Back to basics

Jane Wigglesworth, senior call center manager at SBC Ameritech, recently had her first audio Web conference.

And she’s not the only one. This combination of a telephone conference with a Web presentation controlled by a host is quickly catching on.

“It was like a Power Point presentation on your PC that you have no control of,” says Wigglesworth. “You could say to the host, ‘I missed that slide,’ or ‘Help me understand this,’ and they can actually go back and walk you through it.”

The 10-person meeting required no travel or special equipment, just Internet access.

Ameritech, a subsidiary of SBC Communications Inc., promotes audioconferencing through an 800 number as an inexpensive communications solutions. Penny-pinching is becoming the norm for businesses of every size, but maintaining communication both internally and with customers remains critical.

Ameritech spokesperson Mike Marker says the number of inquiries about video services has increased 400 percent since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“These businesses are clearly taking a look at travel expenses and creatively using that type of product to cut back,” he says.

A lack of discretionary spending and a fear of traveling are forcing companies to get more out of existing products. Does this mean Internet service providers are giving up on selling high-tech products? Not exactly. In fact, SBC Ameritech began actively marketing its DSL (digital subscriber line) to mid-sized clients in January.

Wigglesworth admits DSL deployment is slow. Ameritech guarantees a certain processing speed, but unless digital lines are within a specified range from a central office, speed is an issue.

“Many times, when a small business customer contacts us and we look to see if DSL is available in their area, it’s not yet there,” says Wigglesworth.

That’s disheartening, considering SBC Ameritech, with its parent company, SBC Communications Inc., is one of the largest DSL providers in the nation. Marker says it comes down to money; major markets are getting more attention because the number of customers is higher in those areas. For businesses in outlying areas, that means a long wait for service.

Marker cites an Arthur Andersen national small business survey that indicates 50 percent of companies feel hosting a Web site is the most significant obstacle between them and e-commerce. To remove that obstacle for its clients, Ameritech will begin Web hosting next year.

“I can see many of our small business clients taking advantage of that because they don’t have the infrastructure to maintain their own Web site,” says Wigglesworth.

Ameritech’s Web hosting will include tech support, Web creation and maintenance.

With so companies taking the low road back to basics, Virgil Pund, vice president for Small Business Services at Ameritech, offers suggestions on how to get the most from your existing telecommunications services:

* Sign up for bundled services rather than individual services to get discounts.

* Unclog your phone network by using individual extensions.

* Take advantage of conference calling.

* Consider outsourcing Web site services.

* Maintain customer communication during an electrical outage or natural disaster by using a provider-backed phone system.

* Take advantage of DSL for connections up to 100 times faster than a modem.

* Eliminate redundancy in simultaneous use of pagers and cell phones. How to reach: SBC Ameritech, (800) 660-3000

Deborah Garofalo ([email protected]) is associate editor of SBN Magazine.