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Conference calling increasingly popular with more options available

Telephone conference calling has been increasing in acceptance for a variety of reasons. Rates for conference calls have decreased considerably in recent years, and at the same time the cost and hassles of air travel for business meetings have increased.

If you haven’t checked rates for conference calling lately, you might be surprised at some of the low rates being offered.

“The industry seems to be breaking into two camps: those that compete on price and only on price,” said Zane Safrit, CEO of Conference Calls Unlimited. “Many companies compete on that approach. Then there are companies like ours, and a dwindling number of others. We offer a great price, but maybe not the lowest. And we’re offering more than a conference call. For us, that starts with answering calls live from our leads and also from our customers.”

Safrit said the conference call industry is very competitive, and has seen a lot of price attrition in the past year. He feels the industry is moving into commodity-like status. Conference Calls Unlimited used to be a low-cost leader. Currently in the mid-20¢ per customer range, its rates are higher than some competitors offering 12¢ per minute per person or less.

“I know what industry costs are,” Safrit said. “I don’t think there is a way they can continue to survive. Having said that, there are certainly a number of them out there. We go through great hoops to answer calls live. We’re hearing that people love that. At least once a day we get customers who say, ‘I’ve called your competitors and no one’s answering.’ They want the computer to do all the work. Or they want a prospect to trust them enough to give them their credit card number without ever talking to anyone. That is asking a lot from a total stranger. The reason no one answers the phone with these low-price conference call services is that they can’t afford to pay someone to answer because of the low prices.”

If someone has a very important business conference call planned, it might have taken a lot of work just to schedule the call at a time when everyone is available. If there is some glitch, and the conference call doesn’t work, saving a few bucks on the conference call suddenly isn’t worth it.

“To whom do you trust a very important form of communication?” Safrit asks. “When looking at price, it is certainly very important. But when talking to clients and prospects, how dependable do you want the company behind that to be?”

There can be problems with issues such as being overcharged for conference calls. The call might have lasted an hour, and the bill shows it going on for two hours. Those times, customers want to be able to call and get a person to respond to the complaint.

“Technology is wonderful, and it does a lot for us,” Safrit said. “But you can have problems such as power outages or upgrades that cause difficulties. What if you have a very important conference call and several callers are having trouble getting on? The really cheap prices are great. In certain circumstances, you can take a risk. But if you have an important business conference call, you want to make sure there is someone on the other end if something happens.”

An increasing trend in the teleconferencing area is Web conferencing or a “Webinar,” which is a Web-based seminar.

“Two years ago a lot of people didn’t know what a Web conference or Webinar was,” Safrit said. “I would say 99% of people I speak with now understand those terms. Everybody has been on a Web conference. It is a very well-accepted alternative to frequent travel. With airline prices going back up, and gasoline so high, we are ready to launch an advertising campaign centered around that whole issue.”

By logging onto a Web site, you can share documents, spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations. Participants can chat, ask questions and give feedback. The Webinars can also allow someone to demonstrate software.

“We have customers who used our Web conference service to demonstrate their mapping software to prospects,” Safrit said. “Then they use their travel budget, which is greatly reduced, for the very best use of personal customer attention. What they have found is they spend less money, and they have more contacts with the clients and prospects.”

Dean Walker, product manager for BellSouth, said conference calling and Web conferences help businesses be more efficient.

“Some of the value this brings to the customer is productivity enhancement,” Walker said. “That is one of the key benefits we see.”

New technology has the potential for even greater efficiencies. Earlier this month, BellSouth introduced the Multimedia Communication Server (MCS) 5100 from Nortel, equipment that complements voice and data communications consolidation by delivering collaboration and productivity applications to the desktop.

BellSouth is expanding its support of voice and data convergence by providing the advanced multimedia communications for customers, said Nimesh Shah, senior director for product management, BellSouth. He said customers are consolidating voice and data networks for added efficiencies and capabilities, bringing tangible value to emerging technologies like voice-over Internet Protocol (IP). IP is the technology developed to transmit information over the Internet.

Shah said there are two tangible value aspects to the MCS 5100. One, voice and data can be run over one network versus two. Second, new applications available are created to run on IP. For example, telephoning, e-mailing, Web browsing and Web conferencing can be done on a single device.

“For example, for your Outlook contact list, you can open an address file and click on a name to call them,” Shah said. “Then you could initiate a video conference between those two end points. It does a much better job of integrating the applications of voice, data and video together in a single interaction with the user. What you can do is turn the computer into a telephone, use a headset to dial out with the phone and talk through the computer.”

Shah said they are seeing a growth in desktop conferencing with the release of the MCS 5100, which delivers voice, call management, desktop video calling, collaboration tools, video capabilities with multi-point video conferencing, instant messaging capabilities and Web application collaboration that allows applications and documents to be shared in real time.

Shah said with telephone and computer data network services running over one network, the user gains some efficiencies.

“Operationally, it is easier for me to manage,” Shah said. “Second, it can be more economical. There is another advantage I gain from this. Applications are emerging in the market really geared to the IP infrastructure such as video conferencing. You can merge these new applications into the existing communications infrastructure. What was once two separate networks is one, making it easier to add other applications, as well.”

The advantages of a converged desktop, bringing voice and data together in a single network, provides economy and service advantages of having a single network that you have to maintain and pay for.

“There are economies that go with that as far as simple things like saving time calling someone,” Shah said. “We think businesses are going to find real value in this. What we are hearing from customers is the desire to move towards a converged desk top. We’re also continuing to see growth in traditional voice conferencing. We are seeing continued growth because of reservationless conference calling. People are getting more comfortable with that. It is easier to use. On demand meeting service is part of BellSouth Conference Services.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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