Conference calls have practically become a way of life in the business world. People schedule and hold conference calls almost every day of the week without even thinking twice about the technology being used or how they are being perceived by their fellow conferees over the other end of the line. Moderators or hosts of conference calls just take it for granted that the technology will work just fine and that everyone is hearing their voice perfectly.
Au contraire! The technology that you are using can be imperfect and have limitations or the moderator and the conferees on the call can be untrained or unaware of how their usage habits are affecting the calls. Both of these issues can cause devastating results leading to information being lost or not communicated properly, and in some cases, terminating the entire call.
Because these nasty issues on conference calls keep occurring, it was decided that a small, concise booklet be prepared that would spell out each problem and propose simple solutions for each one that could easily be followed to eliminate any future “disconnects”. So here they are: The Seven Pitfalls That Can Ruin Your Conference Calls and You May Not Even Realize It.
1. Avoid Free Conference Services
Free conference services were started around the year 2000 as a way to exploit the telephone companies’ way of revenue separation. Revenues from long distance calls were divided up between the parties that carried each call from the originating party to the terminating party. The originating party would be billed for the call and the telephone company that collected that bill had a system to pay the other companies that handled that call. It was called separation of revenues.
Back in the day, if a long distance call costs 10 cents per minute, a portion of the call or two pennies, for example, would be remitted to the company that terminated the call. These payments are called terminating revenue. All of these costs were regulated by state and national rules and each telephone company had to file tariffs.
What some bright telecom entrepreneurs figured out was that they could locate a conference bridge in a remote, rural telephone company and do a business deal with the company that they would deliver conference minutes into this bridge and split the terminating revenue that was being paid to them for these minutes. To generate huge amounts of minutes, they would advertise their conference service for free and just make money on the terminating revenue paid by the teleco.
And that is exactly what happened, the free providers generated so many millions of minutes each month that they had trouble keeping up with enough equipment or conference bridges to handle the traffic. This problem caused contention on the bridges. There were more parties trying to get into conference calls than they had enough ports or lines to accommodate all of them. Consequently, many conferees on conference calls could not get into their conference calls. Granted the conference calls were free, but you were not guaranteed if all of your parties would be on the call. Bummer! So you get what you pay for.
The reason for this long story is that free conference services still exist and as a customer you could still have contention for the conference ports on the bridges, resulting in only a portion of your conferees getting into your conference calls. In the business world, this cannot be tolerated. What do you say to your colleagues, We are going to schedule half a conference call tomorrow. The problem is that you don’t know which half will be allowed into the call. It’s a disaster.
As a sidebar to this issue, the Federal Communications Commission, the national entity that regulates telecommunications and telephone companies passed some new rules a couple of years ago that gradually reduced the amount paid to these terminating parties to the point that in 2017, they will be eliminated almost entirely. This could lead to many free conference services exiting the business entirely.
2. Failing to Mute Conferees in Large Conference Calls
Most moderators of conference calls have learned this rule the hard way, by having it happen to them on a live call. It certainly can be embarrassing and if the moderator doesn’t correct it and tries to soldier through, the call can become a disaster with many conferees fleeing the scene.
Conference bridges are typically programmed with some moderator commands, which allow the moderator of the call some degree of control over the call. One of the commands is the mute function. On many bridges, the mute function is activated when the moderator presses the *5 keys. When these keys are pressed by the moderator, all of the conferees are placed into mute, meaning their microphones are shut off and will not allow interactive participation with the moderator or the other conferees. This allows the moderator complete silence when giving a presentation or long dissertation. The function is sometimes referred to as “listen only”.
When the moderator has completed the speech and wants to put the parties back into interactive mode, the *5 keys are pressed again and the conferee microphones are now activated for speech and all of the parties can interact on the call. There is one major caution when placing all of the conferees into interactive mode. Calls larger than fifteen to twenty five callers are about the limit to being interactive. Any larger calls can become a mass of confusion when multiple parties are trying to speak at the same time.
As a conferencing service provider, we have experienced several customers that have larger conference calls with as many as five hundred to one thousand parties on the call. Even though we have warned them about this issue of too many parties trying to talk at the same time on large calls, they insist upon having an open call. Much to their chagrin after a few minutes of mass confusion and inaudible babble, they ring our operator to help them place their call into listen only. The lesson here is learn to use the mute function and tell your conferees that you are placing them into listen only and you will let them know when they are able to speak again.
3. Choosing a Service With No Live Support
In today’s environment of on-line Internet services, customer service has fallen to a new low. High tech Internet companies are trying to make their services “Do it Yourself” (DIY) and limit their expenses on providing customer service personnel. This philosophy can add greatly to their bottom line profitability, but it stinks for the customers when they don’t have a live person to assist them with a problem or issue with the service.
There are many Internet audio and web conferencing services that are web page driven and have no live customer service. All you get is a Q&A section on the website and if your question or issue is not in there, then you are stuck. Their service is basically useless if you can’t figure out how to use it.
Consequently, you should select a conferencing service that has full customer support with an 800 number and a customer service department. This service will assist you real time when you have an issue, not call you back the next day. In fact, a good customer service department has operators that can even operate the controls on a web conference for you, allowing the customer to focus on the content of the presentation and not have to worry about pushing the right buttons.
4. Choosing a Service with 30 Day Expiring Pass Codes
This is a new one. I was called out on a customer contact at a law firm and the Managing Director said that he was very upset with his conferencing company. I asked why and he said that one of his attorneys was hosting an occasional call that was quite large, fifty parties. He didn’t hold these calls very often, about every six to eight weeks. When it came time for everyone to dial into the 800 number, no one could get into the call. The call never happened. The moderator of the call was totally upset because he had wasted all of the conferees time and he looked bad in the process.
After this lawyer reported the bad call to the Managing Director, he called the conferencing company to find out what had just happened. The company representation said that, “Oh, you have 30 day expiring pass codes. If you want the pass codes to be permanent, you have to pay a charge of $5. per pass code per month.” With 100 sets of pass codes, the firm would have to pay an extra $500. per month just to keep them active.
After hearing this, the Managing Director became very angry, resulting in a phone call to our company, which led to his firm switching their service over to us.
Repeat this after me, “You should never have to pay a monthly fee for a pass code.” Pass codes are free. There is an unlimited number of pass codes that can be assigned to a conference bridge. Every employee in your company or organization can have a free pass code. They never run out. Don’t be fooled by this new ploy to get your money.
5. Using Poor SIP Phones
With the advent of digital technology, more telephone equipment has migrated from old analog technology to new digital technology using the Internet. Telephone service has migrated also to Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), which is reliant upon good Internet bandwidth for clear transmission of voice calls. Many business telephone systems are changing to this new format and they have become dependent upon having enough bandwidth for clear voice calls. Some of these telephone system providers, which use Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) do not provide enough bandwidth and therefore the voice quality is sacrificed. The voice can fade in and out. There is cracking or popping on the line. It is just a horrible experience.
When a moderator or conferee comes into a conference call with a poor SIP phone, it can cause havoc on a conference call. No one wants to hear popping, crackling or voices fading in and out. The immediate solution is to use another phone. The longer term solution is to call your phone system provider and have them fix the bandwidth or the phone itself. If this does not correct the problems, then it is time to switch phones. Be sure and test new phones out before buying them.
6. Using Your Speakerphone as a Moderator
Some people just love using their speaker phone, both on their cell phone and on their business phone. This is just fine if you keep your mouth within a reasonably close distance to the phone’s speaker for the duration of the call. However, some moderators love to walk and talk. This presents a problem, because when a person walks away from the microphone, their voice fades out. When you add multiple parties in the same room around the speaker phone, the microphone will pick up any conversations within the room, causing disruption in the call. Consequently, when a moderator uses a speaker phone, they have to be extremely careful to stay at a constant distance from the microphone. The moderator should also caution all of the parties within the same room to refrain from talking amongst themselves while the call is proceeding.
7. Moderator on a Cell Phone: The Kiss of Death
Recently, the number of participants on cell phones in a conference calls exceeded the number of participants from business phones. If you are a conferee on a call, you are probably okay to participate via cell phone. You just need to insure that your surroundings are in a quiet setting. However, if you are a moderator on a conference call using your cell phone, you should be aware of certain procedures that can ruin your calls and which you must avoid.
When you set up your conference service with a conference moderator, regardless of the type of phone you are using, you have to specify whether you want your calls to end when you, the moderator, hang up or if you want participants to continue to be able to talk after you hang up. If you want the call to end when you, the moderator hang up, this feature is called “automatic disconnect when moderator hangs up”. This means that on all of your calls when you hang up, all of the other parties are automatically disconnected.
The problem you have with being a moderator on a cell phone with this feature is that if your cell phone fades out for whatever reason and disconnects in the middle of your call, all of the parties will be disconnected also. They can all dial back in and be reconnected, but if this keeps happening on your calls, participants will get frustrated and not call back in.
This issue becomes problematic when you are mobile or traveling in a car and go under a bridge or enter a dead zone. Your phone disconnects and boom, your call is toasted. Therefore, when setting up your conference service, consider selecting the option to allow your conferees to stay connected until they hang up.
Remember, it is okay to participate with a cell phone as a conferee on a conference call. It is as a moderator of a conference call that you have to be careful and consider the options available for you when you set up your conference service.
So there you have them, the 7 Pitfalls That can Ruin Your Conference Calls. Now you are educated and can put this information to good use with your conference call etiquette. I wish you much success with your conference calls and your future endeavors.