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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

The 27 Unwritten Rules of Conference Calls

person's hand dialing a phone

Recently, I’ve been on more and more business-related phone calls that, despite being with smart people, left me with a bad impression. Sure, calls seem pretty simple, but anything from technological glitches that could have been avoided to poor time management can really impact your clients’ and colleagues’ impressions of you (not to mention your productivity).

So just as there are unwritten rules for email and meetings, I’m spelling out the guidelines for business phone calls and conference calls that everyone should follow. Here’s to more productive (and less annoying) calls forevermore!

  1. Agree before the call which person is calling whom and at which number. Emailing three minutes after the call was supposed to start with, “Where should I call you?” wastes everyone’s time.

  2. Generally, if you are asking something of someone else, you should offer to call them. If you are helping someone else, ask that person to call you to avoid having to chase anyone down.

  3. Schedule the call for the length of time you need, and remember that this can be five, 10, or 20 minutes. You should not be rounding to the nearest 30-minute increment.

  4. If you know ahead of time that you’re going to be late for a call, let the other person know via email and offer to call them when you are ready.

  5. If the person you are calling does not pick up, do not leave a message the first time. Try again one or two minutes later, and if they don’t pick up, leave a message and also email, letting them know you called and stating how much more time you’ll be available. Don’t call again after that unless it’s urgent.

  6. If more than two people are talking, set up a dial-in ahead of time. There are plenty of free services, like UberConference, that help with this.

  7. Keep the call to as few people as possible, and make sure everyone there is really necessary. The more people on the line, the less everyone pays attention.

  8. Make sure you are taking the call from a quiet location with a good signal. Using landlines whenever possible helps avoid signal issues.

  9. If you get caught in a noisy location, let people know right away that you’ll be on mute unless you’re speaking. It’s the respectful thing to do.

  10. If you are not calling from a phone you use regularly, make sure you know how to operate it. This is especially important when using an unknown office phone system.

  11. I don’t recommend using slides to present something on the call, unless you’re doing a demo, but if you are, don’t send them around via email. Instead, use a screen sharing service like GoToMeeting or Screenleap to ensure people don’t peek through, jump ahead, and then stop paying attention.

  12. If you are using a screen sharing service, make sure it works before the call starts and that your counterparts have anything installed that they would need ahead of the call.

  13. If you are meeting with people for the first time, or really want people to pay attention, consider video conferencing with Zoom, Google Hangouts, or another service.

  14. Just like with meetings, start on time. Waiting for stragglers only encourages them.

  15. If you are joining a conference call, immediately introduce yourself so no one is surprised that you were listening in for three minutes on what they thought was a one-on-one conversation.

  16. If someone joins late, do not catch him or her up. It wastes everyone else’s time. Encourage this person to catch up with someone at the end of call to see what was missed.

  17. Give the overview of who you are and why you are calling within the first 120 seconds of the call, then set out your agenda or goal. The other people on the call should know what you want from them right away.

  18. In the first few minutes of each call, confirm how long everyone has to talk, so you can manage the conversation accordingly.

  19. If you have more than three people on the line, the organizer should do a quick roll call to make sure everyone is there, and introduce them briefly if possible.

  20. Only go around doing individual introductions if it will help business get done, and factor that into your agenda. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time.

  21. Unless the call is about you sharing your expertise, you should not be speaking for more than 70% of the time. If many people are on the line, that number drops to 25%.

  22. Keep your sentences short and pause regularly between ideas. This will allow people to jump in or ask questions.

  23. If you are the call organizer, it is your job to call on people to participate if they are not speaking up and someone else is monopolizing the conversation.

  24. Use the mute button strategically. If you are muted for 90% of the call, you likely aren’t fully paying attention.

  25. Don’t be the person who’s checking email and needs to ask for a question to be repeated. If you find yourself checking email during most of your calls, they are either too long, they are too many people involved, or you don’t need to be on them.

  26. Five minutes before the end of the call, warn everyone that it’s wrapping up, and ask if there are any questions. Do not let it run over if at all possible—it’s disrespectful of other people’s time.

  27. Keep track of next steps as the call goes on, and send them around via email afterward as a reminder.