Teleconferencing often brings to mind horrible memories of business calls gone bad: People shouting into phones to be heard as the other party fades in and out of the background noise. Or rounding up all the people needed to make that vital call to the key customer only to find out the date has to be changed. Just trying to find a phone system with a quality teleconferencing feature can be a daunting challenge that many business owners and managers would rather do with out.
So instead of trying to be an expert in yet another field, many are choosing to let third parties handle all their teleconferencing needs.
"Teleconferencing is hot," says Jeffrey Kagan, author of Winning Communications Strategies. "All the major phone companies are offering teleconferencing services."
The method varies by company. Some reservations can be made using the Internet by going to a Web site and entering each party's phone number and the conference time. Others are handled by a customer-service representative who issues a PIN number. Some are arranged by an operator who bridges all the callers at the appointed time. When using an advance-reservation system, all callers typically call one number and are connected to the other parties, either by an operator or automated attendant.
"A conference can hold thousands of callers, if necessary," notes Kagan. "Phone companies often use them for their own press conferences. For the most part, they work really well."
Teleconferencing used to be something marketed only to large companies, but times have changed. Small businesses are now the focus of the service providers.
"It can really save a ton of money for companies that want to have a meeting," says Kagan. "There is no arranging of schedules for travel, and the quality is good."
Unlike many phone systems, the quality remains the same regardless of the number of caller. There is little or no background noise, and everyone is clearly audible. The only problems usually associated with remote teleconferencing are busy calling periods. Occasionally, someone may have trouble getting through because of call volume.
"If a conference is scheduled to start at 11 a.m., you might want to call in at 10 'til," says Kagan. "Usually a bigger phone company will have a bigger bank of operators, so pick one with a lot of resources. You may be thinking that you've only 12 people calling in, and that's no big deal, but the phone company may have thousands of other calls coming in at the same time. Getting one with deep pockets is usually a good idea."
Scheduling for a non-traditional time may also help avoid any traffic jams. For example, rather than scheduling a meeting for 1 p.m. or 1:30 p.m., schedule it for 1:15 or 1:45.
Charges vary by company, but most function through an 800 number that all parties call to get connected. The company or person setting up the call is charged per connection, per minute. Cost are reasonable, with charges averaging about 25 cents per minute. The connection charge ranges from 50 cents to $1 per person.
"Usually the costs are less than that to overnight the information that's presented in the meeting," says Kagan.
Companies can also use the services for presentations or company updates. For an extra fee, any meeting or message can be stored for later replay. Anyone missing the meeting could call in to hear it in its entirety.
Larger meetings, including news conferences, can be teleconferenced as well. Reporters or customers are in a "listen only" mode while the person speaks. One who has questions can hit a button and speak. A screener usually picks the relevant questions, or the ones the person is prepared to answer, and puts the person with the question into talk mode to speak. In this way, questions are prescreened for the speaker, and background noise from the attending members doesn't make the call a disaster.
"For most businesses, it really pays to use these services," notes Kagan. "When you're dealing with the phone companies, it's a turnkey operation. You don't have to maintain and upgrade your own system. They have a full bank of operators and customer-service people to help.
"It's really one of those valuable untapped resources. It's a hot technology that can give a small business an edge, and it's a great way to update customers, employees, the media and the marketplace. Teleconferencing is an easy-to-use tool, but unfortunately, most small businesses still don't even know about it."