Using Skype As a Business Tool

 There are three types of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can't.

This old joke came to mind when I started thinking about this post. It seems there are two main camps of computer users:  those who've never heard of Skype, and those who know about it and think of it as a cutesy personal voice-over-internet voice/video calling program.  But Skype is starting to be seen as a valuable business productivity tool.  Allow me to explain.

For those of you in the first camp, Skype is a free software product for your desktop computer which will allow you to make voice and/or video phone calls to other Skype users.  It has been gaining in popularity as a consumer software product, allowing people to make long distance "calls" for free using their internet service.  I've personally used it to connect with friends and family who are across country and even friends overseas in Germany and England.  As the old saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words" and it's really neat to be able to see loved ones who are far away.  It's becoming a staple for moms and dads to reach out to their far-flung college children, military families with a loved one deployed overseas, and more.

But in my experience, Skype is seen mainly as a "cute" consumer software product.  Not a business tool.

Recently I was talking to a colleague who does freelance graphic design from his home office.  He's a very hip, savvy, "web 2.0"-ish type person who's into all the latest gadgets and software and technology.  He wanted to do screen sharing with a client and was looking for an easier way.  If both users have a Mac, screen sharing is relatively easy -- it's baked right into Mac OSX.  But it still requires some firewall settings and so forth.  But when working with his customers, they're often on a whole mish-mash of operating systems (mostly Windows of course), and the various screen sharing applications can be cumbersome to install, configure and operate with random customers who may or may not be very tech savvy.  The other problem is that while you can go through the whole process once for someone you'll be collaborating with often, it's a high hurdle to have to jump when the whole process has to be repeated over and over again with each new customer.   There are a host of 3rd party RDP and VNC clients, and then products such as WebEx and more.  But again, each has its own set of installation and configuration hurdles, and end customers may or may not be keen (or even able, in the case of business users on locked-down corporate networks) on installing all sorts of 3rd party software products.  And of course, there's cost.  Some of the nicer products are not exactly inexpensive!

I suggested Skype.

Then I suggested it again.  And again.  Three or four times.  Why? Because, like most people, he had a pre-conceived notion that Skype was a cutsey little consumer phone chat app.  With much poking and prodding, I eventually got him to give it a shot.  The reaction was strong and nearly instantaneous: "This is amazing! It's perfect! Thank you! I'm going to start using this with all of my clients now!"

The reasons are as follows:

1. It includes video feeds.  Again, "a picture is worth a thousand words".  Being able to see customer's faces and reactions, and for them to see yours, is priceless.  And it's far faster and easier to pick up a piece of paper or an object and show it, or make a quick sketch, versus trying to describe or sketch, scan, and email. It's fast and easy and natural.

2. Screen sharing is baked right into the app.  It's super fast and easy to just click one button and BAM! the other person can see your screen (and/or you can see theirs).  You have full control to turn it on or off with a simple button click, and you can share screens simultaneously while making your call.  Thus, you have screen sharing and voice calling simultaneously.  It's fast and natural to just say "see this piece over here?  what do you think of moving it here?" while visually pointing to objects and locations on your screen.  And again, because Skype is a consumer product, it's all very intuitive and easy peasy.  Installation is easy, and usage is even easier.  Interestingly, we both went into screen sharing simultaneously and got the digital equivalent of the mirror-in-a-mirror paradox:  infinite nested instances of his screen showing mine, which showed his showing mine, which... and so on.   Ok, that was admittedly a geeky (but fun!) moment.  Guilty as charged.

3. Hands-free lets you work and talk.  You can use headsets and such, if your local environment is an issue, but for most people it's easy and convenient to simply use it as a speaker phone.  This lets you work hands-free to talk while you type, annotate, share screens, and more.  No phone device to hold, manage, deal with, etc. -- it's all on screen.

4. Instant Messaging is built-right in.  Have you ever been on the phone with someone and wanted them to go to a web site?  "It's H T T P... no, not B, T... Yes, T. Now T again. Now P. And a colon.  That's the two dots on top of each other.  Right.  Now a forward slash.  No, the one sloping to the RIGHT..." and then you realize the full URL includes a bazillion parameters   ?page =2893829&index=12 and so forth, and you say "Wait, let me just email you the link."  And then the email never arrives.  "Hmmm.  Let's check your spam filters to make sure it didn't get pulled out for some reason." Oy!  Been there, done that.  With IM built right in, the conversation is "See the link I just sent you in the chat window?  Click it."   Done.

5. File Transfers. Sending files back and forth is real-time and just as easy as sending chat messages (as noted above).  Just open an instant messaging (aka "IM") chat window and drag & dropping a file into it.  BAM! Done.  Instantaneously (or, just however long it takes to transfer the file, based upon file size) it's there.

6. With the IM / text chat feature, you can also use it to send quickie text messages, instructions, file URLs, or drag & drop entire file transfers quickly and easily, on the spot, while multitasking and doing 13 other things.  You do not have to be engaged one-on-one on a phone call to use Skype.  In fact, about 60% of my Skype usage does NOT involve actual voice or video phone calls.  It's quick, easy, and ever-present.

7. Skype handles multi-location logins MUCH more seemlessly than any other similar product.  With chat systems like AOL, if you go in via your cell phone you get a message squawking at you that you're logged in from multiple locations and it forces you to pick one and kill the other.  Skype handles it MUCH more gracefully and lets you work from multiple locations (such as being logged in at your desktop, but also checking from a laptop or phone while mobile, without having to worry about the desktop).  If you go mobile, even if your desktop is logged in, you can still accept the calls from your mobile device or whichever instance of Skype you're sitting with at the moment.

8. Call Centers are using the above feature.  They can have 30 telesales reps all logged in with the same account.  Any customer who calls for help can be answered by whomever is the first to respond!  Stop and really think about that!

9. Advanced calling & routing features.  Similar to the multi-location login support, Skype also offers a whole host of advanced "presence" management features.  You can setup voicemail, call routing, and multi-device calling (that is, the other person calls one number, but skype forwards the call to multiple phones, so that you can answer from your desk or your mobile or a home line, or whatever phone lines/devices you want to configure, so that you have one generic "follow me" type number).  Personally, I don't use these features but I know many small business owners who do and they love it.  (I'll also parenthetically note that Google Voice is offering many of these same features for free in a whole other service, which I'll be posting about separately in the near future).

10. The user base is exploding exponentially.  Skype is now (and has been for a few years) owned by eBay.  They have deep pockets, and are committed to the product long-term.  The service is exploding and more and more people are getting on it every day.  Skype is now beginning to eclipse my usage of "traditional" IM clients for business communications with my internal team, as well as with clients.

11. Oh, and did I mention it's FREE? Instead of $60 or $150 a month for higher-end, "Premium" services, Skype is easy and it's free.  And backed by eBay, it's got a solid development team behind it turning out a world-class product.

For all of these reasons, and more, I'm finding that I'm using Skype more and more in my daily activities.   The screen sharing is NOT interactive (it's not remote-control, it's view-only).   However, if remote control is critical, there are a whole host of 3rd party plug-ins for Skype, which they call "extras", that are available for free (and some at cost, on a case by case basis) from 3rd party developers that can provide a wide range of add-on features including Whiteboarding, webinars, collaboration, faxing from a PC, and much more.  I've used remote control extras for Skype and they're pretty neat too, although they take a bit more hands-on installation work at both ends to start adding in new "extras" after the fact.   I have found that the level of screensharing that's built into Skype out-of-the-box is sufficient for 90% of my needs, and is a huge time saver!   If you're interested in perusing some of the available "Extras", click here.

As Mr. Spock one said: "Live Long, and Be Productive." OK, he didn't really say that.  But he should have.