A decade ago, people were already talking in groups of three or more on the phone. That was usually an accident called the cross-connection.
Today this multiparty conversation is a deliberate act and one that is being used by more and more companies every day. It is now a phenomenon called the conference call.
"This (the growing popularity of conference calls) is primarily due to the improvement in telecom infrastructure and the resulting cost effectiveness. Besides, the savings in travel time and the ability to solve simple problems immediately also helps businesses greatly," says Supratim Roy, marketing manager, Webex Communications, which provides conferencing solutions to several multinationals.
There is a flip side to this popularity.
An improperly planned and managed conference call can have a detrimental effect. At the lowest level it could mean a wastage of time and a slightly larger phone bill. On a more serious note, it could hamper serious strategic and policy issues for the firm.
Most people are willing to jump onto a conference call to get their problems solved, but few know how to prepare and conduct themselves during the call. Exercising a few rules can help change this.
Before a call
i. Plan and circulate the agenda and rules
"Making a powerpoint slide with the points of discussion and circulating it in advance is effective," says Vivek Furtado, sales manager, GEMS Financial. "It ensures that everyone starts on the same page," he adds.
Also, set the ground rules. This starts with specifying the attendance method at the conference call. "A simple roll call is usually used, though sometimes the system is automated to announce user entry and exits," says Roy of Webex.
Pre-determine other areas like order of discussing topics, the amount of time on each issue, the order of speakers etc.
ii. Choose a representative and the moderator
Rather than everyone joining in, it makes sense for one speaker from your team to communicate with the other parties during the call, while the others listen in on the speaker.
If the representative is not clear about a point, the phone can be put on mute and the issue quickly discussed.
"The moderator, ideally, is someone senior and must be well-known to all participants. This helps maintain an orderly flow," says Rukmini Iyer, a corporate trainer and instructional designer.
iii. Keep the group small
By consensus the optimal size of a conference call group is people. Anything larger is a recipe for chaos.
While companies have tried techniques like having 50 speakers, giving each a number, and then asking them to talk, the end result is usually a mess with people spending time finding each other rather than discussing the agenda.
iv. Adjust the background
Participating in a conference call from your cubicle is not a good practice. Besides the disturbance to yourself, if the speakerphone is being used it may result in sharing of confidential information or just plain irritation to those around. So, booking the conference room would be a good step.
An even worse idea is being on the move and joining in on your mobile. Except if it is a simple three way call, the background noise as well as voice quality are a serious deterrent to effective conferencing.
v. Know the phone instrument
Often, you will be required to break from the conference call to clarify or discuss something else. In such a situation it's important to know the mute and hold buttons.
"People regularly discuss issues thinking the phone is on mute, while it is not. They thus not only lose confidentiality, but add to confusion in the call itself," observes Iyer.
In addition it helps to keep the login number and access code (provided to you by the telephone service provider) at hand in case you wish to disconnect and rejoin the call at a later stage.
During the call
vi. Practice basic telephone etiquette
A conference call is no different from any other formal telephone conversation.
Therefore, according to Nasha Fitter, who manages Fitter Solutions, a communications and training agency, the regular rules of telephone etiquette apply here. "Basic points such as not speaking out of turn, talking slowly and clearly, sticking to the agenda must be adhered to," she adds.
Most importantly when speaking with a large or a new group, it is important to introduce oneself.
"The number one problem in conference calls is people not identifying themselves. The listeners are left wondering who is talking and about what issue, consequently the discussion goes off on a tangent," says Iyer.
vii. Understand the criticality
The collective effort of a conference call is very large. "You need to remember the total effort is the time of the call multiplied by the number of people. So an organisation is spending an enormous amount of time on each call," says Fitter.
Also, once an issue is discussed in a conference call, it is unlikely to be covered in an offline meeting. Hence, the tendency for complacency during a call needs to be guarded against.
viii. Keeping minutes and doing a concluding review
Appoint a person to keep the minutes. This is invaluable for analysis of who said what and to understand the actions that must be taken after the call.
However, a representative of the team who is constantly interacting with others might not be able to write at the same time. So, any member who has limited involvement in the call should do this.
A review should be done before closing the call. Hence the moderator should be given the minutes, and can repeat the allocation of responsibilities with a confirmation of acceptance from the other users.
xi. Switch off the mobile phone
Simple as it sounds, it is the most ignored aspect of meetings. In conference calls especially it is important for two reasons.
Firstly, the static a ringing mobile produces can seriously disrupt the conference at a crucial point.
Even if this does not happen, a person taking a mobile phone call in the middle is very likely to lose the flow of the meeting.
After the call
x. Do a post mortem
Post mortems have always been unpopular yet necessary. Going over your minutes in detail is therefore a good idea.
Besides, most companies often provide features such as recording and playback and even transcription of the call. This helps analyse issues such as agenda points requiring further clarification, new points raised in the discussion etc.
5 types of conference calls
i. Simple three way call
This is the simplest of all. It is mostly impromptu and has no special rules. To clarify a single point or confirm an action between three people is the objective. This is commonly done using the mobile phone unlike the other call types that are done with speakerphones in conference rooms.
ii. Announcement call
The head office of a company might for example decide to change the pricing policy at short notice. Explaining this is best done by a conference call as it is interactive and allows all branches to clarify common doubts.
iii. Follow up call
Especially popular in project-oriented companies, it involves giving status reports on various issues. At every stage of implementation, the various parameters are tracked by headquarters and explanations asked for any shortcomings.
A typical example of this is the project status review when a stage is completed. Another is the month-end sales review where all the branches have a conference call with headquarters explaining their sales numbers.
iv. Broadcast call
Used originally to declare and discuss financial results of companies, it is today used internally. It involves one central speaker. There may be a limited number of other speakers. Most people log in and simply listen to the conference call without giving their inputs.
v. Feedback call
An example of this is from the IT industry where a user describes his usage of new software to a programmer, the features he is using and the problems faced.