On the surface, Vello sounds like a great option for low-cost, audio-only conference calls: a no-fuss, nothing-to-remember service that can get multiparty conferences started quickly and easily.
However, in my testing Vello proved to be a disappointing startup fitfully making its way out of the beta stage. My experience with the service was plagued by inconsistent call-in behavior and consistently egregious billing errors.
In a marketplace littered with voice-only conferencing alternatives, Vello is planting its flag squarely on ease of use. Ideally, users won’t need to know anything to join a call. To make this work, the host who configures the conference using Vello’s Web-based portal needs to input the phone numbers for all call participants. Then, when the call is set to start, the Vello service places an outbound call (which can appear to originate either from Vello or from a personalized number) to all participants. Each caller need only press “1” to join. Ideally, this means that conferences would start promptly because everyone could join almost simultaneously.
Even if participants miss the call from Vello, they should be able to join easily by calling Vello’s toll-free (in the United States) number. The Vello service recognizes the incoming caller ID and routes the call to the correct conference. Only if the caller dials in from an unknown phone number (or has caller ID blocked) will that person be required to enter a PIN code to join the conference. And the pin code-along with the toll-free number-is automatically e-mailed in the form of an .ICS calendar attachment to all participants when the conference is first created or later updated.
In practice, I found the Vello service somewhat lived up to expectations: When I expected a conference to be taking place, the virtual room was there waiting for us. However, both the dial-out and dial-in services were inconsistent. For a few scheduled calls, my participants never received a call from Vello, and on at least two occasions, when participants did not get the call and tried to dial in, they were confronted with a faulty automated reception service that sometimes waited more than 30 seconds before prompting the user to press “1” to join the call. Typically, the callers had hung up long before getting the prompt.
Vello officials claimed these errors were due to problems they were experiencing with one of Vello’s carriers during the period I performed the initial tests-problems significant enough that they had to shut the service down in the middle of a business day in late September. Upon request from Vello President and COO Mark Dzwonczyk, I extended the test period to experience the service under normal operation and, indeed, both the dial-in and dial-out services worked as promised thereafter.
Unfortunately, the billing system had also gone haywire, and continued to do so throughout the month and half I took to conduct my evaluation. In a nutshell, I found that at least four conferences were significantly overbilled. Three conferences, each under or around an hour in length, were billed for 2 ?? to 2 ??Ã hours each. And one call-a three-party conference that lasted only around 35 minutes and should have cost about $12.60-was billed for a whopping 12 hours apiece for a total of $260.
Cost and Ease
Vello officials again blamed the first three overages on problems relating to the carrier outage (even though one of the meetings took place three weeks after they first notified me of the problem). The fourth error they blamed on a bug in the self-service billing system. Apparently, when calls do not terminate correctly, the service will let the call run out to 12 hours, making it easy for Vello agents to identify problems-and resolve them-before the actual bill gets sent out each month. Unfortunately, the full charges showed up in the billing module of the Vello portal, causing me to freak out just a little.
Even under ordinary circumstances, Vello is not the least expensive conference call option out there. With a base rate of 12 cents per minute per caller for both the dial-in and call-out solutions (with variable international pricing), I found Vello’s pricing to be somewhat high for toll-free services. While Unlimited Conferencing offers toll-free service for only 6.9 cents per user per minute, FreeConference.com and Budget Conferencing fell in the 10 to 12 cents per minute per user range, and ConferenceCall.com lagged behind at 14 cents per. Vello said it will soon release monthly rate bucket plans that will lower its per-minute fees. Pricing for monthly plans will start at $45 for 500 minutes.
Some billing data is available for viewing from the billing module in Vello’s portal, but this data is not well organized or complete. The billing module shows a line-item minute usage and cost for each participant in a conference, but the data is not sortable, does not include participant phone numbers, and is not presented in date order. Thankfully the PDF-based bill-which is sent every 30 days-does a much more thorough job of giving detailed call records. Customers can also request a hard copy of the bill for an extra $5 a month.
Getting set up
The Vello host-the person who maintains the account on the Vello portal-does not need to be dialed into each and every conference call. However, that person does need to configure all the calls, so I would advise having a central group-the IT staff, the telecommunications group or the reception staff-maintain the portal.
Fortunately, setting up conference calls through the Web portal is quite intuitive and easy. Once logged in, the host can apply contacts, choose which number to call, manually input quick-dial numbers for people not in the contact database, apply some descriptive information and choose a schedule. For recurring calls, Vello presented multiple variations of daily, weekly or monthly schedules, letting me adequately assign complex meeting schedules with a single conference entry.
Contact management could be a significant headache for larger conference calls, so Vello provides some tools to help build out the contact database in the Vello portal. While Vello hosts can manually enter contact information into the portal, hosts will probably prefer to import their Microsoft Outlook contact databases using the Vello Contact Sync Tool. The tool can be installed on systems running both Windows 2000 or later and Outlook 2000 or later.
The tool combs through the personal and corporate directories in Outlook, identifying which contacts have already been migrated to the Vello contact database. The host can select entire ranges or individual contacts for import, which will send the name, e-mail, work phone and mobile phone fields to Vello. In tests, I found that the Outlook Sync tool did not do a good job identifying existing records that were manually added to the system.
eWEEK Labs Senior Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected]