The Etiquette Rules in Conference Calls


Conference calls increasingly take the place of business travel, and international business means overseas calls. Learning how to handle both is essential for anyone who works with customers or vendors around the globe.

The Dreaded Conference Call

If you take a poll of professionals, most will admit that they hate participating in conference calls for a number of reasons, including their fear of being misunderstood and the common problems of confusion and conversations that drag on far too long. To avoid these problems, the key is to make sure your call is organized and each participant is fully engaged.

If you are the facilitator for a conference call, the most important thing you can do is understand the telephone system you are using. Customers and co-workers who are participating in the call do not want their time wasted, and if you are fumbling to get everyone connected or keep dropping people off the call, frustration will be the general mood right from the beginning.

If you are not familiar with the phone system or will be using an operator to set up the call, try a practice run with some co-workers or even your family during a slow time or after hours to ensure you can set up the call smoothly. Your participants will appreciate your effort on their behalf.

General Tips for Smooth Conference Calls

There are many rules for conference calls that a surprising number of otherwise savvy customer service specialists tend to ignore. Even if you only rarely participate in a conference call, it is important to know how to conduct yourself when you are called on to participate. The first conference call you are on may be with a supervisor and customer. It is not the time to discover that you have no idea of how to proceed! The following tips will keep you and others conversing smoothly with everyone fully participating:

Plan ahead. If it is a scheduled conference call, send e-mails to everyone the day before reminding them of the time and subject of the call, as well as a list of the participants and their titles. If you are the moderator, outline any rules or instructions, including what each participant should bring to the call.

Introduce the participants. Once you have everyone on the line, be sure to introduce each person, along with her or his title or issue to be addressed. If the call includes a customer, mention the product or service to be discussed.

Use a land line! Cell phones are notorious for static and poor sound quality on conference calls, even when they are otherwise fine. You should also avoid using the speakerphone setting unless it is necessary because there are multiple speakers in one room. Speakerphones pick up all kinds of background noise.

About the background noise: Do not have any! This means no eating, drinking, or organizing your desk while you are not talking. Everyone else who is trying to hear the other speakers will be distracted by the noise heard over your phone line.

Mute when needed. Sometimes you may have to mute your phone to sneeze, cough, or quickly do something essential, but do so sparingly. If you have to rely on a speakerphone, you may also want to use the mute until you or someone else in the room has to speak. This cuts down on the interference mentioned above.

Do not put the call on hold. If you put the call on hold, everyone else will have to listen to the on-hold music, which will disrupt the conversation for the other participants. If you do not have recorded music, the other participants simply will not know you are gone and may continue to talk as though you are there. It is rude and a waste of time for several other people who have been considerate enough to give you their time.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Telephone Skills and Quality Customer Service course?

Turn off call waiting. Think about it: If you have seven or eight people on a conference call and every one of them has call waiting, you could end up with a conversation constantly punctuated by beeps and tones notifying participants that other calls are ringing in. It is distracting and rude. Turn off your call waiting; the other caller can leave a message or call back, and the conference call should always be the priority.

Be punctual. If everyone else is on time and you enter the conversation late, you have already demonstrated a lack of respect for their time. The conference will be further delayed while someone brings you up to speed.

Let others know who you are. Every time you speak, identify yourself by name and location or title. For instance, "This is Bob here in the Atlanta office. I would suggest we…" or "Excuse me, I'm Marci in accounting. My take on this issue is… ." When there are multiple participants, it can quickly become difficult to keep everyone straight, and others may not be familiar with your voice or your role. Identifying yourself also avoids confusion later about who contributed what to the discussion.

Keep absence to a minimum. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but if you do have to briefly walk away from the phone, let the others know. Also tell them when you return.

Know who is participating. Some people hesitate to speak up on a conference call and then feel left out. Be sure to encourage everyone to participate, even if this means occasionally asking others their opinion by name. If one person has not talked at all, you might ask, "Jeff, what do you think about Mr. Inman's suggestion? Is it feasible on your end?" or "We do not want to forget that Melina is new to the team. Melina, do you have any questions?"

Stick to the agenda. When several people are on the line at once, there is a tendency for a few participants to head off on a tangent because they have other issues to discuss. If these topics are not part of the agenda for the conference call, be sure to steer the conversation back to the subject at hand. Other participants will appreciate not being taken hostage on an endless phone call that has nothing to do with them. Remember that everyone's time is valuable and stay on track. If two participants have another issue to resolve, they can address this in a separate call at another time.

International Phone Diplomacy
When you talk to someone overseas, whether one-on-one or in a conference call, etiquette is acutely important to avoid misunderstandings and business blunders.

Keep in mind that cultural differences and issues of accent or dialect may hinder understanding during any telephone conversation with someone from another country. Being unable to see the person you are talking to naturally makes interpreting a conversation more difficult when the accent or inflections are different from what you are accustomed to. Be sure to speak slowly and clearly at all times. If you are not sure what the other person said, politely ask him or her to repeat it and speak a bit more slowly.

The following examples illustrate how to approach asking for information when you have difficulty understanding. Be sure to thank the person afterward!

"I'm sorry, but I didn't hear you clearly. Could you please repeat what you just said?"

"I'm not sure I understood you properly. Could I ask you to say that again more slowly? I'm having trouble following you."

"Could you please spell the name of the company for me?"

Some countries, such as Australia, tend to have a relaxed manner of speaking and use first names in almost any situation. Other countries are much more formal, particularly in a business situation. Japan is one country where formality is highly valued in business situations, particularly when addressing anyone who has seniority. Follow the accepted customs in the country where the person works. If you are ever in doubt, it is best to err on the side of formality. This includes using the person's title and surname until asked to do otherwise.

Slang Is a Definite No

In the United States, we often do not realize how much of our vocabulary is made up of informal or slang words. These are not appropriate when talking to individuals in other countries; they may not be familiar with the words or phrases, which can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings.

In some countries, even informal words that are commonly accepted in our own country may have insulting or derogatory connotations. It is best to avoid nicknames and slang any time you carry on a business conversation but especially on international calls.

Respect the Other Party's Business Hours

When you are initiating a phone call to another country, it is not always possible to schedule a time that is during regular business hours for both parties. If you need to talk to someone on the other side of the world, be considerate and do so during their normal business hours. You should never expect a client to take your call if it is 3 p.m. for you but 10 p.m. in their time zone!

Respect Other Countries and Culture

Some countries have less than stellar telephone service because of less advanced technology, civil unrest, or other reasons. If you find that the connection is bad enough to warrant ending the call, apologize and suggest rescheduling. Do not, however, insinuate that the fault is the other person's or say anything insulting about the phone system or the other country. It is outside of a caller's hands whether a country's telephone service is unreliable, and insulting another person's national sensibilities will not win you any points.

There may be times when the customer from another country is disrespectful of you or your culture. It is unfortunate, but it does happen. Although it may be difficult, try to grit your teeth and ignore the situation. Antagonizing a customer because he or she does not understand your culture can cost your company, and your job should be all about serving the customer, not trying to enlighten them. Remember, customer service is about the customer's needs, and the most of the responsibility is yours!