From webinars and vendor calls to remote worker check-ins and office link-ups, conference calls are table stakes for many of today’s small businesses. Unfortunately, when things don’t run smoothly, that team call can also be the office’s weekly comic relief. Flushing toilets, group-call drops, unintended screen shares and unmuted cursing rants are just a few of the horror stories I’ve heard, and I'm sure you’ve got even better ones from the teleconferencing trenches.
Whether you’re connecting across multiple time zones or just dialing up a nearby satellite office, there are some universal guidelines you should follow to ensure that conference calls are a smooth and efficient addition to your business operations. Here are tips for hosts, for attendees and for choosing equipment, and also a few good stories. Because ultimately, everyone loves to hear about a good conference call blooper, as long as you’re not the butt of the joke.
Press One for Growth
Formerly an expensive toy for rich, multinational corporations, conference calling has become a common workhouse device for many small businesses. Not only does it make things easier, but it also enables growth. For some, teleconferencing is a big money saver, funneling more dollars to your bottom line. For others, group calls actually enable your business to grow into otherwise unavailable locations, to tap distant expertise and to land clients far from home. And for many, conferencing allows your business to open and manage satellite offices without onerous travel schedules.
“We could never do what we do without it,” says Julie Weissend, co-owner with her husband, Paul, of Dovetail Construction. Based in Richmond, Virginia, Dovetail is currently working on a construction project in rural Virginia for an owner who lives in France and travels extensively (last month, the owner was in Tanzania, Singapore and Hong Kong). In addition, the two subcontracted architects working on this project are based in Virginia Beach and London, and both recently traveled to Kathmandu, Kenya and Nepal. Yet Dovetail still needs to hold weekly project meetings. The first thing Weissend does on the weekly, three-hour call, she says, is set up an agreeable time for the next week’s meeting, taking into account everyone’s travel schedules and time zones.
Many small businesses could still operate—and grow—without conference calling, but the technology can be a significant cost savings. Conference calls allow Tracy Rau, a partner in Karris Rau LLC, a law firm in Las Vegas, to take legal depositions over the phone rather than incur the expense of traveling herself or flying witnesses into town. Group calls are also a frequent necessity for corporate legal teams.
“With any multijurisdictional matter, you can have six or seven different attorneys, most of them are out of state, and everyone’s trying to get on the same page,” Rau says.
Mike Cherock owns AE Works, an architectural design and engineering firm in Pittsburgh. Daily conference calls help Cherock manage 31 employees in three locations, and also work with clients spread from New York to Florida and sub-consultants from California to Maine. AE Works uses Cisco WebEx, a teleconferencing system that costs the company about $100 per month.
On his Monday morning team calls, Cherok checks status on the 50 to 60 active projects that his company is working on at any given moment. “Emails just don’t cut it,” Cherock says. “Without conference calling, we wouldn't be able to cover the geography we have, or have multiple offices, or work with the subs.”
If You're the Host, Please Enter Your Code
It’s a mistake that Ronnie Peters will never make again. As the owner of Planet Three Sixty, a digital design firm in New York City, Peters hosts two to three conference calls daily. The calls include a mix of his firm’s eight employees; design, coding and programming subcontractors; and large-company clients like The New York Times, Office Depot and AARP.
On the calls, Peters and his team regularly share screens back and forth to discuss design issues and get client feedback. On one particular call, Peters was sharing his screen with a client, who asked to see a particular design file. When Peters closed his current window to open the new document, he got a little surprise.
“I had the company balance sheet hidden behind the document I was sharing,” Peters says. “When I saw that, I closed the window, but the client saw it for a few seconds.” Peters says he and the client were able to laugh it off, and he learned to close non-pertinent windows behind what he plans to share before the conference call starts. He also makes sure his browser window doesn’t have any distracting or non-business related bookmarks or links across the top of the screen. “Prepare your screen well,” Peters suggests. “That was embarrassing.”
Hosts carry the primary responsibility for a successful call by setting the tone and managing the flow. The work starts before anyone even logs in. The following tips can help you master the art of hosting conference calls:
Circulate pre-reads and agendas. Even if it’s a short call or just focused on one topic, an agenda holds attendees accountable to stay on point. Agendas also set expectations for the time allotted to each discussion. Make sure attendees know they're responsible for reading supplemental materials before the call.
Start on time. “It bugs the crap out of me if things don’t start on time,” Rau says. “So I’m a big re-iterator of notice on these things. I send an initial letter with the time, etc., then 24 hours before, I send another confirmation.” To make room for a bit of friendly chitchat, include a note with the invite that the call will be at 11:00, with discussion to begin at 11:05.
Read the rules of engagement. Rau begins each call with a welcome greeting, a statement of the call’s goal and a short list of guidelines. Rau’s introductions go something like this: “Welcome. We're here to discuss the following topic … To ease this process, let’s not interrupt. Please wait to comment until we’ve concluded the issue, and then let me know you have something to add.” Essentially, Rau says, she’s putting attendees on notice that “we have 15 minutes, here’s what we need to accomplish, and we’re going to do it as follows.”
Cut off the windbags. A rambler heading off on a tangent or delving into too much detail can quickly sidetrack a meeting if a host doesn’t rein it in. The key is to cut the rambler off respectfully. For example, “Bob, you’re doing some good thinking here. In the interests of time, let’s take that offline for later discussion and get back to Nicole’s point.”
Keep moving through glitches. If you have a troubleshooter working on the problem, then simply say, “I’m going to keep talking while Debbie tries to fix the screen share.” If you’re doing your own tech support, kick the call over to the next person on the agenda and come back when you’ve solved the problem. The “blips” of joins and drop offs can be distracting, but ignore it unless you reference a specific person, when you can simply ask, “Is Jacob still on the line? I want to make sure he hears this.”
Be sure there's a landline available. If a host is on a mobile phone and the call gets dropped, everyone gets bumped off the call. Even with her far-flung team, Julie Weissend runs each call from an office phone and laptop.
Tip from the pros: If the call group is small or the agenda is short, try scheduling calls for half an hour versus a full hour or more. Some hosts even schedule 15-minute calls. A shorter time frame encourages attendees to move quickly and stay focused.
At the Tone, Please State Your Name
At the law firm where she worked before starting her own, Rau learned to never, ever badmouth anyone on a conference call. Her team, based in a satellite location, was on a call with the home office.
“We finished the call, and the coordinator believed she disconnected, but she hadn't,” Rau says. "[One of the partners] started swearing a blue streak." The coordinator turned beet red, and Rau suddenly realized the call hadn't been disconnected. She started to jump in and rescue her co-worker, when the lawyer on the line suddenly cleared his throat, alerting everyone that the call was still open. “Our team was, of course, mortified,” she adds.
By now, we should all know how and when to use the mute button, yet almost anyone who's been on a conference call has heard distracting background noises. Conference call attendees should follow a few key guidelines to keep from being the office water cooler gossip the next day:
Don’t sweat the noise. So many employees and contractors work from home these days that few people are bothered by minor household noise like doorbells or random sirens. In fact, a little background noise can help paint a visual picture, Weissend says. “We call a London office, and when they go to the fax machine or to print a drawing, the door creaks, so I imagine this antique building. You use your senses even more as a function of not being physically across from someone.” That said, if you're walking from your car or in an airport, mute is essential. Wind noise is not OK. Neither is bathroom noise.
Test, test and retest. Put your presentation on full-screen mode, then do a share in the office beforehand to see what the client sees. “They're seeing it with a browser window, so by definition, it can’t fill their entire screen,” Peters points out. “Even if we're just doing a PowerPoint, we test and adjust accordingly, adjusting font size for example, so it will fill the screen in a particular way.”
Multitask only if it's critical. Catching up on minor side work is forgivable if you aren’t one of the call leads. Just make sure you’re on mute or your keyboard is silent. If you miss an important detail or question, have a handy excuse ready, such as, “Sorry, I was searching on that topic that Jack referenced yesterday.”
Introduce yourself. If there's conversation in progress when you dial in, wait for a break to make a quick announcement that you’ve joined the call. A simple “Hi, guys. Allison here” helps connect names to the beeps.
Tip from the pros: “Mute” should be your default setting, but remember that nobody likes to play to a quiet audience. To ensure that presenters feel the presence of engaged listeners, unmute for an occasional, verbal “head nod” or laugh so they know you’re still alive.
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When Mike Cherock first started his company, it was based in downtown Pittsburgh, a location rife with sirens and near the train station. “We would be on a call, and then you’d be, ’Here comes the ambulance,' ” he says. Frequent trains also ran by, sounding their ear-piercing horns. “So when a train or [emergency vehicle] would come by, we’d hit mute and wait for it to pass.” Cherock says. “They’d be like ‘Hello? Hello?’ and we’d come back on and say, ‘Sorry, we don’t know what happened.’ It was embarrassing. We had to be clever with that mute button.”
A mute button is a fairly fundamental piece of equipment, but there’s so much more to today’s conference calling that it can be difficult to decide exactly what equipment will work best for you. You can visit sites that review software and hardware options, but there are also some overall guidelines to bear in mind when choosing equipment:
Cheap isn’t necessarily a savings. If teleconferencing is mission critical to your business, invest in quality support. The small businesses we talked to tended to pay for richer, more reliable services like WebEx and GoToMeeting. Even these won’t break your balance sheet: Weissend says Dovetail Construction pays $29 a month for GoToMeeting.
Choose what works best for your business. Rau says her firm pays on an as-needed basis for a law-firm specific program called Deposition Conference Calls that supports her legal requirements. Monthly rates range from $50 to hundreds of dollars, depending on transcript lengths. Ronnie Peters’ design firm has a two-part solution, using free conference call software for their calls and then using join.me (about $20 per month) for easy screen sharing. There are plenty of options available, so do your homework to find the ones that will best support your daily work.
Track attendance. One reason Cherock likes WebEx is that he can assign a pin number to each employee that pops up when they're logged into a call. That way, when someone dials in but doesn’t type in their name, everyone can still see who's on the line.
Tip from the pros: Buy the microphones. “They're worth every penny,” Cherock says. “Get the good phones and microphone extenders. Otherwise, people are yelling and nobody can hear.”
Ultimately, as with any business operation, conference calls work best with a liberal application of tact and common sense. One of Weissend’s clients liked to occasionally share pictures from her exotic locations, like the beaches in the south of France. While Weissend’s team usually enjoyed the visual vacation, not everyone appreciates a reminder that they're slaving away in colder or less comfortable settings. So play nice, keep the noise level down, and manage through the glitches to keep your teleconferencing profitable for all.
This article was originally published on June 3, 2014.
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Photo: Getty Images