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.
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.