I don't normally cover the teleconferencing (audio-only) space, as there is just too much news from too many companies and it's not my area of expertise. But I'm making an exception for fresh news from ConferTel. They just announced an audio service they refer to as Virtual Attendant. It allows companies to control many of the teleconferencing functions that have traditionally been reserved for operator-assisted calls. The features includes things I use in one-to-many webinars all the time.
The first feature is the ability to keep the event speakers and organizers in a private sub-conference where they can speak with each other without the audience hearing them. Sometimes referred to as a "Green Room" function (a term taken from the TV industry), I consider this a must-have for a formal event. It lets everyone check audio levels, cover last minute changes and reminders, get comfortable speaking on the phone, and prepare to go live. When it's time to start the event, the private line is merged into the main conference and the audience can hear the speakers. You can also use this for post-event debriefing, pulling the speakers back into a private "room" so they can chat about how things went without worrying that an audience member might still be listening in.
The Green Room function is so important that I have advised companies to pay the extra costs for operator assistance on their calls just to get this ability. Now ConferTel gives you the ability to run pre- and post-conference breakouts yourself, just using keypad commands.
The second function that applies to webinars is the ability to take questions over the phone. On a large event, you don't want to simply open the phone lines for two-way communications with your entire audience. People will talk over each other, you'll get somebody's hold music, and there will be other audio distractions in the background. So audio conferencing companies have created question queues that let audience members key in a request to ask a question. Then the operator can let each requestor in one at a time, opening only that person's line and muting it again when their question is done. Virtual Attendant now lets you operate a question queue yourself, without an operator.
Being able to operate these features yourself, without having to schedule an operator and without paying the extra operator assistance costs, is a spectacular benefit. I haven't yet used ConferTel conference calling, so I can't report on their call quality or reliability. But from a price/convenience perspective, this new service is a great addition to the tools available for webinar producers.
I also love the fact that they put their pricing clearly and unambiguously on their website, including rates for countries around the world. Nicely done, ConferTel!
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