Is This Call Really Necessary?

ImageReaders of our May issue know that we recognize certain problems with e-mail as a means of business communication. In general, though, it's a pretty spectacular medium — virtually instantaneous, with the capacity to embed or attach text documents, spreadsheets, audio, video and practically any other data, not to mention easily organized, cross-referenced and tracked.

As a veteran vendor, I know with certainty that a project can be proffered, negotiated, explained, drafted, revised and invoiced with banner results via e-mail. Yet, with surprising frequency, I'm asked to "jump on a call" to "go over the project."

What's wrong with conference calls? Let me count the ways: Participants talking over one another. Not knowing who's talking. Speaker-phone distortion. Cell-phone crap-out. People clickety-clacking less discreetly than they realize. Waiting for the one person who can answer the question at hand to join the call (her assistant is trying her cell again). The conversation stopping dead as the parties discover that someone didn't get that .pdf of the artwork, so hang on a minute and we'll shoot that right over. Pointless bloviation. One department holding everyone hostage to the hashing out of a sidebar issue. No documentation of what was said or who said it.

The whole enterprise can take on a grimly existential cast, like Waiting for Godot in business-casual.

One of Julia's clients actually imposed weekly conference calls in "support" of a six-month project — literally dozens of conference calls. She's no longer working with that client.


Conference calls are like fetishes used to ward off the fear that a project is out of control.

Don't get me wrong — I love conversing with our clients and always value the opportunity to chat, whether it's about work to be done or the maddening first-season finale of The Killing. But the contours of a conference call, it must be admitted, usually don't contribute to this cause.

For a particularly jaundiced perspective, we refer you to the blog I Hate Conference Calls, which offers plenty of pointed criticism on the topic, such as:

So youíre a busy person, right?
Barely getting through each day with 90% of your ìto doî undone?
Do your clients think youíre moody, difficult, on the edge?
Maybe what you need to do is sit on the phone with a bunch of other stressed-out people for 2 or 3 hours. Maybe some of those people could be eating during the call. Maybe most of them could be on speaker phone.
I freakiní hate conference calls.

Numerous well-intentioned guides to successful conference calling and the "etiquette" thereof can be found online. "Leading With Respect for Time Boundaries," from the consultancy Business Training Works, is a good example:

So many conference calls are confusing, ineffective, and poorly run because they're not well facilitated by the person leading the call. In fact, on some calls, I'm not exactly sure who is in charge since no one is leading. Conference calls should have specific agenda items for participants to cover, and all who take part should be committed to beginning and ending at a certain time.

ImageThe careful planning and thoughtful moderation such tutorials recommend can make the process less painful — and occasionally downright productive. Yet even a well-contained conference call tends to demand instantaneous answers to questions that might benefit from further reflection, the kind afforded by an e-mail exchange.

Similarly, you don't e-mail an answer to a question until you've figured out what that answer is. Thus the tap dancing, spitballing and thinking out loud that transpires on many a conference call is mercifully absent from the average business e-mail.

Given all these deficits, why do conference calls retain such a privileged perch? Like an in-person meeting (which enjoys such advantages as audibility and non-verbal cues), a conference call ostensibly allows higher-ups to gather the relevant employees, consultants and/or vendors and grill them on the status of a project. It appeals to a reasonable desire for accountability and benchmarks.

But one suspects there are fuzzier, even quasi-mystical forces at work. Conference calls are like fetishes used to ward off the fear that a project is out of control; we shake them like a rattle at the gods of chaos. You don't think they have magical powers? Then explain how their instigators keep forgetting that they're usually an utter waste of time.

We live to serve our clients. If they want us to cool our heels for 90 minutes with a receiver jammed to our heads, they need only tell us when and give us the dial-in digits. But if they want to get the most out of us (and the rest of the team), they might consider hanging it up and checking in via This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it