Power in Smaller Numbers

By Henry Canaday

Although the ever-expanding digital revolution offers salespeople much more than simple contact management, there’s this lingering little nagging voice that asks, “What about efficiency? What happened to all that time I was supposed to be saving in this digital age?” It comes down to this: Either figure out how to exploit all the new tools, rather than be absorbed by them, or toss the clock out the window and hunker down for a very long digital siege.

At no time is this truer than when holding internal meetings with salespeople and other company staff. The best companies are using online tools to hold fewer meetings, freeing up more time to sell, while managers, reps, and others still stay in touch with each other and customers to collaborate more effectively.

But not every company is there yet. Consultants at CIMI surveyed about 750 large enterprises, and nearly all are using online tools to replace or support internal meetings. But three-quarters of these firms said they were not satisfied with results.

The most common problem is what CIMI president Tom Nolle calls bracket creep. “They say online tools multiply the number of meetings or the number of people attending them, and that has a negative effect on the productivity of the company.”

Nolle says live meetings are limited by the difficulties of assembling people and coordinating schedules. This tends to keep meetings and attendance limited to when they are thoroughly justified. With online tools, however, this constraint goes away.

Sheer numbers can work against results. “All research shows that when you are developing concepts or strategies or presentations, it is most productive if no more than three key people are collaborating. If there are four involved, productivity drops off noticeably; if five are involved, it drops off precipitously; and when you get to six, it drops off so much you might as well not be collaborating at all.”

So Nolle argues that online tools should not be used simply to automate the current meeting and collaborative process. Rather, companies must rethink these processes and then use online tools to support the reformed methods. “Instead of saying, ‘We can just meet virtually,’ revamp your processes around your goal.”

Evidence backs him up. The 17 percent of enterprises that reported being satisfied with their use of online meeting tools had one common feature: “They had fewer total meetings,” Nolle stresses. “They developed more extemporaneous relationships that substituted for gatherings, and they syndicated meeting results for approvals.”

One of the most valuable changes can be empowering workers with smart phones and other wireless devices so that they are immediately available anywhere – at lunch or on the road – to answer questions. When a simple question is asked, most people still prefer to receive the answer via voice communication. When material such as sales presentations must be reviewed or checked, emails with attachments suffice. Nolle suggests, “Build new tools to distribute the information, rather than just centralize it in a different way.”

Nolle advises companies to look to our youth and at texting as aids to collaboration. “Young people may collaborate mostly for social purposes, but they do it very effectively. We should look more at that model. We need to talk more about dynamically distributing information rather than gathering everyone in meetings, live or virtual.”

CIMI research shows that video tools generally add little or nothing to communication between two people. The effect with three people is minimal. “Not until you see four people do you start to see some effect,” Nolle says. “It takes five or seven people to see real improvement.”

But purely spontaneous use of video with five to seven people appears not to work. “About 81 percent of companies that have tried say it did not create a satisfactory dynamic,” Nolle explains. “The difficulty is the complexity of managing five or six different feeds. And the personal background of each participant tends to be distracting.”

Desktop video tools seem to work for meetings that are made up of one or more presentations, but not as true collaboration tools. Says Nolle, “The problem is you have to have at least four people to get value out of it, and when you have more than four, whose hand do you see on the screen?”

About a third of surveyed firms have tried high-end video conferencing tools such as TelePresence. They found these high-end tools to be cost effective for regularly held formal meetings where there are at least two or three high-value people located at each of two or three major facilities. Where there are fewer people at each or there are more than three facilities, the approach does not appear to pay back investment, Nolle says.

Nevertheless, firms that have installed TelePresence for high-value meetings are now testing to see if works for lower-level staff at the same facilities. This could be an effective way to piggyback on the benefits of getting top execs together virtually. And Cisco _umi TelePresence is a less-expensive video tool that may prove cost-beneficial for meetings that do not require high-end systems.

Virtual-meeting technology is well established now and has proven extremely useful in Webinars and sales training, especially product training. These tools are becoming more flexible and improving as experience is gained.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting works on desktops or laptops, enabling the sharing of live or recorded presentations, files, and personal communications. An auto-attendant feature enables organizers to add conference-call numbers so individuals can dial in from any phone to participate in the audio portion of the conference.

Cisco’s WebEx is a similar desktop system that combines video communication with phone conferencing to avoid travel or the limitations of talking strictly on the telephone. Cisco’s TelePresence takes the next step, putting the pictures on a high-definition big screen and adding tools to manage the video experience for maximum results.