Emile wrote to tell me that after eight years in the Army Special Forces, he is now on a new career path in the web conferencing and video conferencing industry. He shared some thoughts about why he thought web conferencing was on an inevitable growth curve. He focused on sales at first, saying that inconvenience and cost in travel is making it increasingly inefficient to have company sales reps traveling to close deals. As he puts it: "The future may bring the liberated worker, where she/he will be able to choose where they want to work, allowing companies to save vast amounts of capital and payroll expenses. This notion of course is a few years off, but I believe it will come very soon. We will soon see the paperless and travel-less work environment, not because of choice, but because of company survivability in a global economy."
Emile's view is certainly not a new one. Pundits have been talking about telecommuting replacing office work for many years. But the idea of trusting sales activities to remote communications is still scary for most companies. I have a client right now that is bucking the industry inertia. They conduct all their software sales activities via web conferencing. No salesman ever visits the customer.
As I thought about this, I realized that we're following a classic example of technology being applied ahead of a necessary change in attitudes and skill sets. I started thinking back to the 1980's as telephone answering machines became available to the general public. My first answering machine had a cassette tape for incoming messages and another tape on which I recorded my outgoing messages to callers. I had to record a separate message for each call... it didn't even rewind the outgoing message between calls! I was a holy terror with this thing. I recorded long "funny" messages. I did bad impersonations. I played music in the background. And by and large my callers would leave me an angry message saying that they didn't call me just to talk to a danged machine!
Now it's twenty years later and nobody buys novelty answering machine recordings anymore ("Sounds just like Don Rickles insulting your caller! Amuse your friends!"). We know to record a short outgoing message and callers expect to be able to leave a recording. Skill sets evolved, as did societal acceptance and expectations.
The technology for conducting serious business, such as sales presentations, is here now. But skill sets and expectations have not yet caught up. Most salespeople still make poor presentations, filled with bullet points that they read out loud to their prospects. Most prospects still expect a salesperson to show up at their office and shake hands, even though it uses up more time and resources for both parties.
As a result, the web conferencing sales process may result in poor returns. The traditional salesperson says, "See? I told you this is no good! I have to fly to their city, rent a car, go to their office, and see them in order to make the sale. It just doesn't work any other way!" What may not be working is the modern equivalent of those bad outgoing answering machine messages. We need to learn how to adjust our style to fit the new communications methods. That takes new training that most salespeople don't get.
Of course, those traditional salespeople are correct in many cases... Their prospects DO want to see a live human being. But that's changing as well. Today's college graduates entering the workforce have been communicating remotely with their friends (and often their teachers) for years. They find it completely natural. Why should they dress up to greet a visitor at the office? As the technology gets used more and becomes a natural part of everyday life, resistance to it will drop to near-zero.
This is a process, not an overnight change in global behavior. I don't know how long it will take before most business is conducted remotely. But I agree with Emile... That day is coming. You might just want to give your sales teams some training in how to deliver a presentation or a demo effectively over the web. Learning by trial and error is costly and painful.
In the meantime, it's never too late to start reading Garr Reynold's blog on Presentation Zen. You'll pick up many crucial tips, guidelines and lessons on the art of presenting.
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