Conference Calling Solutions – I think I found a Doozy

As a small business/self-employed bum I need to be able to provide enterprise-class connection options to my customers without paying enterprise-class prices.  What am I talking about?  Well, today I’m talking about conference calls.  Now hold on, don’t roll your eyes.  As a consultant I find it incredibly valuable to have a conference number to allow teams to connect at a moment’s notice.  Not everyone has Skype installed, not everyone uses Google talk.  Everyone has a phone though.  So conference calls are a staple – and I wanted to find the right tool for my use.  Boy did I ever – and it is a doozy: FreeConferenceCallHD.com.

Before settling on this service I did a little research on a number of free conference hosting services.  I ended up giving this service a real go and am completely thrilled with their service.  I’m not being paid for this endorsement, it comes from a genuine desire to share the benefits of this service with others who are looking.  So let’s get to the nitty gritty:

Benefits

  • High call quality.  I have spent tens of hours on the service and have not once heard audio problems beyond those of the people calling in (e.g. mobile phone noise).  They claim it is high quality and I have to agree.
  • Enterprise grade feature set.  Call recording, call hold, caller hold, broadcast mode, call playback number, Q&A queue, caller kicking, configurable entry/exit tones, host vs participant numbers, up to 1,000 callers, up to 6 hours of talk-time … I’m not sure there’s a feature that is lacking – certainly none that I need.
  • Web management interface.  They offer a web interface where you can monitor who is connecting, place people on hold, initiate call recording, replay recorded calls, review call history, place call in broadcast mode … and more.  It is a very nice feature to be able to see the number of someone who joins instead of asking “Who just joined?”  Discussing senstivie topics?  Don’t guess who is on the line.
  • International callers.  Some other services block Canadian numbers from calling in.  Why the hatin’ on the ‘Nucks?!  I’ve had people call in from Canada and the US without a hitch.
  • Call reports.  After each call I get an email that lists out the participants and how long they were connected.  A nice memento of the call … kind of like a roll call without having to do it throughout the call.
  • Price.  I can’t argue with free.
  • Support.  I had some initial questions about the service and connected with their support team.  I was impressed with how quickly they connected with me and talked me through my questions.  I was seamlessly escalated to a technical support person once my questions became overly technical in nature.  The emails were timely, and the support rep followed up once things went quiet for too long.  Simply put, a great customer support experience.
  • Free Skype calling to the conference number.  I put this one last because it really is the clincher for me.  Each conference number has an associated Skype contact created.  This allows me to add this “contact” and simply start a Skype voice call with it, and that will act as my dial in to the call.  This doesn’t use Skype credits or anything, this is the free Skype calling feature.  So I can call into my conference line from anywhere with Skype installed for free, no long distance.  Since I tend to live in Skype for team communication this feature is simply awesome.

Detractors

  • Web console uses Flash.  Boo Flash!  The (optional) web console requires the use of Flash in the web browser.  Bleh.  Please make the Flash pain stop – I’m ready for the HTML5 revolution!
  • Proprietary product.  Imagine how cool it would be if this was a project that released its source code, or revealed the products they’re using underneath the Flash veneer?  Imagine how cool it would be if they opened up the service to allow user-created plugins?  This is all bits and bytes going on here and the Skype integration is a great first step – opening up the project to community contributions might accelerate the rate of feature development/data mashups.

Yes, those really are the only negatives I’ve found after a few months of use.

I am giving this service a strong recommendation to anyone looking for high quality, feature-rich conference call services – free or otherwise.

The Tale Continues – Cross Border Consulting Part Deux

Today I tackled once more the beast that is travelling into the US for work purposes.  In case you missed it, I tried to enter in early Dec 2011 and was “allowed to withdraw my application” at that time.  The agent felt I had insufficient documentation to apply for a TN Visa as a Computer Systems Analyst.  Since then I have had my client write up exactly the letter the agent wanted to see – one that describes my role, salary, and anticipated tasks.  I combed through the online documentation about TN Visas in an effort to prepare for the day that I knew was coming – the day I needed to cross the border to meet with customers.  And today was that day.

So how did it go?  Well, the short version is “not well”.  The longer version is worth a read if you want some insight into how ridiculous this whole thing is.

Continue reading

A Cautionary Tale for Cross-Border Consultants

I thought I had done my homework, that I was simply going to pass through security at the airport like I had many times before.  If that had happened though, this wouldn’t be a cautionary tale now would it?  😉  Canadian consultants working for US-based companies be warned ….

As a Canadian I was concerned about taking on US-based consulting customers as I wasn’t clear on what that meant from a Visa standpoint.  So I researched the heck out of this, including looking at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, and the US Visa Service websites.  I spoke with an expert cross-border accountant to ensure I understood the tax situation too.  I thought I had my bases covered. Continue reading

Peeking Behind the Job Posting Curtain

In looking for contract opportunities I end up reviewing job postings from a number of different sources every day.  In general I have developed a few key “flags” that, when seen, make me move on – no matter how interesting the opportunity sounds.

Take for example this job posted on craigslist for a “User Experience Business Analyst“.  I actually came across this job opportunity through another avenue, though that avenue did not let me know that Fujitsu was involved, nor that the domain was related to transit.  It is not that rare to come across relatively secretive postings on one site only to be able to find additional details about the job on another site.  Sometimes the parallels are relatively obvious like specific position names or the wording of the position’s responsibilities. Other times the positions just “feel” the same. You develop a sense for these things after a while, I suspect.

This position sounds right up my alley – UX is a key component of business analysis. It is nice to see the overt combination of responsibilities in a single role. So how is this an example of a “flag” posting? What about it makes me say “Meh, too bad”, and move on?  Let me quote the posting … right down there at the bottom.

Please address all email inquiries in .doc or .docx (WORD) format…

If your company only accepts applications that require the use of proprietary and expensive software, that in the end does not assure me that my resume, cover letter, and portfolio will look exactly the same on your monitor as it does on mine … well … that actually speaks deeply to a corporate culture that I am not interested in participating in.

Too bad, it looked like an interesting contract ….