What's Wrong With the Modern Conference Call (and the Man Who's Trying to Fix It).
Mike Mings, chief executive officer and co-founder of Tethr’s parent company, CollabIP, has sat in on more than his share of conference calls. He started his career as an entrepreneur – focusing on hosted services and digital games – and, after a couple acquisitions, ended up as director at Best Buy overseeing digital distribution for entertainment and productivity software.
Along the way, Mings saw how technology was improving communication and collaboration. Yet, there was still no good solution for capturing the spoken word in a way that it could be easily searched, shared and revisited. More often than not, important messages would be lost forever to bad note taking or worse listening skills, leading to confusion and misunderstandings.
In 2012, Mings and some of his former colleagues at Best Buy started their own company, CollabIP. Last spring they launched their first product, Tethr, at SXSW in Austin, where the company is now headquartered.
Entrepreneur chatted with Mings, 37, using Tethr’s platform. (Editor’s note: The transcription wasn’t always perfect, but it made it easy to go back and pinpoint important parts of the conversation.)
Entrepreneur: What’s wrong with the conference call as most people know it?
Mings: First of all, it’s just a hassle to set up. To get into a conference call you have to enter all these codes. It stinks if you’re driving. Do you have to hit the pound sign? I don’t know.
The second thing is you can’t really recall everything because you’re frantically writing notes. ‘He said something about a something, and I have to remember to do something.’ When the call is over, there’s no easy way to recall or share what happened with your team.
Entrepreneur: Most conference calls have the record option, but it requires listing to the entire call or paying a human to transcribe it. What’s different about Tethr?
Mings: Because we’re transcribing conference calls in real time you can drop bookmarks any point in time and share the bookmark, or the entire meeting, with other people. You can send your bookmarks or export parts of your meeting to, say, Salesforce.com. When you do that, you’re allowing the individual to search and play back the important parts of a call.
Entrepreneur: In other words, the transcription is linked directly to the audio. It resembles a chat history, but with playback of the conversation.
Mings: Exactly. You can speak into the platform through the phone or through a browser, and that goes into the cloud. The machine listens and transcribes. It learns who the individual speakers are, their individual dialect and how they speak.
The transcription is a valuable tool to search and playback all parts of the meeting. I can search for a point in the conversation or by speaker, key word or phrase. Prior to our technology you had to write notes furiously, maybe time stamp them using your watch and then go back and find it.
Entrepreneur: How does this change the dynamics of the call itself? Many of the features make it easy to multi-task during the call – and maybe not pay attention. Is that a bad thing or just the nature of conference calls?
Mings: Not everybody who is on a call needs to be on the call for the whole thing. A lot of people are driving during a conference call, on another call or with their kids at a soccer game. With Tethr, you can be alerted to the important parts of the call or go back and listen to it at specific bookmarks
Entrepreneur: People can also participate in the call by text. What inspired that?
Mings: There are ways to get in directly without calling in, like through a text message. We found that customers are often in back-to-back meetings. They can text message their conference bridge and send comments directly into a meeting. If I’m in the meeting but not joined by audio, you can direct something to me and send it in a text, and I can reply back.
Entrepreneur: So, you can be on two conference calls at the same time?
Mings: Yes, you can, though I wouldn’t recommend it. One of our customers says he listens in on one meeting and gets alerted to what’s happening in another meeting. You can also follow along with the transcription, which happens very quickly, with just a one- or two-second delay.
Entrepreneur:This technology is also being tested at the enterprise level, for sales and customer service call centers. How does that work?
Mings: In contact centers everyone is recording everything but they can only listen to about 1%, and the way they target that 1% is very arbitrary. What we do is record everything, transcribe everything in real time, score it and help people determine what they should listen to. Executives can build a word bank and choose from words or phrases to alert them based upon what metric they’re trying to solve for, whether compliance or top-line growth.
If I’m a chief executive or marketing officer, for example, I now have insights into what is the actual voice of my customer. Looking at that data with other data, like sales data. Now for the first time executives can say now I know why this campaign was effective versus others or why this customer service agent was more effective.
Entrepreneur: We’re used to recording and sharing words and pictures, but cataloguing conversations takes things to another level. Why is this important?
Mings: I see a world without communications boundaries, giving the hearing impaired new tools to collaborate, bridging the communication gaps between cultures and languages, and providing business leaders a means to truly respond to customers. To do this, we want to enhance behaviors that already exist. People are used to typing. They’re used to multi-tasking. They’re used to sharing. We’re all about connecting people, data, systems and the tools people already love and bringing them all together. You can take what’s said and turn it into powerful insights – and share it.
Sarah Max is a freelance writer in Bend, Ore. She has covered business and personal finance for more than a decade for such publications as Barron's, Money, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. In 2009 Sarah got a first-hand look at the ups and downs of entrepreneurship when she helped launch 1859 Oregon'’s Magazine, a bimonthly print and digital magazine for which she is editor at large.