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Can You Hear Me Now? Avoid the Most Common Conference Call Faux Pas

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Conference calls can provide a great opportunity for collaboration with co-workers or clients. However, when not conducted properly, they can end with aggravation for those involved. Whether it's having to listen to annoying background noise or one caller monopolizing the meeting, not following proper etiquette during a conference call can make those listening itch to quickly hang up.

Barbara Mitchell, a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, said conference calls are a valuable tool in an increasingly virtual business world. 

"While it might seem as if a conference call is just another telephone call, it isn't," Mitchell said. "Conference calls need some guidelines to be successful."

Previous research from the Robert Half staffing firm OfficeTeam revealed that talking over others, not paying attention and making too much noise are among the biggest breaches of conference call etiquette. Specifically, nearly 40 percent of employees in the study said multiple participants talking at the same time is the most distracting behavior on a conference call, while one-quarter said callers with excessive background noise are the most irritating.

Joanne Blake, a business etiquette expert and CEO of Style for Success, said preparation is the key to hosting a productive conference call.

"A lot of the faux pas that follow can be eliminated if ground rules are set in advance or reviewed periodically," she said.

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Making sure everyone on the call has the agenda is one way to ensure the call goes smoothly. The meeting host should be setting an agenda and sharing it with the attendees prior to the meeting, according to Blake. In addition, those attending should spend time reviewing the agenda before the meeting starts.

Mitchell agreed that an agenda is important. "Solicit items for the agenda and then send it out at least 24 hours ahead so everyone is prepared," she said.

Once a meeting starts, it is critical that everyone knows who is speaking. Jacqueline Whitmore, a business etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, said it can be extremely frustrating for those listening in to not know who is speaking.

"If you are talking to somebody who isn't familiar with you or the people in your company, it is helpful to know who is speaking," Whitmore said. She said that when others don't know who you are, before sharing your thoughts, you should say, "This is [your name]." You don't have to do this every time you speak throughout the call, Whitmore said, but at least in the initial stages.

As the OfficeTeam study found, background noise is another big conference call faux pas. Blake said conference call hosts and participants should choose the location they call in from carefully.

"Choose a quiet location whether you're a participant or the person chairing the call," she said. "If calling from a home office, barking dogs and children running around can be heard, so close your door and use the mute button when you're not speaking."

Whitmore said participants should understand how to control their volume to avoid distracting noises during the meeting.

"You want to block out any ambient noise," she said. "Make sure everyone knows how to use their mute button."

It's also important to make sure someone is in charge of the meeting. It shouldn't be a free-for-all situation, Mitchell said. She suggests making whoever initiates the call the facilitator.

"If you will be making decisions on this call, ask someone to take notes, and then send out a follow-up email with what was agreed to, just as you would if you were meeting face to face," Mitchell said.

Another key complaint of conference calls is that sometimes participants aren't fully engaged. Many believe that since they can't be seen, like in a face-to-face or video meeting, they can attend to other tasks, such as working on other assignments, eating, typing or riffling through drawers, Blake said.

"If you're distracted, you may stumble when called on to speak," she said.

You should also let everyone know if you have to jump off the call early.

"If you have to drop off the call for any reason, let the facilitator know you are leaving so we don't call on you and waste time," Mitchell said.

Finally, you want to keep the meeting to the length it is scheduled for. It is important to respect everyone's time and wrap up at the set time.

"It's viewed as disrespectful," Blake said of not ending conference calls on time. "It affects productivity and can make you come across as a poor time manager."

It is important to brush up on your conference call etiquette, because, despite the rise in video conferencing, Whitmore doesn't see conference calling going away anytime soon.

"It's a very useful tool," Whitmore said. She added that not everyone feels comfortable using video technology, while conference calling only requires picking up a phone and dialing some numbers.

"Depending on your participants' level of technology, they might not know how to use (video conferencing services)," Whitmore said. "So, conference calls are very easy to get everyone engaged. It is a lot easier for most people."

If you are experiencing a rash of poor behavior and unproductive conference calls, Mitchell suggests putting a task force together to come up with how calls will operate moving forward.

"This should help everyone be on the same page and make your calls more productive," she said.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer with more than 20 years of media experience. A graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff as a senior writer. Currently, Chad covers a wide range of B2B products and services, including business phone systems, time and attendance systems, payroll services, and conference call services. Before joining Business News Daily and business.com, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. Chad's first book, "How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business," was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.