stephenbNo denying, the new crop of telepresence solutions is trying to usher in a paradigm shift in the way businesses interact with their internal and external stakeholders. However, the time-tested desktop videoconferencing – though touted as poor man’s telepresence option – can still be extremely effective particularly for emerging outfits. Stephen Epstein, CMO of Avistar Communications Corp. – a leading company in the video communications and collaboration services arena – writes for My Techbox Online to shed light on the comparative utility of these systems. Here he goes.

Across sectors and geography, one truism about business is that relationships matter. But in an era when companies must save money and cut their travel budgets, they must still find ways to develop and enhance relationships with their customers. 

Compared to a generation ago, mail, instant message and cell phones have proven to be reliable ways to communicate with customers. But they don’t necessarily help build relationships because they’re not a true substitute for face-to-face communications – which is important because you’re able to look at a person’s expression, communicate more effectively than over the phone and pick up nonverbal cues.

In looking for a solution to face-to-face communications, large companies have tested room-size telepresence systems and set up conference rooms with multiple life-sized screens to give people a sense of being able to talk across the table – even if those people are sitting halfway around the world in a replica conference room.

Telepresence systems are impressive for providing a “you-are-there” experience, and for that reason, have garnered a lot of attention. For meetings that involve lots of people, telepresence systems do a good job, far better than audio-only conference calls in which the main group forgets about the people calling in from other locations. People calling into large conference rooms also often find confusing the back-and-forth conversations within those conference rooms from a who’s-talking perspective. Telepresence resolves that because the video screens enable people outside the room to see who is talking. 

But telepresence systems are not ideal solutions for small to medium businesses or for those companies with a distributed workforce because of the cost. According to a Forrester Research report, a single multi-screen telepresence installation can cost as much as $350,000 and the return on investment (ROI) can take two years.

Instead, there’s a more cost-effective way to get the benefits of business videoconferencing. Thanks to high-speed broadband, reliable video cameras, headsets and displays, today’s personal computers enable you to hold face-to-face meetings wherever you are. 

That fits into how we work today – in the office, on the road, at client location or from home. Desktop videoconferencing provides the kind of flexibility that room systems can’t: If you’ve got a 5:00 a.m. call with Europe or 7:00 p.m. call with Asia, you don’t need to be in your office’s telepresence room to conduct a videoconference. Even if you’re in your office at the required time, you still may have to travel to a conference room on some other floor or at another facility. So although telepresence can offer some great “face to face” time, it actually can be very disruptive to an employee’s daily activities. That’s why for smaller conferences, some companies look to extend the room experience to the desktop.

Desktop videoconferencing enables companies to extend the use of their room systems and allows people in remote locations to participate even if a room system is not available from where they are. For example, a client CEO was traveling, and could only participate in an important conference via his laptop while other senior managers were meeting at headquarters. Using a laptop equipped with videoconferencing software, he was able to follow along with the presentation and see other attendees during the meeting.

The ROI of desktop videoconferencing is significantly higher than for videoconferencing rooms. According to a room conferencing case study by industry analysts at Wainhouse Research, in a firm with more than 500 rooms systems, 60% were used less than two hours per month, or just six minutes per day. 

Free video chat services sometimes come with hidden costs. One important requirement that is missing from free desktop solutions is the ability to cost- effectively conduct multiparty calls. If too many people on one network are using one of those free services, the bandwidth use can crash enterprise applications and cripple network speeds. The impact on the videoconferences themselves can include pixilation (blurred images), frozen screens, delayed or out-of-synched audio or calls being dropped. While that may be okay when the grandchildren talk with their grandparents, the lack of quality is not acceptable for business videoconferences. Companies looking for videoconferencing capabilities should evaluate their network bandwidth management capabilities because video still demands a lot of bandwidth.

The other problem with free services is that they provide no interoperability or connectivity with room solutions, which is a big driver for desktop videoconferencing.

If you are considering videoconferencing, here are some questions to ask to determine what sort of system is best for you:

1. Why are you considering videoconferencing? Is it to reduce travel expenses? Improve customer or employee relationships?
2. What sort of meetings do you plan to videoconference? Will they be large meetings with a dozen or more people? Will they be smaller meetings, usually two to four people?
3. Will the videoconferences most likely be in the same time zone or vastly different time zones? Conferences between New York City and Los Angeles are easier to schedule than Boston and Singapore based on when both parties are in the office.
4. Will people using videoconferences generally be in the same location each time?  For example, for regular update calls between a company and its outsource vendor, videoconferences are likely to be held in the same conference rooms each time whereas monthly calls with the sales force might find some participants in a different location each time.
5. Will your corporate culture have to change in order to embrace videoconferencing? Some organizations prefer large meetings and are likely to prefer a telepresence approach. Others, which prefer ad hoc meetings, are likely to prefer a desktop videoconference solution.

Whichever solution you decide, one thing is for sure: videoconferencing can reduce the need to travel to other office or customer locations, thereby reducing travel budgets – and can improve collaboration and productivity and enhance relationships. Face-to-face means you can spend time with your customers and be home for dinner.

Stephen Epstein is the chief marketing officer (CMO) of Avistar Communications Corp., a San Mateo, CA-based company offering unified visual communication solutions.

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About Rakesh Raman

Have extensive editorial, content management, and integrated communications experience and have worked as a senior tech journalist, analyst, and columnist with different newspapers, magazines, and Web/online properties in India.

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