Selecting Your Conference Calling Solution

by : Bob Letterman

Choosing a conference call company is not easy. Just type the phrase "conference call" into Yahoo and you'll see dozens of providers. Fortunately, most of them differentiate their services on a small-group of factors. Understanding these elements, and thinking through their relative significance to the needs of your organization, is the best way to make an informed decision. Research in the industry indicates that there are five elements which typically enable a user to make a prudent decision. To help you make that choice, this article reviews these 5 areas.

1. Price

All-conference calling services cost at least something to use. This is true even of the services that position themselves as "free." Why is that? With the exception of an entirely VOIP based system (e.g. Skype), all-conference calling services require participants to dial a bridge number. In the situation of services that provide toll-free bridge numbers, a per minute charge is assessed. The lowest rate you can typically get is several cents on a per minute basis typically you'll be paying 5 to 10 per minute. This charge is levied cumulatively. In other words, if there are 5 participants on a 60 minute call, a 300 minute charge will be levied. Some services still charge legacy rates and of 20 or 25 cents a minute and these plans are to be avoided! As mentioned earlier, some services are free with respect to the fact that there is no charge imposed by the provider. However, these offerings do not provide a toll-free number with their free services and as such users will incur normal long-distance charges to participate.

2. Scheduling capability

Services typically fall into one of two general categories. Paid and custom corporate services typically provide a scheduling interface which helps the organizer to arrange the conference call. For the services that feature an Outlook integration or similar sort of functionality, a pin code and dial-in bridge can be allocated to the user for situations where the user wants to do her own scheduling. The free offerings typically provide only a pin code and dial-in bridge; the organizer of the teleconference call is responsible for sending individual e-mails and maintaining track of individual responses. At the present time, the sole free conference calling service available in the market featuring both capabilities (scheduling and on-the-fly conferencing) as well as web based response tracking is

3. Archiving and Recording

For many organizations, the ability to store information associated with the call or even the call itself can be quite useful. Some services allow recording of the teleconference call in WAV format, GSM or both formats. Some companies provide this capability for free but generally it is found as a bundled feature of paid teleconferencing services. The audio file is typically retrieved after the conference call is over through a link from the service provider's web site or a link e-mailed to the participants. It is generally not possible to email the audio itself because of capacity constraints. Some services provide the conference agenda to be archived. This capability is obviously not possible with services that simply offer a pin code and dial-in number but can be offered by services that offer scheduling capability insofar as the scheduling template captures the call specific information.

4. Sharing Your Desktop

Sometimes a teleconference is not limited to the audio format. If your business requires sharing of information (e.g. PowerPoint presentations), desktop sharing is a critical component of a successful conference call. Some users choose a best-of-breed approach and use different services for their desktop sharing and conferencing. Increasingly, however, conference calling companies are moving aggressively to bundle desktop sharing functionality into their underlying product. In the case of well-known brands such as GoToMeeting, this is part of a goal to capture both markets. In the case of conferencing calling companies, desktop sharing is being offered as a paid feature to generate added revenue.

5. Personalization

A typical complaint from users of conference calling systems is the need to remember random dial--in bridge numbers and pin-codes. In the last year, confluence of telecom and internet technologies is enabling this problem to be solved. A handful of conference call companies enable users to customize their PIN codes to PIN codes more easily remembered. Some systems also offer access without a pin when calling from a known phone number. Such systems, however, do require user registration in order to enable a matching of the user's phone number.

For most users, the ultimate choice of teleconferencing service will require weighting these (and perhaps other) factors according to your organization's needs. The good news is that the increase of competition in this market is expanding the offerings available to you.