Today’s world is mobile. Your employees are working from home, out in the field, or down at the local coffee shop. Your customers, suppliers, and partners may be spread across the globe or the country.
Fortunately, technology is keeping pace with this mobile world. Cloud-based video conferencing and collaboration technology allows small businesses an affordable way to meet with dispersed employees, customers, and partners—whether they’re down the street or six time zones away.
But with numerous vendors, selecting a video conferencing solution can be daunting. As a small business owner, how do you choose the right solution—one that fits your budget and your specific needs?
Questions to Ask Yourself
As you begin the journey of choosing a video conferencing solution, here are some important items to keep in mind to help you evaluate each solution based on your business’ specific needs and priorities:
- Scalability – Even for small businesses, it’s important to think about the typical size of your potential video conferences. Will it usually just be two or three people collaborating? Or, do you need the capability to connect with larger groups—five to seven or even really large groups, such as twenty or more? Along these same lines, determine whether you will be connecting with multiple locations (six people in six different locations) or will it mostly be one-to-one remote collaboration? Most solutions can scale to small groups and a few locations, but if your answers indicate you need to scale to a large number of users, you’ll need to make sure the solution you select meets or exceeds the number of participants you anticipate and allows connections from multiple locations, operating systems, and devices.
- Quality – No matter how small your business, it’s important when you interact with other professionals that the audio and video quality of your solution meets or exceeds professional expectations. To ensure that your audio and video quality remains high, figure out how much bandwidth is required to support the level of quality you need. Video conference calls can consume anywhere from 128 Kbps for a single desktop or mobile connection up to 4 Mbps or more when several individuals are connected at once. Room-based connections and using HD video can also impact the amount of bandwidth you need. With higher end systems or multiple video conferences at once, it’s possible you may even need 10-20 Mbps. Do you currently have the bandwidth? If not, how much will it cost you to get it?
- Capabilities—Think about how your employees work. What types of documents do they need to present or share with other remote participants? Is screen sharing important to you? Or file transfers? What type of devices and operating systems will they be using to connect? Make sure the solution you choose is compatible with the applications you need to be productive, such as Microsoft Office 365, with the types of devices and operating systems your employees and customers will be using to connect.
- Accessibility—Where is the best place for your video conferences to take place? Is a small conference or huddle room best? Or will it usually just be one employee on a call at a time—if so, a desktop or mobile device connection may work better and be more flexible. What about your customers and partners? Will they be connecting from mobile devices, desktops, or a room-based solution? What operating system are they using? Make sure the solution you select is not proprietary and works with all types of devices and operating systems.
Narrowing Down Your Choices
Once you’ve answered the questions above and have a better sense of what your needs are, you can begin looking at the options available.
If you expect to have a group of employees on video calls with your clients, purchasing an in-room solution may be the best option. In-room solutions come equipped with a display, speaker, and camera, allowing small or medium-sized groups to video conference with remote participants.
Professional-grade systems can start as low as $4,000-$6,000. These solutions either offer their own cloud-based video conferencing solution or integrate with a cloud-based service provider. One thing to keep in mind, if you are already using Microsoft Office 365 in your business, you may want to select an in-room system that supports its integrated video conferencing solution, Skype for Business.
If your common use case is each employee connecting individually either from their desktop or mobile devices, you can skip the outlay of cash on an in-room system. Instead, employees can connect from their desktop or mobile device directly through a cloud-service provider. When considering cloud providers, think about what services you’ll need and what applications you’ll use.
If you’re a Microsoft Office 365 customer and typically share PowerPoint presentations, Word or Excel documents, Skype for Business may be the best option. Skype for Business is not only integrated into Outlook 365, but offers unlimited online meetings for up to 250 attendees. Meetings can be scheduled through Outlook and started with a single click. Additionally, Skype for Business provides a professional audio and video experience, including support for HD video. And, participants can share screens and documents, such as an Excel spreadsheet, to improve the collaboration experience. Finally, Skype also makes it easy to message or see the availability of others for ad hoc video collaboration.
Business Class vs. Consumer Solutions
For a small business, cost is always front of mind. Therefore, it may be tempting to save a few dollars a month and go with a free, consumer-grade service such as Google Hangouts or Skype. Be aware that these services are designed for consumer use and have limitations.
The biggest difference will be in security and scale. Both Google Hangouts and Skype limit video conferences to 10 users. Additionally, they lack the end-to-end encryption of a business class solution like Skype for Business as well as integration into a unified communications system, such as Skype for Business offers. Finally, these types of solutions don’t integrate with Microsoft Office 365, potentially limiting the productivity of a call.
The Choice Is Yours
At the end of the day, your specific needs will determine what the right choice is. So make sure you first run through the list of key considerations and understand what capabilities you need and what your use cases are. Then, you’ll be able to hone in the service provider that can best meet your needs at the best price point.