From the July 2006 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

Face-to-Face?

Just like any small business, small financial planning firms struggle to offer top-notch technology without the luxury of having in-house IT experts. Trying to stay ahead of the technology curve can be both challenging and frustrating, but increasingly, small firms are finding they can play with the big boys.

One of the simplest solutions to improve productivity, efficiency and reduce your travel budget is the collaborative technology that enables you to conduct meetings from remote locations. In fact, advisors already have the technology at their fingertips to connect with clients, satellite offices or informal networks without leaving their desktops. While there are several providers of this collaborative technology, WebEx (www.webex.com) which we'll examine below, is the name that has become almost a generic for the technology. But it is not the only provider catering to small business, and advisors might also check out Microsoft Office Live Meeting (www.microsoft.com/meetlive), Go To Meeting (wwwgotomeeting.com) and Genesys (wwwgenesys.com).

All enable organizations of any size to participate in online meetings to share presentations with clients and colleagues, integrate live audio/video/data, and collaborate on and edit documents in real time.

Technology guru Kip Gregory, principal of The Gregory Group in Washington, D.C., considers WebEx a powerful tool for small financial planning firms based on its flexibility, professionalism, availability and economics. Once you understand how it works, Gregory says, you can apply it any number of ways in business. You're not only talking to others, he points out, but also looking at and sharing the same information at the same time.

"This is a tool that gives these planners access to professional-level technology that people couldn't envision 10 years ago for just pennies a minute," Gregory says. "It enables you to take a standard phone conversation and turn it into a collaborative 'roll-up-your-sleeves and actually work-through-a-challenge' session and get concrete results on the other end."

WebEx users do not require additional hardware or software to access the collaborative meetings. The beauty of WebEx, says Praful Shah, the firm's vice president of strategic communications, is that companies need only an Internet browser to use this on-demand service. No matter what size the organization is, no technical skills are necessary to install or implement the technology. WebEx deploys the technology and provides the service.

One example financial planners find useful, according to Shah, is conducting portfolio reviews with important clients based on recent changes or adjustments. While it's okay to talk on the phone, he says, think of the greater impact of linking to a live meeting.

"It's as if you're visiting the wealth management professional's office and looking at an analysis to your personal portfolio," Shah says. "It's not a substitute for seeing your clients, but a substitute for an ongoing relationship that is more than a telephone call."

Gregory uses WebEx and similar providers on a daily basis in his coaching work with advisors. Financial planners can use this type of conferencing technology to present information to current and prospective clients or to train staff. Working with account balances and dealing with transactions online means security is a critical issue. WebEx technology encrypts every meeting to ensure that private information remains private. Gregory says this provides a measure of additional comfort to offer clients.

WebEx also is beneficial in the sales area when advisors need to pitch a diverse population of prospects and customers. There are times when face-to-face communication is preferred, Shah says, but that meeting might take months to schedule. A collaborative meeting serves the purpose without having to run around. It also can serve as a strategic mechanism to get a message out or to re-establish and sustain momentum after a particular seminar or event you want to follow up.

Val Steed, CEO of K2 Enterprises in Hammond, La., finds WebEx useful in his organization to conduct remote training and to demonstrate software solutions. Too often, he says, small businesses don't train their people on how to use the systems they have.

"That's the number one area [where] I think small business falls on its face--and that's in training its people," Steed says.

Although WebEx technology has existed since 1996, Gregory says the remote solution has only become mainstream in the last year or two. He traces this trend to two things: 1) the explosion in broadband Internet access that has made the transmission of content faster and smoother, and 2) the considerably lower pricing of service. The monthly price for a subscription to WebEx meetings varies based on the number of employees and additional options, says Shah, but pricing begins at $39 per month.

Considering that 24 of the 30 largest financial institutions use the service, WebEx is considered the standard collaborative meeting solution for large organizations. This proves beneficial, according to Shah, when these employees leave to open their own small financial firms. They can use the exact same service they're already used to.

"It's a great vehicle for delivering a message to an audience of one or dozens at a time in an affordable way," Gregory says.

Vicki Powers is a Texas-based freelance writer who often covers business and technology issues.

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