Virtual meetings, real savings

Posted: January 15, 2009 in CRM

Last summer I wrote a paper about CRM and sustainability. It’s available here in case you missed it. At the time, gas and jet fuel were over $4 per gallon and transportation costs were going through the roof. Although those costs have been cut by more than half in the last few months, we’re far from being out of the woods on energy.

The low cost of energy today is attributable to the economic hole we’re in. Fewer people driving fewer miles and all that has an aggregate depressing effect on energy demand but as soon as the economy kicks back in you can expect to see the same cost spiral. So the need for “doing something” about our energy consumption habits is never out of sight and if early indications are correct the Obama administration has energy pretty high up on its to-do list both for renewing the economy and for green causes.

All this was on my mind when I downloaded a free white paper from IDG about collaboration and unified communications. The paper’s focus is on the cost savings that real companies get when they reduce their reliance on face-to-face meetings. The savings can be seen in a variety of areas that you might not think of at first.

More than simply setting up an online conference now and then, on-line collaboration takes advantage of a lot of infrastructure like video meetings, IP telephony, instant messaging and much more to provide an environment that shrinks time and distance and makes key people more or less always available (Ok, within parameters but you get my meaning).

We are all familiar with the notion that reduced travel can result in reduced costs but many people might be skeptical that the virtual meetings that replace “real” meetings might be deficient in some subtle ways but consider these savings areas that have nothing to do with meeting quality:

Reduced real estate investment. Companies that use a modern mix of web meetings, IP based telephony, instant messaging and more can position their people at home or at other locations that might not be in high rent headquarters buildings. The paper shows these cost reductions can be impressive.

Faster time to decision or result such as product roll-out. The days spent in the air to bring key people to meetings and back are largely unproductive despite the work that most get done on their laptops. Let’s face it, laptop batteries are good for four hours tops unless you turn yourself into a pack animal and bring extras. Moreover, key people in the air means key people out of touch with the rest of the organization and other issues that require their attention.

Fatigue factor. Sometimes you just don’t feel very productive after a six or eight hour plane ride (or more) and if you do this kind of thing week in and week out, it takes a toll. The fatigue factor has always been acknowledged but it has never been easy to place a number on it and it would not have done much good, since there were no alternatives. Now you don’t have to think about it because the cost savings in other things like transportation, hotels, out of pocket and time are more than ample to justify a virtual communications strategy.

The paper provides multiple good use stories that show specific areas where companies substituted virtual meetings for some face-to-face meetings with significant savings in time and money. My favorite is a bit ironic. Airbus, builder of large passenger aircraft used video conferencing to build the Airbus 380, the largest passenger aircraft in the world. According to the paper, “Airbus found that video conferencing could measurably accelerate the key project timelines, and wound up shifting an average of 1,200 face-to-face meetings a month to video sessions.” Cost savings were in the millions and the project accelerated nicely too.

Of course, there is a big green benefit to this kind of savings too. What’s striking to me is that substituting virtual meetings for some traditional meetings does not reduce the quality of the meeting or the lives of the participants. It’s just smart and a win all around.

You don’t have to be Airbus to save big on meetings and, as a matter of fact, in this climate anything that smaller companies can save is golden. Taken to another level, if there is so much goodness in using virtual meetings internally, imagine what might be achieved when we turn virtual meetings on for sales and support personnel. There is a huge CRM story to be written on virtual meetings and leading companies have already begun taking advantage of this technology.

Understand me, we’re not going to do away with face-to-face meetings anytime soon but the availability of new technology has made it possible to think of creative ways we can use it to economize in hiring, training, product design, sales and marketing. Most importantly, a recession like the one we are in is a perfect time to experiment with this kind of cost saving measure.

So, what did you think?

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