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Conferences have been the force driving corporate Web video applications. Looking to save on travel expenses, businesses have hired a range of Web startups to install cameras and high-bandwidth connections that link boardrooms and satellite offices around the globe in teleconferenced "virtual meetings."
But Salton Inc. (NYSE:SFP), a Mount Prospect, Ill., company that sells appliances under such brands as Toastmaster, Breadman, Farberware, Maxim, and George Foreman Grills, wanted online video for a different purpose: to give visitors at its retail Web siteface-to-face assistance.
Salton sells mainly not online but through large retailers like Wal-Mart, Kmart, Costco, and Target. Indeed, less than 1 percent of its more than $800 million in annual sales comes through its Web site.
Bud Thatcher, a product manager who leads Salton's Web strategy, calls the site "very low profile," in part because Salton has no interest in, as Thatcher puts it, "disturbing any of our other sales channels."
Still, the company needed a "Web presence" for the Internet age. Since each retail outlet can carry only a fraction of Salton's thousands of models, it needed a public repository with comprehensive sales info. And while small in percentage terms, online sales still amount to several million dollars each year, serving thousands of customers.
The reason Salton decided to add videoconferencing may boil down to something simple: while he understands technology, Bud Thatcher is not a techie. He empathizes with people befuddled by the Web, who may go online to answer a simple question about a toaster or an electric toothbrush but can't navigate their way past the home page -- and too often can't find so much as a phone number to help. So he insisted on developing a feature allowing visitors to click a button that pops up a window featuring a live Web cam shot of a Salton staffer ready to assist, even taking over the user's mouse if requested.
"If I want help, I don't want to type an e-mail, I want to talk to a live person," Thatcher said. "And if I'm lost at a site, I definitely don't want to send an e-mail -- I want to talk to someone now."
While Salton already had a corporate-wide conferencing system, for this project Thatcher turned to a different company -- Convey Systems, a 3-year-old Charlotte business formerly known as Videogate.
Convey's video systems focus more on individual PC-to-PC communication, rather than linking conference room to conference room. While they can be used for large meetings, Convey targets its interactive services for sales staff to connect with clients, for distance learning systems, or, as in Salton's case, for call centers and other customer assistance. The system also allows for document collaboration, in which people in different offices can modify files simultaneously. The technology resides within a company's firewall for increased security.
Convey installed Salton's system, which has cameras and links for three customer service stations, last June for between $10,000 and $20,000. While Convey had developed its initial system months before, Salton waited until the technology was made compatible with all browsers, including Netscape and AOL.
While a number of minor integration problems arose, Thatcher praised Convey's customer service, and the system was ultimately installed, all kinks unknotted, in under two weeks.
"They've been a good company to deal with," Thatcher said. "The staff is very professional, and they've accommodated us at every turn. We've had no major complaints, and the system has worked well."
Customer representatives, located in Salton headquarters and at a service facility in Missouri, can identify the speed of a caller's modem or other Internet connection. That allows them to suggest going into video, audio, or, for 28K modems, text help. At broadband speeds the picture updates reasonably quickly, and the audio seems only slightly out of sync.
Salton limits use of the teleconferencing to general product questions and site navigation. Customers with product complaints are encouraged to call a different toll-free number.
Salton likes the Convey system so much, it plans to use the technology in a soon-to-be-launched auction Web site. Designed for corporate customers with high-bandwidth lines, the auction site will allow Salton buyers to bid on all kinds of equipment -- all in real-time, from multiple locations thousands of miles apart.