have the time or resources to meet with them face to face.

Your schedule is already jam packed-do you really have time for a meeting with your sales rep in Nebraska? Or time to stop in on a client in Boston? What about meeting with a potential partner or investor from Seattle who needs to talk with you in the next week? And that doesn't even take into account your routine business operations and the day-to-day aspects of working with your customers and employees.

So what's a smart business owner to do? Here's one solution: Consider setting up your office (mobile or otherwise) for remote online meetings. Although online meetings may never take the place of a firm handshake and face-to-face eye contact, they're a good substitute, especially if you and the other party are technically and psychologically ready for it.

Two weeks ago, I lead an online meeting about e-mail marketing. I was near New York City, the moderator was in Australia, and the participants, about 15 of them, were scattered throughout the United States. With the service we were using, they were able to see the presentation (and whatever else I put on the screen), use instant messaging to chat with me, and use their computer's microphone, if they had one, to talk to me--and I could talk back. For all of us involved, it was a very productive time.

Getting Started
Before considering any of the available options, the key is to make sure you have a fast internet connection. If your connection is slow or frequently drops, your online meeting experience won't be that good.

There are many companies that provide online meeting services (also known as web conferencing), and they all work in a similar fashion. After choosing a vendor, you sign up for the service online, then download the web conferencing software. This software will enable you to manage the entire meeting, see who's online and manage polling, and provides other features that vary depending on the service used, such as allowing you to have audio or video conversations with your participants. You'll also be able to share your desktop and applications with meeting participants so you can conduct demonstrations, show presentations, conduct sales or product training sessions and more.

The number of people you choose to have in your audience depends entirely on your budget. You should expect to pay $100 and up for five to 10 users. (Your participants pay nothing to view your web conference.) Prices vary considerably from service to service, so if price is a concern for you, be sure to shop around.

In order to verbally communicate with your conference participants, you have two options, depending on the online meeting service provider you've selected. Participants can either dial in to a telephone conference number or be connected via the internet. If they're dialing in, they'll have to pay toll charges, or you'll be paying per-minute charges if you decide to use a toll-free number. Connecting through the internet will either be free or very low cost.

If you want to enable video, you'll have to have a "web cam" that connects to your computer. Fortunately, these are relatively inexpensive, running as little as $50 you're your local computer or technology retailer.

You'll never know the benefit and value of something until you try it. Since most web conferencing services offer a free trial, there's no excuse not to test it out by conducting a web conference with one or two of your employees. Then, once you're familiar with it, consider using it for real. And the next time you think about declining a meeting half way cross town or half way round the world because of a tight schedule or budget, don't: You now have another option.

Ramon Ray is's "Tech Basics" columnist and editor of He's the author ofTechnology Solutions for Growing Businesses and currently serves on the board of directors and the technology committee for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.

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