When Conference Calls Go Wrong…

21 Jun

If that headline means nothing to you, then you clearly don’t work in business. Or are still in high school. Because otherwise, you know: conference calls are recipes for disaster.

I mean, even a routine weekend call with my parents holding separate extensions in their home usually has at least one snag. (Namely, my dad deciding to take that moment to untwist the cord, which makes a crackling noise, prompting my mom to yell, “John! What the hell are you doing?”)

So take many people, put them on a shared line for 60 minutes and see what happens.

First, there is always THAT PERSON. You know the one. The person who – no matter how long s/he has worked at the company and how many calls s/he has been on – forgets the cardinal rule: Never Put The Call On Hold.

When pushing the HOLD button, that person sends a complex message, kind of like:

  • I’m the most important person on this call, so just cool your heels until I’m back.
  • I don’t know how technology works.
  • Sorry, I have REAL work to do, suckers.

Personally, I believe companies should have some forum where public shaming can occur in the wake of an incident like this. I mean, I’m not advocating disciplining or firing someone. No. But if peers could trash talk him/her for 24 hours without consequence, where a photo could be uploaded for a Dumbass Caption Contest?  Probably pretty effective at putting an end to that behavior.

I will go on record and admit: I have been that person. And I was publicly shamed. And it didn’t happen again. Which might be why I support that method.

You know who else there is? The person who doesn’t know how to mute his line. And who also happens to be related to Darth Vader. Or big on crank calls. Because without fail, there is always one person who breathes into the phone like it’s an oxygen mask, who makes people believe the call will be interrupted at any moment with the words, “Luke. I am your father.”

And if you’ve never heard that guy on your call? Sorry: it’s YOU. Find your mute button.

And yet, I can’t be too hard on him. Because I’ve also had issues with my mute button. I once ran to the bathroom when I thought I was both a) muted and b) on hold. Turns out neither was true. Fortunately, I’m good with improv so I think I successfully played it off as if I were washing dishes. Or owned a horse.

If you’re still not understanding what I’m talking about, watch this as a primer:

So today I was on a series of calls. On one call, to help people understand how excited her team was about something, my friend used a phrase like, “They lept up and squeaked like dolphins.” I appreciated the unique simile – it’s not every day I have to step back and think about what something might’ve looked like. So much better than a meaningless corporate cliché.

About that time in the background you could hear another person exiting their car, given away by the tell-tale beep signaling keys in the ignition. “What is that noise?” one of my colleagues asked.

“Sonar,” I told her. “Someone is approaching the office.”

On another call – one I was leading – I got all wound up and started pulling vocabulary words like I was playing Scrabble. Only in editing the recording did I realize I’d used the word “penultimate” incorrectly. Turns out, it doesn’t mean “the most amazingly awesome thing ever.” In Other Disappointing News, it means: next to last.

As in, that is the penultimate time I ever use that word.

And now for the part I really wish I were making up…

I was on another call today – a smaller call, with only about ten people in attendance. We were working out all aspects of a large program that is set to launch on Monday, so it was a pretty tense call. We were mapping out timelines, confirming action plans, working out worst-case scenarios.

As we wrapped up the call, a lot hung in the balance. Based on how each person leaving that call performed their piece – and any technical bugs they encountered – we would reach a “go” or “no-go” decision the next day. After recapping commitments, I thanked everyone and went to close the call by saying, “I’ll be waiting for your updates with bated breath.”

Except I got a little tongue-tied.

And instead, I closed the call by telling everyone, “I’ll be waiting for your updates with bated breasts.”

Speaking of mental images…

I can’t make this up people. There is actually a website that sells boob hooks.

16 Responses to “When Conference Calls Go Wrong…”

  1. twocentsplus June 21, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    i just laughed my a$$ off. when do conference calls not go wrong. there should be a training course on conf call etiquette—those who think they need not sign up are probably the one who commit the cardinal sins. the mute button on the headset is a bit tricky to navigate…..you really need to be friends with that technology. nice!

    • pithypants June 22, 2012 at 6:19 am #

      Actually – maybe we’ve just stumbled upon an invention: an idiot-proof phone specifically for conference calls. Kind of like that cell phone for children that only has two buttons on it.

  2. thesinglecell June 21, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    Laughed. Out. LOUD about the breasts. Way to go. Talk about a closing line.
    Do you have gum-chewers? or speakerphone yellers? I HATE that.

    • pithypants June 22, 2012 at 6:17 am #

      Alan asked what I said next. My response? “Just BYE.” Mainly because I was trying not to laugh and confirm that their ears had NOT deceived them. Sometimes you just can’t fix a situation so it’s best to flip a match over your shoulder as you walk away.

  3. Kelly Thompson June 21, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    Hmmm, do I want to know what you catch with boob hooks?!? I was on a conference call this week in which one of the participants was relating how someone had chewed his ass about being too confrontational…at about the time that someone walked into my office and heard him on my speakerphone. Their offline conversation later would have been worth listening in on.

    • pithypants June 22, 2012 at 6:14 am #

      Well, in his defense, it sounds like he had taken the point to heart. Instead of confronting the guy, he was using a more passive-aggressive approach to airing his grievance.

  4. Curly Carly June 22, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Conference calls are so awkward. I was gonna tell a go-to-the-bathroom-with-unmuted-phone story but you beat me to it.

    I had a professor in college who told us a similar story. One day in the middle of a lecture his stomach revolted so he headed for the bathroom. And he forgot to turn off the little microphone attached to his shirt. I can’t believe he told us that actually.

    • pithypants June 22, 2012 at 6:13 am #

      I can believe it. Because when something THAT horrifying occurs, you NEED to tell people so you can convert it to laughter. Otherwise, you might just crawl under your desk in shame and never come out again.

  5. Joe Garcia June 22, 2012 at 8:38 am #

    Having been involved in PPACA implementation at the state level for the past two years I have had more than my fair share of conference calls and have experienced all of the above “pitfalls”. One not specifically addressed but loosely related to the Darth Vader scenario are those individuals that exhale directly into the mouthpiece after speaking “the exploders”. The “bated breasts” sign off is one way to guarantee prompt feedback – way to make it memorable Farmer!

    • pithypants June 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

      Ah yes, the Exploders. Kind of makes you wonder if they were holding their breath the entire time they were talking. One can hope.

  6. John June 22, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    I call phone etiquette a lost art, but I’m not sure it was ever a fully formed art.

    • pithypants June 22, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

      I think it’s a stretch to associate anything related to the phone with art. But nice try.

  7. squirrel circus June 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    Such a true picture of conference calls. When my husband worked out of a home office, he was always on calls, and I never knew if he was muted or deeply engaged in the call (not that those two things are mutually exclusive… heh heh). I generally tiptoed around those calls — surprised periodically by Scott saying something totally personal or random to me — when I hoped he was on mute. 🙂

    Besides Darth Vader, I’ve been on calls where one or more people are having a stage-whispered conversation with someone NOT on the call, like “Yeah. Sure. Go ahead.”, “No, I don’t want any”, “Decaf, please.”, or “Daddy’s on a call.” This can be both distracting AND entertaining. 😉

    • pithypants June 22, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

      Yes! You kind of want to say, “Um, whispering does not a mute button make, my friend.”

  8. Danielle June 22, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    I’ve been in conference calls where someone doesn’t mute the line and has a conversation with someone near his/her desk. Terrible.

    That fishing hook is hysterical!

  9. hollybernabe June 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    Boob hooks? I wonder who dreamed up that one? Oh my, that’s hilarious!

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