I’m sitting across a table from a guy we’ll call Mike.* He’s trying to join an 8:00 a.m. conference call from one of those free services. It’s not working.

First, the hold music is awful. I can hear it from here. I’m pretty convinced that it must be worth a few bucks a month to avoid just that aspect of the experience.

The call drops about 20 seconds after the chirpy voice announces “you are the only participant on this call.” When Mike calls back in, he gets the horrid music again before the system promptly launches him into a seemingly endless loop of two different recorded voices competing for his attention: “Please enter your conference code” and “Please enter your PIN.” (It’s not clear which voice is more authoritative, so he tries both codes. Neither work.)

He dials in a third time and lands in the same loop of arguing voices. The third time it not a charm after all.

He gives up and dials Luke, who originally set up the call, directly. Luke was also having trouble, so he agrees to set up another call through a different service.

All this for an audio-only bridge? Why is it so difficult? 

Fast forward 20 minutes: Mike is talking to Doug, explaining that Luke is setting up a new call with another service. When Luke’s second invite arrives via e-mail at 8:30 a.m., Luke calls Mike to tell him to look in his inbox, but warns him that he’s not sure it’s working either.

Mike finds that the dial-in seems to be working, so he tells Luke he’s forwarding the invitation to Doug. But given the time that has passed, Doug is now in the car so he might not be able to join.

At 8:40 a.m., they’re finally all on the call after wading through a set of menus different from the first service. After all the pleasantries about weather out of the way, someone finally says “let’s get started.”

It’s 8:45 a.m.– nearly an hour after the scheduled meeting time.

Are free services really less expensive? Granted, I’m not great with math, but the equation doesn’t seem like a good one:

45 minutes of wasted time 
4 executive-level employees 
sounds expensive to me


Do we add in frustration pay for each curse word Mike mutters and utters along the way?

Now it’s 9:00 a.m. and Mike is saying “Hello, hello – did I lose them?” In fact he did. Why? Luke set up the call to end at the hour, so it did. No human intervention required. Just sudden mid-sentence silence in the midst of trying to clarify whether they can book the income this fiscal year or next. It kinda makes a difference. A $500,000 difference.

Everyone dials back in. Now they’re talking about a spreadsheet, but only Mike can see it because it’s an audio-only call. Next, I watch while Mike waits as the other three people have to independently find the same file – and hopefully the same version of it — on their own systems. Mike says, “If you look at row 11 and row 12…”

At 9:30 a.m., they end the call for real and Mike immediately says a word that’s definitely not approved by the brand team for the Cisco Corporate Styleguide. He’s 30 minutes late for his next meeting.

For me, just watching the whole thing play out is like going back in time. And not in a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic way. I use video and content sharing on nearly every call I have, whether with 1 person or 32. I don’t worry about figuring out which conferencing service to use and how to set up calls. I just send out the same URL every time so people can join me in my own collaboration meeting room – voice, video, and content, included.

It’s WebEx in the background, but it’s the meeting in the foreground. As it should be.

So, does “free conferencing” make financial sense for a small business? Using the same math as above… it’s really hard to argue that it’s really all that free. Even if you decide that each person on that call makes only $6 an hour, that single botched call paid for a month of an eight-person WebEx Meetings plan.

Or let’s be generous and say that we’ll give them $12 an hour… That just means more WebEx, a simpler experience, better productivity, and maybe that contract would have landed in this fiscal quarter after all.

And now, just for grins… Conferencing in Toyland!


*Names changed to protect the unproductive, but the story is absolutely true.


Kim Austin

No Longer with Cisco