Meetings with employees, colleagues and collaborators are a necessary part of running your small business. But face-to-face meetings aren’t always possible. That’s why conference calls are such a valuable tool. They let large groups of people meet remotely over the phone, or let individuals drop into a meeting from a remote location — all without the need for camera-equipped computers or video chat software. And since everyone already knows how to place a phone call, conference calling eliminates barriers to a smooth and productive remote meeting.
But not all conference calling services are created equal. Each offers a unique feature set and different tools for managing your conference calls, from limiting who can join the meeting to engaging participants in a real-time poll. And perhaps most importantly, these services vary widely in terms of price. Before your pick a conference-calling platform for your small business, read on for five key factors to consider.
1. Participant management
Before you start your conference call, you’ll need to get everyone connected — and the best services give you total control over who joins your call. One of the most important features to consider is how many participants each service can accommodate in a single call. While a 15-person cap may be acceptable for the smallest business, your business might need to include many more callers — especially if a large percentage of your employees work remotely. Another key feature is the ability to invite callers and allow each individual to RSVP for the meeting so you know who plans to connect. The best conference-call services can send out invitations in the form of an automated call and allow the receiver to confirm his or her attendance with the press of a button. The ability to limit your meeting to invited callers, meanwhile, is an essential feature to keep your conference calls secure. Finally, support for international callers could be another key concern, depending on the needs of your business.
2. Call management
Once your conference call is in progress, a good service gives you a wide range of options for managing your meeting. The best platforms offer an interactive Web interface that allows you to see details, such as who is connected and who is currently talking, as well as information about which callers dropped out and who is muted. Another essential feature is the ability to record calls as they happen. That way participants can review the information presented, and anyone who wasn’t able to join can listen in after the fact. The best platforms keep all your calls stored in a single database and let you download or stream any recording at a later date. And finally, the option to incorporate video chat into your conference calls is a big plus. Other features, such as the ability to set a personalized greeting that callers will hear when they connect, aren’t as essential but are nice perks that set a professional tone for your conference call.
[For a side-by-side comparison of the best conference call services, visit our sister site Top Ten Reviews.]
A conference call has the potential to be a lot more than a group phone call. It can also provide a range of functionality to foster participation and feedback from your participants. For example, some services offer the ability to conduct an instant poll or survey to quickly gauge the overall opinion of the group; callers enter their response using their phone’s dial pad. Another handy feature is “hand raising,” which lets participants notify the call organizer that they wish to speak at the next opportunity, to help avoid situations where callers are talking over each other. Many platforms also incorporate a “white board” feature that lets users take notes, and sketch and brainstorm visually with other users who are logged into an online Web portal. It’s a great collaboration tool for users who can’t be in the same room with one another. Another key feature is the ability to share files, documents or your entire computer desktop with other callers, though this feature is only useful for callers whose computers are connected.
Extra functionality is nice, but there’s no reason to pay for features that won’t benefit your business. The smallest businesses can get access to a solid conference-calling service without paying a lot; in fact, the biggest factor that will determine how much you pay is the number of participants you wish to be able to connect to a call. International calling is another important factor; most services charge an extra per-minute fee for each international connection. Typically, your business will pay a monthly fee for the whole conference-calling package, with the ability to hold as many calls as you want during that time. If your small business is on a tight budget, shop around for an affordable price point — especially if you don’t need much advanced functionality. After all, most services can provide a satisfactory conference-calling experience, even if they lack the bells and whistles of more premium platforms.
5. Help and support
Conference calls can be complicated, with a lot of moving parts. You’ll have to deal with a large group of callers connecting from different locations, with each using different equipment. And if you make use of extra Web features such as video calling, there’s even more potential for something to go wrong — and technical difficulties can bring your workday to a screeching halt. That’s why you’ll want a conference-calling platform with top-notch help and support features. The best services offer round-the-clock telephone and email support, as well as the ability to troubleshoot via live Web chat with a customer service representative. Another great feature, especially if you’re new to running conference calls, is the option to host a call that is monitored by an operator who can jump in to help if something goes wrong. Finally, to help you get started, new users can really benefit from video tutorials that are offered by some services.
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