Distance Learning Not Just For College Students

With budget shortfalls affecting school districts across the United States, a lot of public schools are turning to virtual learning to ease some of the burden of these shortfalls.

When I started researching for this blog post I found that here in Texas, we have the Texas Virtual Academy, which is 100% supported and accredited by our school districts. I did some quick asking around in the office and found out that one of our operators has a child that started the program this year. I talked to him to give me some of his first impressions about the program.

What's Cool

  • Approved curriculum from the school district
  • Monitoring tools to keep kids accountable
  • Materials provided go well beyond text books. He informed me that not only did the school provide his child a preloaded desktop computer, they also threw in jump ropes and yoga balls for PE, as well as beakers for chemistry assignments.
  • There are also no additional grading requirements. Meaning all of the grades are submitted directly to the district - so there is no additional information for the parents to fill out or send in.
  • More one on one attention from the teachers and students are required to do at least six hours of logged work per day.

The ideas of distance learning are not exclusive to the state of Texas. In fact, a lot of school districts are embracing these ideas as financial burdens begin to affect the ability to hire more educators. Distance learning isn't just about saving money, it also exposes students to different teachers and classroom set ups.

Imagine the student that attends a large school district where the student to teacher ratio is 30:1 and this student struggles in the subject of Math. Now take that same student and virtually connect him or her to a classroom in small town America where the student to teacher ratio is 15:1. I wonder if the extra attention might help to boost this students grades.

We have an education system that if full of different perspectives and loyal educators. Embracing distance learning is going to give students the chance to be exposed to a number of the different kinds of classroom experiences.

What do you think about the potential benefits or drawbacks of distance learning?

Conference Call Services to Try in 2012

Teleconferences have changed since they were first introduced. They have come far beyond on the "audio meeting" to become a potentially integral part of your business and sales strategy. We put our heads together and thought of some other ways that conference call services could be used to interview employees, make new sales connections, and a lot of other really awesome things.

  1. Operator Assistance - An operator will take over all of the technical aspects of the call. They will also prepare a unique introduction to your conference call. Not only is this a great way to create some formality on the call, it's also a great way to relieve some of the stress from the moderator.
  2. Host a Sales Presentation via Web Conference - Instead of driving across town or hopping on a plane to pitch your next client, try using a simple web conference. Put together a PowerPoint presentation and stay in your office. You can still field questions and show growth potential, you're just doing it from the comfort of your favorite chair.
  3. Don't Travel for One Month - In the same vein as the previous tip, plan on keeping the wheels down for an entire month. Limiting travel will not only save you money but grant a different perspective on how you can manage your business. A lot of companies don't realize how easy it is to use conferencing and limit the travel.
  4. Host a Job Interview via Conference Call - Typically, the beginning of the year is when companies start bringing in new employees. Instead of the typical face to face interview, have the initial interview over the phone. You'll hear how the potential employee handles themselves when all they have are their words and tone of voice to back them up.
  5. Interview a Leader From Your Industry - Use a conference service to record the interview and then turn it into a podcast and host it on your blog. Simple as that.
  6. Telecommuter Friday - This may sound crazy but it could be a good experience for you and your employees. If your businesses allows (some won't, like retail) pick one Friday as a test and let your employees telecommute. Many companies successfully operate in a virtual office environment and end up saving money without the need for office space, phone lines, etc.
  7. Invite Your Customers to a Q&A Session - Try a monthly or quarterly call with your customers to see what they think of any changes or updates you've made to your products. This is an exceptionally great idea for start ups that usually make a lot of changes right away and rely on feedback from the public to know what is working and what isn't.
  8. Add a PowerPoint to a Status Meeting - Punch up your next boring old status meeting by adding in a PowerPoint. Suddenly, an audible list of sales numbers, increases, and projections become colorful and memorable graphs and charts. Using visuals reaches out and grabs the audience’s attention to keep the focus on the meeting and nothing else.
  9. Use a Registration Page - Trying to see who is attending a status meeting? Want to know what potential client attended one of your web conferences? Set up registration pages and collect information like name, email, or phone number. It gives you the ability to see who joined the conference, who didn't, and once you download the registration list, it's a marketing contact sheet that immediately lets you see who is interested in learning more about your products.
  10. Invite the Press to Your Company Announcement - We recommend that you use this tip in conjunction with the operator assistance suggestion. Inviting the press to an announcement is a good way to generate buzz, get a little excitement about a project, or gain a little extra news coverage.

In 2012, we highly encourage you to try one (or more) of these uses of your conferencing services. You might be surprised that a lot of people use conference calls for these very reasons and that it works very well.

Verbal Communication Styles

It is generally accepted that there are four different kinds of verbal communication styles. Each person will have their own way of approaching projects and while one particular communication style will stand out among the different attributes, most of us will have a combination of both. The kind of communicator affects the way they see different aspects of their job, how they react to change, and how they may interact with their co-workers. While reading over these I also realized that the type you relate most with could have some bearing on your presentations. Here's a brief overview of the communication styles and some things you can improve once you know your type.

Relator - The relator is the team player in the office. They dislike conflict and are hesitant towards change (but not necessarily against) because it will throw off their daily routine. They are easy to work with, take direction well, and are always willing to listen to others. While they always have the best interests of their co-workers at heart their work can sometimes be affected by the need for their co-workers to be happy.

When planning a presentation as a Relator keep in mind that you have no ability to please everyone who is listening to you. There will be someone in the audience who has heard what you're saying before or won't "get it". Instead, focus on the audience as a whole and encourage them to participate throughout the presentation.

Socializers - These employees are energetic motivators in the office. They enjoy brainstorming meetings and look ahead to the bigger picture. They are excited about where a company can end up but might lose some of the small details along the way.

The Socializer should take care when planning a presentation to include the small details. If you're going through a long and complicated process of how to make a particular change with in an organization, be sure that you document everything that you did to achieve success.

Thinkers - They value logic and details. They can approach a problem and provide a lot of solutions and contingency plans. While they are not opposed to change, it will take some time for them to get used to.

Where the socializer needs to include more details, if you're the thinker you should include a little less in your presentations. It's your nature to include every step along the way, but maybe you need to simplify your presentations a bit and give the option to contact you if they need more information.

Directors - These are the "no-nonsense" folks in the office. They get right down to business and can sometimes be blinded by their own personal goals. While their eyes are on the "bigger picture" they may have unrealistic expectations of how to get there.

If you're a director work on your presentation opening. Sure you desire getting down to business but take a couple of extra minutes to open with a good morning and some polite chatting with your audience. It will make them more receptive to what you have to say.

After reading these, I'm pretty sure that I'm a mixture of the Relator, the Socializer, and the Thinker - with my standout category being the Relator. I am not opposed to change and, in fact, welcome it, but I do require some time to adjust to it. I love to brainstorm with a group and I enjoy conversations that lay out different opinions and thoughts. The thing that stands out the most about me is that I am a "team player". I am strongly opposed to conflict and, in the past, my work has been affected by the need for everyone to be happy and satisfied in their job. What combination are you and which one stands out the most?

Best Blog Posts of 2011 - AccuConference Edition

Since 2012 is just around the corner I thought I would take a look to see the most popular posts on the AccuConference blog in 2011. These gems always bear another looking at and stay close in 2012 as we celebrate our 10 year anniversary. There will be lots of cool things happening around AccuConference so I hope you enjoy celebrating with us. Have a Happy New Year everyone and I hope 2012 brings you great things.

  1. Cell Phone Statistics - Looking for information about cell phone usage? We compiled much of the available data to show you the breakdown.
  2. Breaking Communication Boundaries - Is your company getting the most out of your conference call services? You'd be surprised at the statistics of companies who aren't.
  3. Cell Phone Safety - Companies are evaluating and changing their policies on cell phone use while driving company vehicles.
  4. In-N-Out Fort Worth - One of the most exciting things that happened this year was the opening of the In-N-Out burger in downtown Fort Worth. This was a process that was documented by our fearless leaders and their enthusiasm earned them a feature quote in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
  5. Types of Presentations - When asked to present on a conference, the first thing you have to decide is what kind of speech you're going to be making.

Honorable Mentions

8 Things I Learned From Subway

My first job was working at Subway Sandwiches in my small little town. Since the town was small, it meant that I didn't often get slammed by a rush of customers, but sometimes - a school bus would stop for sandwiches on their way home. I was sixteen years old, working until 10 PM on weekends, and I would have rather been uptown with the other kids my age. Eventually, my grades started to suffer so my parents told me that I had to quit - a decision I didn't mind.

I didn't realize it but working at Subway prepared me for any job I would have after it, including this one. Now that I'm older and more mature I look at teenagers who are working fast food and I just want to reach across the counter and tell (punch) them that they are missing a huge opportunity to learn about customer service. Working in fast food taught me eight things that every teenage employee needs to know and these are things I use every day.

  1. Smile - When I am on the phone with a customer they can tell if I am smiling or not. It's important that my tone is friendly and welcoming. There's no way you can hide if you're smiling or not when you're infront of the customer. Smiling at your customer is an important part of all customer service and helps the customer feel like you're glad they are there and chosing your company to so business with. It makes a huge difference to the entire transaction when you simply greet them with a smile.
  2. Acknowledge their presence - Even when you have a line out the door you still need to acknoweldge the presence of the people who are walking in. No, you don't have to call out across the resturaunt that you will be with them in just a moment - they can see that, but when they get up to the counter and are ready to order, simply thank them for waiting. They could have chosen to walk out the door and go down the street to your competition but they didn't.
  3. Put away your cell phone - When a customer is infront of you that customer should be the most important thing in your world. End of story.
  4. Take It Seriously - You are working in food service and, sure, a lot of people would look down their nose at you, but don't let that affect your work attitidue. You're handling food and have the potential to seriously affect someone's health - be sure you keep that in mind and wash your hands, follow cooking instructions, and don't do anything that's going to make me call the health inspector.
  5. Each Customer is a New One - I know that working in fast food might mean you deal with the overly angry customer who treats you like dirt simply because he or she can. That customer is a jerk and he shouldn't treat you like that just because he/she thinks that behavior is acceptable. We have all had bad customers or people that we couldn't communicate with but once they walk away you have to let it go, otherwise every customer will be that guy to you, and you're guranteed to have a horrible day.
  6. Respect the Order - If your company allows for special orders it is really unfair to your customer to roll your eyes when they try to place one. If I want a cheeseburger with extra cheese and no onions please don't make me feel like I've ruined your day by placing such an order.
  7. Keep Opinions About Your Job to Yourself - I know it's not where you see yourself working forever - but for now, it's the job you have and it only makes your customers uncomfortable to know that you dislike your job.
  8. Find Something You Like or Leave - When I worked at Subway, one of my favorite things was to chop tomatoes. It sounds silly, but there was something stress relieving about the giant tomato slicing machine. I looked forward to that time of day even as silly as it was. Find something you like to do and try to look forward to that.

Bonus Tip for the Customer - Sometimes, we make food service jobs very hard. If you walk into a resturuant and have to stand in a very long line to get your food, why are you so mean to the teenager behind the counter? Do you think they wanted to be short staffed today? I know it's easy to just assume that the business didn't properly staff the location but there's a good chance someone called out sick or there was a problem with a register before you got there. If it's noisy in the location and the cashier has to ask you to repeat yourself why do you get so upset about that?

When it comes to customer service, most people are generally understanding of issues that might arise and we try our best to be patient when we're hungry and cranky. One of the things that makes customers less cranky is having a kind, polite, and friendly person behind the counter to speak with.

Effective Conference Calls

Lets face it - if you're not having effective conference calls in your business you're probably not getting things done. With the decline of travel and the rise of the telecommuter, hosting conference calls are the best way to stay in touch with employees and customers to keep them updated on changes or notifications about a project. However, there is a resistance to conference calls that can easily be overcome by following a few simple rules. These are the things we have seen working for our clients and wanted to share them with you if you struggle with attendance or effectiveness with your conferences.

  • Start on Time - The most effective way to derail your entire conference call is by not starting it on time because it takes advantage of the time of the others that joined the call. You don't want to waste the time of employees, co-workers, and even customers who have taken time out of their daily work activities to join your conference. A few minutes here and there shouldn't be a problem but when you keep people waiting for ten or fifteen minutes, it bothers them and they are less likely to pay attention once the conference gets started.
  • Ask Questions & Get Feedback - Once you say something like and if there are any questions we'll handle those after the call you're giving permission to the attendees to give the conference less than their full attention. As long as they can follow up after to get clarification they will feel like they can multitask through the conference. Prompt for feedback throughout the call and ask specific open ended questions to specific people. There is a big difference between Is everyone okay with our new projections? and Dan, can you tell me what changes we can expect to see?
  • If You Hand Out Information Before Don't Read Directly From It - Anything you give out prior to the conference call should be a guide and not a copy of your speech. Once participants realize that they have a script in front of them, they will go back to doing something else and will half listen to the brilliant things you have to say.
  • Show Participants Respect - If you're asking them to refrain from checking email, taking a nap, or playing Angry Birds, you should be willing to do the same. Turn off your own email and give the conference call your full attention by chiming in, giving feedback, and asking questions to help further the collaborative spirit of the conference call.
  • End on Time - You have to give out a time to be sure that participants block out the right amount to join the conference but there is an idea of well, you're all here so we might as well discuss... and it shouldn't be like that. The truth is that when you give out a specific ending time, people will make plans for immediately following the conference call. End at the time you sent out or kindly notfiy participants on the invitation to schedule a little padding into their day, as the conference might run over.

Sadly, the truth is that there is little that can be done to solve the meetings suck feelings that tend to swarm around conference calls, but what you do have the power to control is how well you respect the time of your participants. Once you carry on a few effective conference calls, people will feel less trepidation about joining your conferences, because they know you're going to do what you promised. What are your rules for hosting effective conference calls?

How to Squeeze More Out of Your Weekly Meetings

It’s hard to imagine anything more routine than a weekly meeting. Typically scheduled at the same time every week, the meeting starts ten minutes late. People filter in and chat about the week. You try to get some things done: discuss the previous week of work and projects, lay out a foundation for the next week, some people take notes, some don’t, and then someone says meeting adjourned and everyone gets back to work—most likely grumbling. Okay. It may not be this bad—but still, it may not be all that good either. Routines are helpful, but they can lose their spunk. By this I mean they turn more into a rut than a routine. With regard to weekly meetings, your team may start to think they’re mundane, a formality, a little unimportant. In reality, a weekly meeting is very important: it can catalyze new ideas, get people back on track with their projects, and it’s a great way for everyone to keep abreast of the bigger picture, keeping some perspective on what your company or organization is doing.

So here are some ideas to help squeeze more out of your weekly meetings.

  1. Make Sure You Have a Weekly Leader – Your organization may be somewhat informal and your meetings are more like discussion time. While in some respects this is good and can breed fruitful ideas, in other respects it can be quite damaging to your meeting’s productivity. Having a leader is important because he or she will keep things moving. They can settle disputes, bring up the next point on the agenda, make sure the meeting starts and ends on time, make sure people stay on topic. Your leader needn’t be the same one each week. But a meeting without a leader is like a ship with no captain at its helm – it will drift off course. To watch a discussion about the importance of a meeting leader, see Broken Meetings (and how you’ll fix them).
  2. Make Sure Your Meeting Starts on Time – People are busy, and it’s annoying when others don’t respect others’ time. Therefore you should always start your meeting punctually. This seems like a given, but how many times have people showed up a few minutes late apologizing and everyone just shrugs it off? This can actually be damaging because it subconsciously primes people to take the meetings less seriously: they figure, meh, no one cares if I’m on time, it’s a pretty casual meeting anyways. A simple system of rewards and punishments will encourage people to show up on time. It doesn’t necessarily be anything big—you could reward those who show up on time with their first choice of projects, for example. Or, for those who are late, they may have to do more work that week. Or, more simply, the person who is late might have to take meeting notes and email them to everyone. For a more exhaustive list of ways to get your meeting kicked off on time, see here.
  3. As Meeting Leader, Set Clear Agenda – Weekly meetings will run most efficiently if you have a clear, step-by-step agenda. This can be organized with a broad topic and a checklist. For example, this week’s broad meeting topic may be “Increasing Customer Base.” Under that broad topic you would then have an agenda by which you proceed: Brief Intro – 3 minutes; Brainstorm – 10 minutes; Pick Strategies – 10 minutes; Plan for Implementation – 7 minutes. Having a time-stamped breakdown will keep things moving fast, keep things on topic, and generally help keep the meeting productive.
  4. Keep Meetings Short – A meeting should waste no unnecessary time just like a painting should waste no unnecessary paint. One of the common ailments of a weekly meeting is simply that it’s allotted too much time. Keeping them brief-20-25 minutes-is good because it allows your team to focus on a few key items, lets people get back to work, dissuades people from showing up late, and is respectful of everyone’s time.
  5. Use Tools Available For Organizing and Timing – The Internet has recently sprung to live several free web apps that will help you organize meetings. For keeping meeting notes, we recommend Evernote – it syncs all of your notes in the cloud, meaning they’re available on all of your devices and can be shared with your whole team. Another great app for minutes is minutes.i, which is devoted to meeting minutes. You fire up the website and it generates a minutes template that can be shared immediately after the meeting. Timebridge coordinates everyone’s calendars, finding the best times to hold your weekly meeting, check it out here.

4 Little Things That Matter

A lot of customer service happens through communication mediums that aren't the telephone. Most companies have recognized that and provide tons of ways for their customers to get in touch with them. (For example you can get us here, here, here, or here, and you can call us too!) While we still have a lot of customers that like to talk to us on the phone, there are many who prefer to contact us via email. Over the phone, it's easy to gain a connection to your customer by simply smiling or having a brief chat about something that's not related to the purpose of their call. Without your voice to back you up in an email it becomes even more important to do those "little things" to get close with your customer.

Spelling

Did you spell the customer’s name correctly? This might seem like an obvious common sense kind of thing, but I can speak from personal experience here. I have a unique spelling of my name and while I am usually pretty forgiving of the misspelling, I feel like an agency that gets my money should spell my name correctly. Email correspondence already loses some of your interaction with the customer, so make sure that the extra second is being taken to spell the customer’s name right.

Making The Offer

I'm not talking about additional products and services here, just the general let me know if there's anything else comment. The way we handle customer service is a policy where anyone can help a customer but we know there are customers who want one contact. By making the offer to help with anything, we let customers know that the person they are corresponding with can help them with any of their questions.

Please & Thank You

Losing the vocal connection with a customer means that they can't hear your tone. I've warned before in posts that one of the biggest concerns about email should be the lack of tone. A customer can infer what you're writing however they want and that can be good or bad for you. By using please and thank you in the email you're letting them know that you're asking them for more information. Don't overuse the phrases and end up sounding condescending.

Know When to Call

I've said it before and I'll say it again - if an email takes longer than two replies to resolve an issue or answer a question, pick up the phone and give the customer a call. Once you start firing a long chain of emails back and forth things are going to get very confusing. The third email you have to send to a customer should include the sentence When is a good time to give you a call so we can talk?

Customer service is something that needs to be available on all platforms that a customer might be using. Businesses are available on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks because their customers are there, but in the end, it's mostly the main forms of communication that remain - customer service by phone and customer service by email. When you lose the phone portion of customer service you lose some of the connection with your customer. You can do a little more in your email correspondence to make sure the customer feels the same kind of connection. What other "little things" can you do to make sure that customer service is translating across email?

Charity Spotlight: Circle of Friends

Charity work is always important but at this time of year it always seems like there are just a few more things that need to be done. This is the time of year that you see the food bank donation boxes or happily drop a couple of extra dollars into the red kettle outside of your favorite store.

We want to tell you about a local charity doing great work here in our hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.

Circle of Friends is a children's charity that works in connection with Cook Children's Hospital to provide programs and aid to children and families diagnosed with cancer and other disorders in the Oncology and Hemotology departments.

Every year we get the chance to donate to Circle of Friends and help support their yearly events and fundraisers, including the Family Christmas Fund. This provides gift cards and wish list items for families who currently have children recieving treatment through Cook Children's.

Charity doesn't just stop once the holidays are over. Circle of Friends also has a number of other programs to support children and their families all year long:

  • Teen Survivors Retreat - Providing teen cancer paitents with a group that lets them interact with other paitents and share stories.
  • Paul Wallace Foundation - Continuing care providied through emergency assistance and outpaitent treatment programs.

Please visit their website this holiday season (or after!) and consider helping to support a chairity devoted to making the lives to children and families suffering from cancer and blood disorders. Check out their sweet hand painted pumpkins that are always a part of our fall decor.

Above all, we encourage you to find something to donate your time, energy, or (even) your money to this holiday - and after.

We hope everyone has an excellent and Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy your time with friends and family.

Forget the Underwear

Remember that horrible piece of advice you got right before making one of your first public appearances?

Just picture everyone in their underwear.

I was 10 the first time I heard that advice. I'm 28 now and it still makes me want to shove my head in the sand (which is what I'm sure my reaction would be to a roomful of people in their skivvies.)

No, thank you.

The meaning behind the advice is great. The purpose of picturing everyone in their underwear is not to blind you or make you go run screaming from the mic, but instead to make you feel like everyone is on the same level. When you're on stage, you feel exposed and like you're bearing all for the world to see - so the underwear trick is supposed to make you feel like everyone else is exposed too.

There are some better ways to do that than picturing yourself as the grand marshal of the no-pants parade.

Meet & Greet.

Get to know some of the people who will be attending your presentation. Show up an hour early and shake hands with the people that come in. There is no better way to feel "on the same level" than to know what you have in common with your audience.

Remember: This Isn't High School.

Since we're adults now and don't have to face an auditorium full of people who are just looking for a reason to judge you, we can let everyone keep their pants on. Everyone in that room wants to hear what the professional and grown up version of you has to say so tell the teenage you to sit down and relax - their job is done, you'll take it from here.

Open With A Story.

This is a great presentation technique over all but it's especially effective when you're trying to find some common ground with your audience. Once people can relate to you and it feels like you've bonded, you'll feel more like you're having a conversation and less like you're lecturing people.

Picturing everyone in their underwear is going to very little, if anything, to boost your confidence. How are you connecting with your audience to calm your nerves. Remember to forget the underwear (except for yours... you should remember those...)

AccuConference | Education Online: The New e-Campus

Education Online: The New e-Campus

When you want to take a college level class, learn a new skill, keep up-to-date on continuing education classes, the e-Campus has become a hot property and first choice for many.

Using the Internet with teleconferencing, application sharing, and interactive options such as forums for after class discussions the e-Campus is becoming a mainstream education choice. Not only have traditional four year colleges embraced the Internet as a way for professors to communicate lesson plans, post notes, and monitor class assignments, but graduate level courses are being served with interactive video allowing the actual class members to share and discuss topics under the supervision of an instructor in real-time.

Many of these online classes use teleconferencing and Web conferencing as ways to listen to and watch a lecture and to interact with a professor. Some classes use a forum or online blackboard to post lectures, video lessons, and some actually support far-flung virtual classrooms connected via the Web with class and instructor video feeds. The diverse use of technology to disseminate information, train and educate students, and offer higher level education to a wider sector of people is changing the face of higher level education.

Many online classes allow for self-paced learning and some prefer the strong class interaction of having everyone online at the same time. Either way education is taking a new advance and allowing more options in how you go to class on the new e-Campus.

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AccuConference | Seth Gets It

Seth Gets It

Seth Godin talks about the The new standard for meetings and conferences.  Energy prices are rising and the cost of travel is climbing higher with wait times, canceled flights and more.

Now that the technology has arrived to replace almost every aspect of the face-to-face meeting, isn't it time to rethink "Do I really have to travel?"

As Seth says, "I flew all the way here for this?"

Another place for savings (time, energy and money) is working from home.  One of our previous posts mentions the enormous savings that could be realized if employees worked from home one day a week.

As a collaboration company, all we can say to Seth is, "Amen!"

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