Video chat a boon for service providers and consumers alike

Ashly SmithWhen Ashly Smith, a Los Angeles-based aesthetician, decided to establish a formal business to advance her career, she knew she needed help. There was complex paperwork to sift though, documents to file and fees to pay. But she also knew she didn't have the time to squeeze in a traditional college class, and she doubted she'd get the kind of feedback and interaction she craved from an online tutorial.

Then she happened across Beth Andrus's eight-week business course, which used the platform WebEx to mix traditional distance-learning tools with video chat that lets the student see and talk to the instructor as well as the other participants in the course. "It's more connected and more personal," said Smith (pictured at right). She's halfway through the class and says it's been a great investment so far. "If I went to a local college, it wouldn't be as impactful," she says.

As webcam technology has improved and as a growing number of Americans adopt broadband Internet service for home use, entrepreneurs are realizing they don't have to be in the same room -- or even the same time zone -- to provide services. Geography is no longer a barrier. The technology -- a webcam and a microphone -- now come as standard equipment on most laptops or can be purchased cheaply for desktop computers. Many programs used for video chats, such as Skype, are free. WalletPop heard from numerous professionals offering a wide array of services via video chat. The list is almost endless: Wardrobe stylists, matchmaking "romance coaches," hypnotists, feng shui decorators, business consultants, academic tutors and music teachers all sang the praises of instructing their clients over the computer.

"We've been able to grow tremendously," says Carl Gould, owner of CMT International, a consulting firm in Riverdale, N.J. The impact of video chat has been so significant that Gould says he's adjusted his business model as a result. "Around 90% of all our coaching now is done via phone or video chat, which has cut our expenses tremendously."

In addition to lowering his costs, Gould says the medium lets him interact more closely with his clients, which increases the value for them. "One of the things we found is of all the mediums you can coach on, video chat is best at holding clients' attention," he said. Overworked professionals are notorious for multitasking during teleconferences, and busy execs may check their cell phones during meetings. When they're participating in a video chat, they're less likely to be distracted because the medium engages them in several ways at once, Gould says.

Beth Andrus, the Los Angeles-based owner of small business consulting company Mini-Biz Buzz, seconds Gould's assertion that video chats gets students involved and makes them retain more information. "The material can be very dry and overwhelming, but if they see me talking, they engage in a totally different way," Andrus said. "At the end of each session, when we have a Q&A period, everybody can see everybody. I love it because I see the clients interacting with one another. It's a kind of community."

Ben Pargman, a client of Gould's, agrees. Pargman is president and CEO of a company in Atlanta that does negotiating and consulting in the real estate short-sale business, and he turned to Gould for coaching services. "It's great," he says of video chat sessions. "It allows you to get that face-to-face element you don't get over the telephone." The experience was so positive Pargman has begun offering the option of video chat meetings for his own clients.

This immersive engagement also is the reason Philippe Allamel says he's been so successful. Allamel runs a virtual language school, Learnissimo; although nominally based in France, the company's one-on-one instructors and more than 1,000 students come from all over the globe. Being able to see the way words are pronounced aids students, and hearing words and phrases spoken by a native speaker helps people learn a new language faster than a book or CD, Allamel said, calling the medium "very convenient and flexible."

For some instructors, the decision to switch to video was borne of necessity. When piano teacher Kathy Parsons relocated from the San Francisco Bay area to Florence, Or., three years ago, several of her students virtually went with her, continuing to receive instruction via video. "I can teach people anywhere," Parsons say. The convenience is a big draw for students, she add. "One of my students likes it." says Parsons, "because she can do the lessons in her pajamas."

Being able to reach a wider cross-section of potential clients is also appealing to Beth Andrus. "I live in Los Angeles, and most of my clients live in other states. Teaching online with video allows me to reach people beyond L.A., and connect in a way that is more personal than a teleconference," she says. Much as the advent of e-commerce freed people from having to buy only goods that were locally available by exposing them to products sold all across the country and beyond

For Bob Fieg, one of Parsons' students, convenience was part of the draw. The Phoenix-based retiree says he likes not having to take a long car trip to get to his lessons. He also believes using the Internet brought him to a more qualified instructor. "I thought I could find somebody locally, but I don't know if I could find a teacher of this caliber," he says. Fieg also says he welcomes the one-on-one attention and the ability to stay in touch and ask questions between lessons.

Amara Elochukwu, another one of Parsons' piano students, opted for video chat lessons because the medium allows her to stay with the same teacher even when her job requires that she relocate, as she did recently from New York City to Gainesville, Fla. Elochukwu, a doctor, says another benefit of the video lessons is that she can fit them into her hectic professional schedule. "I don't have a lot of time," she explains. "With Kathy, it's so much more convenient."

Of course, there are some types of instruction for which face-to-face interaction is still best. Allamel says his company recommends that students have at least a rudimentary grasp of vocabulary in the language they wish to learn before signing up for video lessons.

"There are benefits to being in the room. It's more hands-on, and I can mark mistakes on the sheet music," Parsons says, although she adds that some students are more relaxed -- and therefore in a better frame of mind to learn -- because she's not literally looking over their shoulder.

Sometimes, too, the technology can throw a wrench into the process. "We're totally reliant on the various compatibilities of technology," Gould said. "Your entire session relies on everybody's technology being up to date and up to speed." When that doesn't happen, it can be a "nightmare" getting the session to proceed smoothly, he said. For lessons such as language or music, where the teacher being able to hear subtle nuances in the student's execution, poor sound quality can hamper success. Parsons says she takes extra time to walk her students through proper placement of their laptop so she can see their hands on the keys and hear them clearly.

Overall, though, both those who use and those who offer video chat services say the experience is a positive one. "I've been surprised that there hasn't been more interest in doing this," says Parsons. Maybe as more Americans learn about this high-tech option for learning new things and mastering new skills, that will change.
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