Conference Calling Buyer’s Guide

In this global economy, where success often depends on linking the talents of people spread around the country and world, it’s smart to employ the best possible conferencing technologies. Ease in collaboration harnesses the full power of an organization, and creates a natural competitive edge.

In the past several years, conference calling options have expanded beyond the traditional audio conference call to include a wide range of web and video sharing options such as

  • virtual whiteboard
  • powerpoint displays
  • document sharing
  • live chat
  • sub-conferencing between the host and selected participants

But along with the number of available features, the number of players in the conferencing industry has also dramatically increased. Now dozens of companies vie for your business. How to decide?

Check the price, but don’t stop there

Yes, you can absolutely save money by looking around. Take one example, the cost of on-demand, toll-free audio conferencing: the price runs as high as 19 cents per minute per line, and as low as 4 cents. The cost of a simultaneous web connection also varies widely. In addition to price, there’s the equally big question of call features, discussed below. But there’s something even more fundamental. . .

How reliable is your conference calling company?

It’s 10 am on a Friday morning, and you’ve organized an important conference call for your company. It will connect several people from your firm plus several top managers at another company. Today, you hope to seal the deal on a major, ongoing service contract. You also plan to save some money on the call by using a new, conferencing vendor offering you a rock-bottom price.

Bumped from the flight

The call goes fairly smoothly for the first 20 minutes in, marred only by some recurring static on the line—but then a key participant gets dropped, and despite three attempts, cannot get back on. When you contact customer service on a separate phone, they explain that just as passengers with valid tickets can get bumped from flights on commercial airlines, your conference call company is at this hour short of available lines and that you, unfortunately, have one too many callers. Your hapless caller is stranded.

Consider the trade-off here—if the discount rate is two cents less per minute per line, with 10 call participants you theoretically save about $12 on a one-hour call. But consider the cost of a conference call gone wrong, including the effect on the reputation of the company and the lost time of your 10 callers. Not to mention the effect on the cred of the person who organized the call.

VoIP vs traditional telecom lines (PSTN)

The most important factor in the reliability of a conference call company’s service is the quality of their physical systems, or infrastructure. Often, the companies who offer amazingly low rates do so by using a more recent approach to transmitting voice data using lower-cost infrastructure—VoIP, Voice over Internet Protocol, aka internet lines. Unfortunately, VoIP systems do not include the safeguards that are built into the well-financed networks built by major telecom companies. These safeguards include, among other things, “network redundancy” which means there is a system of backups, so that if, for example, a key switching device in one part of the system fails, voice traffic is automatically routed through another switch, and service is not interrupted.

VoIP lines also sometimes suffer from degradation of sound quality, including static on the line, echoing, and noticeable lag times in transmission.


The call features your conference call company offers vary widely. Some companies make it easy to summon an operator in case a problem arises. Classic case: a conference participant puts his cellphone on hold in mid-conference, triggering music on his phone which plays loudly to the whole conference call.  If you have the star- summon feature, you can immediately get an operator on the line, who can mute the source of the unwanted serenade. With other companies, you must use a separate phone to dial their customer service number. With yet other companies, you are out of luck—your only option is to hang up and start over.

Also consider the price of call recording and other commonly available features. Some conference companies allow conference hosts to record their meetings at no charge, and to later download the resulting audio recording for free. But some charge as much as $65 to record and download that file (see table).

Consider your special needs

For example, sometimes you may want to host a larger or more high-stakes conference, such as an event call, or a call with either VIP’s or top managemen. For these, it’s wise to get operator assistance.

A skilled operator is invaluable in organizing the call in a professional manner, and ensuring that the call goes smoothly. If your calls tend to fall in the latter category, look for a company that has more experience, because they tend to have operators who are well trained and therefore able to respond effectively to any situation that may arise on your high-value call.

Bigger isn’t necessarily better

If you use conferencing services a lot, getting the call features you need, for the best price, can be a complex matter. Here also, a conference call company that has been in business for many years, with an experienced sales staff, can make all the difference. They can analyze your needs to determine the best value package. They can help you decide, for example, whether you would get best value from a toll-free reservationless arrangement, a toll monthly flat rate, or a volume discount plan.

Bigger conferencing companies, even those who have been business many years, are not necessarily better. Smaller companies, acutely aware they are not number one, can give a winning combination of excellent value and extensive feature sets.

Conference Calls Unlimited (CCU) is a medium-sized Iowa company that has been in business for 16 years. Staffed by local residents, it has built up an impressive array of conferencing services—and offered at competitive rates. With CCU, you can count on the following features:

  • fully redundant (i.e., fully backed-up) top-tier telecom networks to ensure 99.99% uptime and the best line quality
  • lines are guaranteed—the call traffic on their network systems are constantly monitored to ensure plenty of availability
  • full range of pricing options: on-demand toll-free calling, operator assisted calls, and flat rate plans for higher-volume users
  • experienced, US-based staff, to quickly assess your needs, make recommendations for best value, and get you up and running fast

Author: James Parker Doyle