Cars or Conference Calling?
1 August 2006 Andrew Pearce
The Government plans to 'get tough' on the use of cars for business, so it's time to find new ways to keep in touch. This is the view of Andrew Pearce, director of Europe's leading provider of voice, video- and Skype-conferencing services.
The Government is committed to reducing greenhouse gases by 12.5% by 2008, and one 'sustainable policy initiative' is to discourage the use of cars to attend business meetings. Yet business travel by car is actually increasing and various schemes are being discussed at Westminster to reverse the trend.
Road charging, higher fuel taxes, tougher restrictions on the use of company cars - it's not pleasant reading for anyone who uses their car to maintain contact with clients and colleagues.
Yet some sections of British business including Boots, HBOS, Marks & Spencer, Orange, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Pruhealth, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and J Sainsbury are actively cutting their business travel without suffering, simply by using ways we can all keep talking and save money, and the planet.
Businesses are waking up to the fact that new technology has made telephone conferencing cheaper and easier than before.
PRICED OFF THE ROAD
The DfT document 'Climate change and transport' points to a joint government target thrashed out with the Department for Environment and the DTi to reduce domestic CO2 emissions by 20% by 2010, and setting about that by making it more expensive to use anything but the most fuel-efficient vehicles.
They are encouraging a move towards more environmentally friendly forms of transport by putting £15m into 'Cycling England'. Quite how the average middle-aged executive will cope with cycling from Bristol to Birmingham to speak to a customer isn't explained, but let's hope it's not raining.
Rather more constructively, the DTi says, "Teleworking is being made possible by the use of information and communication technologies."
Its 'Travel Plan Resource' says "The cost of video and/or audio conferencing has decreased rapidly over the last few years and so can provide a cost-effective alternative to staff driving to meetings."
"The success of such initiatives depends on how open staff are to innovative ways of working and the level of support by senior management."
The Green Party wants to put £4bn into cutting train and bus fares, which is a good idea so long as we're not expected to stump up the £4bn ourselves.
I spoke next to Dr Steven Toole who is the adviser on environment and transport in the Lib Dem Whips' office. Here was another politician to spot the value of teleconferencing, telling me:
"The Liberal Democrats are supportive of road charging as one part of the solution, in the longer term, for tackling the remorseless rise in car traffic on Britain's roads. However, it is only one part of the range of solutions that the government needs to look at adopting. Home working and teleconferencing can play significant roles."
Tory spokesman Chris Grayling pours scorn on the Government's encouragement of 'green vehicles', saying that none of the cars currently available for sale in Britain qualify for the Chancellor's new zero-rate road tax applying to environmentally friendly vehicles.
Mr Grayling, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said: "This is yet another example of the government saying something about transport and the environment which the small print renders useless. How can the Government trumpet its green credentials with a zero rate of tax when people can't actually buy the cars that would benefit from it?"
According to my investigations, only two current car models in the new 0% band 'A' vehicle excise duty rate announced by the Chancellor: the Honda Insight and the Smart Diesel. Honda ceased making the Insight last year; and the Smart Diesel is not sold in Britain.
For his part, David Cameron has apparently set a new target to bring the average emissions level for new cars down to 100g/km by 2022. "In Oslo", he says "I saw a Greenpeace car made from recycled plastic, with an electric engine."
Mr Cameron also pointed out that Britons walk less than almost any other Western country except Greece, while the UK cycling rate is 40% below the EU average.
Responding to government policy, PriceWaterhouseCoopers says, "Travel is an essential part of our business, but video- and teleconferencing are being promoted as an alternative to business travel."
WHO CURRENTLY USES TELEPHONE CONFERENCING?
At any one time there are 50,000 users of voice conferencing from within the SME community. As well as businesses, users range from charities to the Court Service. Quest Housing Association is one of many enthusiastic users.
"Residents can discuss housing and community issues with other people around the country from the comfort of their own home. It is friendly and informal and people who take part often feel more at ease voicing their opinion rather than face-to-face at a meeting or event."
That said, there can be real cost pitfalls for the unwary. It's not widely known, for example, that some firms (such as BT) send a bill to the conference instigator based upon the number of callers involved. So a 100-minute voice conference involving, say, eight people could cost the organiser £120.
Put some of the participants in Europe or even further afield and watch those numbers get scary.
But now, innovative providers are offering simple dial up voice conferences where each invited participant calls a central number and, using a PIN, joins the conference.
This way there are no bills for organisers, no contracts, and each participant simply pays for their own 7p/min call. It's no wonder that users of this service have risen from an initial 500 to over 50,000 every week.
WHAT OF THE FUTURE?
Nothing is likely to rival the convenient 'on the go' speed and sheer flexibility of voice conferencing, allowing office-based staff in several countries around the world to communicate with each other, and with staff in their homes and cars or out on site.
But what about those times when, for example, there's a need to make a presentation to a widely spread audience, or perhaps it's simply not possible within the time available to meet all prospects for face-to-face proposals?
There's an undoubted need in many circumstances to give 'quick-qualifier' presentations and then move on. I predict web conferencing as the next big thing in the SME marketplace.
Phone calls involving facts and figures can be a little challenging, so the ablity to broadcast PowerPoint, Word, Excel and PDF presentations to participants' screens via the web is a great step forward.
Now businesses can successfully communicate complex ideas and data while you're on the phone - much as you would do when meeting face-to-face.
We've one client on our own trial panel who tells me that his sales are up by £12,000 a month simply by being able to present to prospects whom he wouldn't have had time to meet personally.
This is certainly a highly effective tool and, although there may be some initial reluctance to 'jump in', one can certainly envisage that this new generation of conference calls will be more valuable and constructive than ever.
Another brand new development is the launch of Skype's first link up of its kind in Europe.
Skype - the free VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) solution which facilitates free telephone calls across the internet - has now launched 'SkypeOut' dial in into its conference calls, thus opening up worldwide access to conference calls for hugely reduced costs allowing users to benefit from a lower dial-in rate with the rest of the world, in the simplest, most effective way possible.
There is a simple dial-up where each invited participant calls a number and, using a PIN, joins the private voice conference. There are no bills for organisers, no contracts and each participant simply pays for their own call. The conference service is immediate, with no need to book, no registration and no conference service charge.