Putting 'virtual feet on the street'

Many manufacturers who sell "through the channel" face similar problems when it comes to product and technical training. In most cases, constraints of time, money, and distance preclude companies from effectively keeping 100% of their channel partner sales force up to speed on products and important technology advances.

* Time: Sales and pre-sales technical people are typically strapped for time and usually don't have more than 30 minutes for a meeting. In that short time, you have to cram in six months' worth of product information, since you can only afford to see them twice a year at best.

* Cost: This visit would also cost you a minimum of about $1000 for attendees outside your immediate area (considering travel, lodging, cost of your time, etc.) and even more if they are arriving from outside of the country.

* Distance: Even if you (and the resellers) had an unlimited amount of time to train and had an infinite travel budget, you could not physically cover every reseller's geography.

Recent advances in Web-based presentation software have allowed manufacturers to "bring the training seminar to the reseller's desktop." This practice overcomes the time issue, since you can train resellers in "bite size pieces" (30-minute-or-less time slots) when it's least disruptive to the productivity of the sales/pre-sales people. It addresses the cost issue, as 30-minute online seminars typically cost less than $100 in time and long-distance charges (which can be spread across multiple resellers). It also addresses the distance issue. As long as your resellers have phone and Internet connections, they can participate from anywhere in the world.

So what should you look for in a Web-based presentation-software package to ensure your training is productive and, more importantly, attended?

* Multiple location support: If your intent is to significantly increase the volume of your training, it would follow that you would want to get as many participants as possible into each session. If your presentation software limits the number of participants in a session, it may not increase training productivity to an acceptable level. As a note of interest, some presentation packages allow not only for multiple participants but also for multiple presenters (in the event you wish to do a panel-type presentation format).

* Standard technology: At a minimum, the package should be supported on Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer. The quality of the image sent to the participants, as well as the actual ability to participate, may be compromised if the software is too limited in its ability to be supported on many Web browsers.

* Intuitive: Participants should be able to gain entry to the seminar in less than a minute with no more than a few keystrokes. There are packages that require the user to simply enter a "keycode" (that's provided before the seminar), name, and e-mail address. Some are more intuitive cookies-based packages that automatically enter a name and e-mail address. The bottom line is that if you don't make it effortless for people to participate, they probably won't. Several available programs put all documents in an HTML format that allows the presenter to "push" each page to attendees. The participants simply sit back and let the presenter change the slides remotely.

* "Chat" Feature: In the event that a conference-call line goes down, it's a good idea to have the ability to send text to the participants as a backup measure. It is also useful when making important points, since some packages automatically e-mail to each participant's link the slides and a transcript of the session.

Ken Johnson, Kenj@transition.com, is a product manager for Transition Networks (Minneapolis, MN).

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