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Sales for Star Trekkers: WebEx for the Rest of Us

April 5, 2009


For years, mankind has dreamed of beaming itself across the universe with nothing more than a few flashing lights and accompanying spooky sound effects. After an early proof of concept was successfully piloted by the producers of Star Trek in 1966, the dream was finally realized in 1995 with the launch of WebEx…. sort of.

Just like robotic housemaids, flying cars and the paperless office WebEx and its peers haven’t quite lived up to their promise of making business travel a thing of the past. Every Monday morning an army of East Coast salesmen rise at 4:30 am to make the LA flight no doubt passing their West Coast peers somewhere in skies above Kansas. Still remote meetings are an essential part of the contemporary Closer’s toolkit if not a substitute for face-to-face meetings. So when should we use this marvel of modern office technology once thought to exist only in the realm of science fiction?

Virtual meetings are great in some scenarios… and really bad in many others, most notably when we’re pitching to someone three blocks away from our office who wouldn’t agree to a face-to-face meeting. WebEx is a step backwards when dialogues that should happen in-person are scheduled online because we lack the necessary credibility or our prospect is scared that we’ll steal their office stationary.

Meetings virtually make a lot of sense when decision makers are dispersed all over the country and shaking everyone’s sweaty hand is a physical impossibility. In such situations we should still aim to attend the session from the client’s office … preferably sitting in with the Big Mac Daddy who will be making the final decision. In this scenario it’s worth getting a reliable colleague to facilitate the virtual meeting from our head office (we join in as an attendee) rather than risk hosting from the client’s PC.

WebEx is also a great tool for qualifying new opportunities when we’re deciding if they warrant physical travel. However, we should be equally wary of throwing up our virtual white boards too early in the sales cycle. Virtual meeting requests can often be perceived an invitation to 30 minutes of “Let’s Get Ready to Sell! Sell! Sell!” and no one wants that. Since excessive technology can inhibit early dialogue, first discussions are sometimes better suited to just the old dog and bone, British slang for phone.

Like all human-computer interaction, WebEx has the potential to screw up at the most inappropriate of times. As a rule of thumb, block out the 30 minutes before hosting a virtual meeting and launch the session no later than 15 minutes before the scheduled start time. Client instructions for attending the session need to be as simple and assume our virtual guests’ IT skills go no further than programming a DVD player. We also need a backup PowerPoint that can be emailed at the last minute to any participants who cannot launch the meeting.

Once the session is up and running, the natural online group dynamic is unfortunately towards a one way monologue; above 10 participants and we might as well be pitching from behind a mirrored police cell. The skill of the online presenter is to engage the audience and push for dialogue, even more so than a successful in-person discussion. If questions are the lifeblood of traditional selling then they’re the electricity that keeps the lights on in virtual presentations. Our questions are essential for two reasons: they add engagement to a comparatively dull media and provide much needed feedback in the absence of the visual cues that we rely to navigate a traditional sales meeting.

Consequently our presentation deck requires a little tweaking for online delivery.

Every slide needs at least one pre-planned question designed to solicit feedback from our audience if only to make sure they haven’t wandered off to eBay. For groups with over five participants it’s best to direct the question to a specific individual lest we encounter the classroom scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Ask an open ended question to ten people and exactly zero people will respond.

Our presentation also needs to build in slides specifically set aside just for the client to talk about their challenges. While such exploratory conversations can naturally arise in face to face meeting, unless they’re clearly signed-posted we’re unlikely to get the client’s pain point online.

WebEx can be a real inhibitor against moving forward once we’ve uncovered a real opportunity. The client has “met” us, they’ve reviewed our pitch and who can argue when they offer to get back in touch after they’ve had time to digest our materials. Or worse still “Great presentation, send it over and I’ll share it with my team” ….some day in the very distant future – the business dating equivalent of “let’s just be friends.”

In a virtual world, real next steps are critical, our online sales plan needs to have a well thought out process that moves us from online discussion to pen signing physical paper. Few deals north of $100k are inked without a warm body present in the conference room and even fewer are initiated after only one online presentation. In effect we don’t want to give everything away in our first virtual session, we need to hold back something back for a second (hopefully in-person) meeting. This smart move keeps our initial pitch short and focused while building up natural momentum towards tangible next steps.

In summary WebEx is a great tool for validating opportunities and as a stepping stone towards successful real world meetings. It can make our sales cycle more efficient with less travel to dead-end discussions but ultimately, the technology is a complement rather than a substitute for in-person selling. Next time a virtual meeting is in on our calendar, remember:

  • WebEx is best used as a qualifying tool
  • Keep 30 minutes clear before hosting a session
  • Prepare for technological hiccups
  • If you’re pitching online away from your home office ask a colleague to facilitate
  • Dialogue: Every slide needs a pre-planned question
  • More Dialogue: a section should be set aside just for the client to talk
  • Save something for the second meeting

Until the next deal – beam me up, Scottie.

Note: The comments made here regarding WebEx apply equally to other remote meeting technologies such as Adobe Connect and Microsoft Live Meeting. Unless you’re streaming video they’re all pretty good after a little prep time to get to know their intricacies. For a comprehensive technology review see

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Papa permalink
    April 5, 2009 7:51 am

    Excellent and humerous annalysis and advice. I noted the following errors:
    “Every slides needs” (not need)
    “build in a slide” (not slides)
    “This smart move” (no is)
    Looking forward to the next issue.

  2. April 6, 2009 8:29 am

    Providing your clients and meeting attendees with an easy way to join the online meeting is critical. It’s a frustrating experience to be all set to host your online presentation, only to spend half the time directing how the attendees can actually join. Easy meetings is what we aim for with Mikogo.
    Your suggestion of planned questions in order to facilitate feedback is gold. There are certainly differences in maintaining dialogue when it comes to online meetings.

    Thanks for an interesting read.

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