Conference calls have become an everyday aspect of doing business, with the average user joining five calls per week, according to a recent survey. By now, most business people think they are experts at conducting and participating in phone meetings. But the truth is they are often awkward affairs, marred by late arrivals, technical glitches, background noise and side conversations, all of which can undermine the effectiveness of a sales call.


They can also be productivity-killers. On average, interruptions and distractions waste one-third of the time spent on each conference call, which costs businesses $16 billion a year in unproductive staff time, the research reported. By setting policies about best practices to follow, many of the pitfalls can be easily avoided. To see if your sales team may need additional training, ask yourself these five questions:


  1. Does sales respect the customer’s time? According to the survey, the first eight minutes of a phone meeting are wasted tracking down late-to-the-table attendees and waiting for them to join. Your customers may be tardy, but if you are, what does it say about the efficiency of your team? “Instruct sales to always get on the line three minutes early, so they’re ready to go before the customer dials in,” says Ethan Rasiel, CEO of Lightspeed PR, a New York-based firm that conducts all of its business virtually. If a straggler on your staff does come in late, it’s best that he or she wait for a natural pause in the conversation before greeting everybody to avoid disrupting the conversation flow.


  1. How frequent are tech snafus during calls? If your team uses screen-sharing platforms or web conferencing platforms—or any other communication technology—see whether they consistently test the tool out before calls to make sure that it functions properly. There is nothing more irritating to busy clients than to have to spend the first 15 minutes of a call trying to access a presentation that they cannot due to a tech glitch. If you’re not 100% sure your tools will work, it’s better to simply send your material via email in advance of the meeting.


  1. Are introductions handled properly? For some reason, this obvious first step is often skimmed over, creating frustration for callers trying to figure out who is on the line. Before each conference call, make sure your conference chair (call organizer) sends out a calendar invite so customers can see who is planning to attend. Once on the call, have each person on your team do a quick introduction that includes name, title and job function. It helps customers attach names to voices and better understand everyone’s role in the discussion.


  1. How do they handle dead air? It seems like a strange question. However, without facial expressions and gestural cues, it’s easy for conference calls to turn awkward, especially if no one is talking. The most skilled and gracious conference-call hosts handle this by narrating what one would ordinarily see if they were attending a face-to-face meeting. Here’s an example: “Bear with me a minute while I locate the report so I can confirm that data point. Okay, here it is on my desktopand you are absolutely right. Thanks for your patience.”


  1. Does your team connect during the meeting? Instant messaging (IM) and team chat services, such as Slack or Google Hangouts, allow your team to communicate behind the scenes in real time to quickly coordinate who should respond to customers. “When a customer asks a question on a call, I message my team, ‘I’ve got this one’ or ‘Tracy, please take that one,’” Rasiel says. “This is one way to make sure the right person answers and we don’t step on each other’s words. We are always looking to convey a polished impression of our company—and the people that stand behind it.”


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