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The Virtual Face to Face

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Dina Trebbe doesn’t need convincing on how Web conferencing has improved her firm’s relationship with its clients and investment advisors. “It’s a wonderful tool,” says the direct marketing manager for the Lindfield, Massachusetts-based broker/dealer Investors Capital Corp (ICC), which installed Microsoft’s Live Meeting tool four years ago. “Our clients want to hear more from their advisors, and often don’t have time for an office visit.”

Engineering new ways to stay in touch with clients is crucial for investment advisors who want to stay on their game. Small touches such as sending out an article that may, or may not, be of interest to an investor is not the same as chatting with her, and easing concerns about her portfolio.

However face-to-face meetings are time eaters–for both the client who has to travel to an office, and for the advisor who has to usually carve out a minimum of 30 minutes to an hour, not to mention printing, and wasting, reams of paper for these check-ups.

The ability to create a virtual meeting room where an advisor can talk with a client, and actually share the same document and discuss it in real time–not just by e-mail or by phone–is being seen as both an economic and service shift by investment advisors, especially as these tools become more streamlined and more affordable.

While it’s unlikely that Web conferencing could ever completely replace an annual in-person check-up, the latest generation of these Web-based tools is so simple that anyone from a one-man shop to a multi-billion dollar advisory firm will probably find Web conferencing programs well worth the investment.

Spice It Up

Like many Web conferencing tools, Microsoft’s Live Meeting allows Trebbe and ICC to create meetings on the fly, and supports a variety of applications including PowerPoint, Advisor Workstation, and those found on custodian platforms.

But its latest version, in beta tests since July, will offer more integration with multimedia files when it’s released in October. In previous attempts, Microsoft had partnered with outside companies to offer video and audio support. But now the tool will have native support for all multimedia, including VoIP, allowing users a variety of extras such as the ability to conduct meetings through their computers without having to rely on phones to hear each other’s voice, says Serhii Sokolenko, Live Meeting’s product manager.

The new upgrade will also allow users to store a recording of any meeting locally on their PC, or to record, host, and then stream a meeting–ideal for an advisor who may want to offer new prospects a glimpse at product offerings on a repeated basis. Also, participants can enter the virtual meeting in two ways–either by downloading a small client application onto their PC, or by accessing it just through the Web, making it available to both Mac and Unix users. Organizers, however, must be on a PC.

Not everything has been brought in-house, however. For example, those who want a true face-to-face solution–seeing an advisor’s face on the screen while scrolling through their portfolio–will still need a third-party solution, says Sokolenko.

Primarily using Live Meeting for training, ICC did give a handful of its 700 reps access to the tool for client-use earlier this year. But ICC, with $5 billion under management, is making it available firmwide this fall, timing it to coincide with Live Meeting’s own upgrades. Pricing changes have made the wider rollout more attractive to ICC because it will be able to install and support the tool on its own server, at a lower cost than the current subscription service of $180 per year per user. Users also have the option of a monthly minutes plan which starts at 35 cents a minute. [Ed. note: as we went to press Microsoft was revising pricing.] “We knew from our customers that we wanted to offer both,” says Sokolenko.

People Power

Long recognized as one of the power players in the field, WebEx is priced competitively as well, starting at $75 a month for unlimited meetings with up to 15 people.

But it’s the human support that WebEx believes is its key differentiator and not just the bells and whistles. For larger firms looking to create Web events–huge sales meetings or training sessions for hundreds of advisors at one time–WebEx has live people on hand to actually create the function. “We can get people to help you worldwide,” says Colin Smith, WebEx’s director of corporate communication, based in Santa Clara, California. “Technology is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Still, it’s not a bad starting place. A favorite perk of Web conferencing is the ability to record–whether to stream a product review later, or store a meeting for compliance reasons, and WebEx allows hosts to start a recording at any time during the meeting, and edit afterwards, even sharing editing rights with other teammates, says Grace Kim, WebEx’s senior manager for product marketing.

And if a host or participant has a Web cam built into their computer, faces can be viewed in up to six video windows at the same time on any platform–Windows, Mac, Unix, and Linux. Advisors can also use the tool, which must be downloaded onto a desktop, to share calendars and documents outside the virtual meeting, creating what Smith tags a “Web office.”

Recently acquired by the San Jose, California-based network giant Cisco Systems, Web Ex is focusing on even more upgrades, especially tying features into those of its new parent.

Up In a Flash

For those who find application downloads a pain–or work with a firm that bans them completely–Adobe Connect offers one of the most streamlined solutions around. Basing its tool on Flash technology, Connect is intended to be up and running immediately. “Flash is on 98% of all Internet-enabled desktops,” says David Slater, group product marketing manager for San Jose, California-based Adobe Connect. “There’s a lot of technology that goes into this, but users are pretty unaware of it. Kind of the way you go into your car, turn the key and it just starts up.”

Connect’s history starts in the late 1990s when a firm called Presidia was acquired by Macromedia, and then re-branded as Acrobat Connect in 2001.

Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia at the end of 2005 turned the product into its current iteration, says Slater.

While Connect does allow users to see each other as they chat, Slater notes that this feature still has light demand.

“Relationships are definitely stronger when built in a face-to-face meeting,” he says. “Only about 5-10% of our customers currently use this.”

Financial services firms, including SunLife, Vanguard, and MetLife, are loyal customers of Connect says Slater. The reason? The ability to buy the software and install it behind a firm’s own firewall, on its secure servers. “We have a lot of clients who have compliance concerns,” notes Slater.

Pricing for professional firms of this size starts at $10,000 varying on the number of users and the configuration. But smaller firms can sign up for a less souped-up version for as little as $39 month or $395 a year.

And it’s easy to invite someone to a meeting in either version. A user can be paging through an online document, and decide he wants to chat with a co-worker, or a client. One click on the ‘start meeting’ button and a personal meeting room opens, allowing the host to send e-mail invitations with the meeting room URL automatically printed into the message.

In the professional version, meeting rooms are always running, allowing hosts to have slides, documents, portfolios, or anything they want to share always prepped and ready to go at a moment’s notice. “It’s like I’ve put a piece of paper on my desk,” Slater says. “It stays there until I move it.”

Compliant Ready

Founded in France, Tyson’s Corner, Virginia-based Genesys has worldwide reach. And while not as limber and Flash ready as Connect, Genesys is a favorite of financial firms from large shops such as Lehman Brothers, to one-man offices. But whatever the size of its customers, Genesys emphasizes its ability to neatly integrate with a company’s compliance needs.

As it developed its recording capabilities, Genesys decided to offer users a choice in how they wanted to record–voice, Web, or both. Users also have storage options for recordings–either on a Genesys server at $200 for 90 days of storage, or sent to the host as a CD or Zip file for $100.

“Lehman had its version re-branded for them and they have a requirement that when any employee starts a Web meeting it has to be archived,” says Terry Terranova, vice president of marketing for Genesys. “So instead of having to push a button to record, it automatically does it for them.”

But multi-billion dollar firms aren’t the only ones who benefit from the way Genesys is structured. Its pricing model makes it especially friendly to small shops. Tagged the ‘multi-media minute’ by Terranova, Genesys bills its users on a ‘pay as you go’ plan, starting at 10 cents a minute. That can drop down to just 3 cents a minute depending on use, and includes 24-hour support around the globe, in real-time over the Web.

That’s a feature that sold Lillian Meyers, a financial advisor with Meyers Financial in Sonoma, California. “When I use software I always have nightmares,” she says. “What can go wrong, will. But Genesys customer support has been fantastic.”

Meyers currently uses the tool to review tax returns and financial plans with clients, and plans to upgrade her service to include Web cam support by the fall. “Then they’ll be able to look me in the eye, so to speak,” Meyers says. “We’re human beings and we still like to have eye contact. And this will allow me to do a better job for those clients who can’t come into my office.”

Knowing that some of its customers want their tools to be more mobile, Genesys is also working on integrating its Web conferencing product with Blackberry devices so that a participant could jump into a meeting even if they’re late getting to the office. While a user wouldn’t be able to see slides, they could participate through an audio link. Also in the works is being able to start a meeting from an SMS message. “That’s all coming up in the October time frame,” says Denise Persson, executive vice president of marketing for Genesys.

One downside, however, is the lack of Mac support. But since Genesys CEO Francois Legros recently acquired a Mac for his office, Persson acknowledges that the company is working towards a Mac integration hopefully by “early next year,” she says.

Secured Service

Eric Choi, GoTo Meeting’s product marketing manager, likes to think that his product could accommodate any firm, at any size, as well. And with a variety of products from meetings with two people, to seminars for 1,000 attendees, he’s pretty accurate.

Acquired by the Fort Lauderdale-based Citrix in 2004, GoTo Meeting was originally a simple screen-sharing tool. The demand to share data with larger groups of people in real-time helped boost the firm in the financial sector. One convert is Syracuse, New York-based Cadaret, Grant which first started using the service to push out platform upgrades to its 900 advisors in 2004.

Mary Pat Ganley, VP of business development with Cadaret, Grant knows her advisors are itching to use the tool beyond that and want to try it on seminars with new prospects, as well as to help them build a more personal relationship with current clients. “This will be a real strength for the service and relationship side,” she says. “And being able to meet the expectation of a technology-advanced client is crucial.”

Ganley cites an experience she recently had with her bank, where she went online simultaneously with a customer service representative so they could look at her account together. “We solved the problem in less than five minutes,” she says. Ganley believes this experience, offered to clients, could transform the industry. “Anything you can do better, faster, and smarter ends up on your bottom line,” she says.

GoTo’s Choi also likes to emphasize the “intimacy” in the way a one-on-one meeting can be set up in seconds. A small applet does need to be downloaded before a participant can join a meeting, and presenters must be on a PC–Mac-users can only attend sessions for the time being, though Choi says a Mac version for presenters in being considered.

Surprisingly, GoTo Meeting does not support Web cam integration. The firm believes that users aren’t as interested in seeing other attendees during the sessions as they are about making sure they can get online and share, quickly, and easily. But GoTo also doesn’t support VoIP, requiring all attendees to join with a landline to hear conversations rather than listen to audio filtering through their PC.

What GoTo has poured resources into, however, is security, offering 128 SSL encryption of all its sessions–a plus for those dealing with client financials such as account data and social security numbers.

GoTo also offers users a selection of recording options from archiving the file on a customer’s desktop, or hosting, and streaming it from GoTo’s servers.

While Cadaret, Grant records meetings on its own right now, Ganley mentions that she may adopt GoTo’s recording options when the firm upgrades its five licenses to add five more. The cost is well priced as well with licenses ranging from $49 to $99 a month with unlimited usage. Ganley too is a fan of the help desk tool, which gives Cadaret, Grant access to an advisor’s computer to visually see if a setting is wrong, and immediately fixing it. “We can actually take over their computer,” she says.

But the key reason the firm has adopted Web conferencing is because she knows how the tool will expand how her advisors interact with clients. “This allows technology to enhance that relationship rather than replace the personal side,” she says. “Instead of driving one hour for ten minutes of my advisor’s time, I can do a 20-minute call once a month. And the advisors can make that valued relationship that much stronger.”

Lauren Barack is a New York-based freelance business writer who specializes in stories on technology, finance, and parenting. She can be reached at [email protected].


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