Virtual meetings and digital surveillance can pay dividends

This issue's Tech Talk looks at two ways area developers can save time and money by using technology to improve their management and operations: 1) using Web-based software to conduct online meetings for all or some of their sites; and 2) using in-store cameras to improve operations on the fly and provide a digital record that can improve customer relations and protect employees at the same time.

Online Get-Togethers

Offices that are spread out all over the country (or world) are getting more and more common. Getting people together who need to talk, share files, and work collaboratively is getting simpler and less expensive. For franchisees and franchisors, collaboration over distance is a given, and it's been solved in the past with lengthy and expensive plane flights, dedicated conferencing facilities, inadequate phone calls, and e-mail.

But there's a less expensive and relatively to get a lot of the benefits of conferencing using the new Web-based programs like Microsoft's Netmeeting, and a host of others.

ReadyTalk, a Denver-based communications company, has actually made franchising a specific area of interest. It offers the usual teleconferencing call-in options, and the ability to coordinate that through browsers so that users can see a whiteboard, PowerPoint presentation, or shared file while the conversation is going on.

That's about as good as being there, except you have to bring your own water. On the plus side, bathrooms are usually closer.

The interest in franchising grew out of the company's original involvement with restaurants or stores that have the same communications problems that franchises have.

Mike Ligon, a sales executive with ReadyTalk, and the go-to guy for franchise companies, says it's the quagmire of "How do I talk with these people without having to be in the same place with them?"

It was a natural move to the franchising world, Ligon says. Now franchisors are using the program for and for "virtual discovery days" as well as traditional file and conversation sharing.

The virtual discovery day's value, Ligon says, is in "having an audio conference with a husband, wife, or anyone interested." The participants "can log in and sit back in the comfort of their own home and watch a PowerPoint presentation. It's a good way to weed through candidates rather than renting a suite and hosting a whole group."

One of the most popular uses of the system, Ligon says, is for training: "It might be software, Internet, you name it." The issue for franchisors and multi-unit franchisees, he says is that even after all the stores are trained, more have come into the system, and you have to start all over. "With this system, you can record all the sessions and then build a library that can be shared with new people."

There can literally be hundreds of participants. But for smaller groups, collaborative work is possible - desktops or individual applications can be shown. The chairperson starts a conference, and can then control all the proceedings. Or he or she can add other chairpersons, answer questions, or show other desktops.

"Chairpersons can just deliver information and view the slides, or they can go into a desktop sharing mode," Ligon says. "They can also take it to a more advanced mode with real-time collaboration; for example, they can review sales numbers with regional people, and update sales figures in real time."

Ligon, who has worked for some time with franchisors and multi-unit franchisees, says that franchisors can be very skeptical about new technology and its costs. ReadyTalk offers a flat rate pricing model, which on average runs about $400 for any number of users. "You could have 96 callers on that account, so you can typically cover all your loations," he says.

Audio conferencing, of course, since it's using the telephone network, has a per-minute charge, which Ligon says is down to 5â€"7 cents a minute.

On the web:

Digital surveillance-plus

Surveillance conjures images of cameras sweeping a room, and endless tapes that can be reviewed. But that stereotype is quickly changing. DTT, a provider and manufacturer of digital products for the and hospitality industries, has integrated video into other interesting data sources.

"The POS machine is the starting point," says Sam Naficy, CEO of DTT. "Historically, a lot of data is gathered from that machine. We now have integrated that with video, so not only can you search that data, you can also match it to the surveillance data."

The company's largest client is Subway, says Naficy. DTT sold its 1,000th Subway location in 2006. "They wanted time and attendance for their employees, and they use the same POS machine for time and attendance. Suppose they had a manager clock out four employees that had left an hour before. Now the video of that transaction is captured."

There are a surprising number of useful tasks beyond the obvious that the system can provide - or be programmed to provide. Steak n Shake, for example, "came to us and wanted weather information included in 500 locations, so that if a weather pattern is coming that is cold, the store can add a soup," says Naficy.

"A McDonald's in Orlando wanted real-time traffic reports so they can know if there's a traffic reason for sales being down." Surveillance also can be tied to whether temperatures are correct, and employees can be notified to change that - with proof they have made the change.

"It has a deterrent effect," Naficy says, "but also a support effect. It can benefit employees when there is a dispute with a customer: the transaction is captured and can exonerate an employee unfairly accused by a customer."

After eight years in business, DTT has about 19,000 installations at many other well-known franchise systems - Burger King, 7-Eleven, Taco Bell, KFC, Holiday Inn Hotels, and T.G.I. Friday's, for example.

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