Small-business owners often need to gather information or make decisions on the road. They also deal with customers, vendors, suppliers, and others who are scattered around the country or the world. Face-to-face meetings are often costly, impractical, and not worth the time and effort to convene. So, when people need to confer on one or more important issues, they schedule conference calls, which can be an effective communications tool.
However, conference calls tend to get misused. Participants often go unnamed or unnoticed. Audio difficulties cause useful information to get lost in the ether. Calls get dropped. Without a proper framework, conference calls can become aimless gabfests and a huge waste of everyone’s time.
Following a few simple guidelines and observing some basic “conference call etiquette” will help to ensure that you get the best ROI from the experience.
Before the Call
Like any successful meeting, every conference call should have an agenda. This agenda should include:
- Time and date of the call (include time zone and spell out the month to avoid confusion);
- Instructions for how to access the call (telephone number, security code, etc.);
- Subject(s) for discussion or an outline of main points;
- Names of the scheduled participants; and
- Attached documents to be referred to, if applicable.
This information should be included in an email sent with enough lead time for participants to put the call on their calendars and to review any attached materials. Also, if a conference call recurs regularly, include a brief overview of the most recent call to bring participants up to date.
During the Call
If you’re in charge of the conference call, it’s critically important to start on time. This not only is the most efficient and professional way to conduct a call, but it also recognizes the value of participants’ time and sends the message you’re serious about talking with them.
As with other key business interactions, first impressions are crucial and will determine just how involved others will be. Kick things off with an enthusiastic greeting and thanks to all those taking part in the call. Then let everyone know what you expect to achieve with this conference call.
Introduce participants by name or invite each person to introduce themselves and say something about their role. (Ideally, each participant should re-introduce themselves by first name whenever they speak, but at the very least the person in charge of the call should do this. Don’t assume that everyone recognizes your voice.)
Conference-call experts almost unanimously urge participants not to use speakerphones during the call. Speakerphones can cause unwanted static or feedback and may automatically mute a caller if background noise gets too loud.
Make sure participants have a copy of the agenda and that everyone can be clearly heard. Politely introduce a couple of “ground rules” — for example, that there will be time for questions following the scheduled discussion. A technique called “round table conferencing,” in which participants speak only in a predetermined order, can accelerate the conversation and give everyone a chance to formulate what they have to say.
Follow the agenda and keep the discussion focused. It’s OK to occasionally ask participants for their input on the topic being discussed. (Tip: Ask people by name, rather than tossing out a generalized request for feedback. People pay more attention if they think they’re going to be called upon to participate.) Keep people involved, so they resist the temptation to multitask.
If you’re not going to take notes, appoint one of the participants to cover this important task. This doesn’t mean a verbatim transcription of what’s said; instead, focus on specific action steps generated by the conversation and the names of individuals who are responsible for taking those steps.
You’re likely to get more accomplished if you limit the discussion to 30 minutes, 45 tops. Do everyone a favor and end on time.
After the Call
Following conclusion of the call, send out a brief email thanking participants for their contributions. Within a day or two, send along a brief summary of the discussion, highlighting action steps and deadlines. This acknowledges how much you value each participant and keeps them informed on what will happen next.