Conference-call-remote-meetings

A Primer on Using Internet Conferencing

By Donald Pagel, CEO of Pagel Consulting Group, LLC

Internet conferencing has been around for a while now and many businesses have switched to the use of Unified Communications systems (UC) for their entire business.  These systems combine regular phone calls, video/audio conferencing, chat and some also include group or team collaboration.

Even during the days of “land-line” phone conferencing, there were problems that included dropped calls, talking over each other and troubles with hands free use.  With VOIP (voice over internet protocol), the internet adds a few other issues that cause us all frustrations.  These include weak internet connections, a slight delay that causes starts and stops in conversations and, most importantly, that most computers do not handle full-duplex (the ability to hear others talk when you are talking) well.

With either older teleconferencing or today’s internet conferencing, there are also simple rules of etiquette that all users should regularly be trained on to create a good culture in today’s increased remote environments.  These rules are especially important with larger groups of users.

There is a great video link at the end of this article that perfectly demonstrates the frustrations we all feel.

Older Computers or Desktops

Older computers and most desktops may not include speakers, microphones or web cameras.  This means that each conference call invite should also include a phone number and access code (room number) so users that don’t have these devices can call in while also using the invite for screen sharing and presentations.

I spend most of my time online with customers working on technology implementations.  I don’t know what hardware these customers have so it is always important to make sure they can connect with both computer and phone if necessary. Frustrating your customer with technology they can’t use is never a good thing.

Duplexing Problems

Headsets, headsets, headsets…..did I mention you need to use a headset?  Headsets solve almost all of the problems of a conference call.  Without headsets, there are always problems with echo caused when either a user has their speakers up too loud and they are feeding back through the microphone or the user is on a phone and their computer speakers are also on. Also, a user that is not using a headset often can’t hear when another user is trying to talk.  Headsets perfectly separate the incoming and outgoing audio giving you more of an open communication capability rather than waiting to talk when there is open silence.  Using a headset on a computer with no speakers or microphone also solves that problem so they don’t have to call in on an additional phone number.

Most people don’t like to use headsets because the cheap ones are generally uncomfortable and you may fight the cable on the plug-in types.  I’m a full Apple user and I use my AirPods Pro earbuds for everything. They are comfortable and work with every device.  There are lots of other alternatives for wireless headsets that you can use. Do your own research and find a set that works for you.  If you don’t like them, send them back and try another type or brand until you are happy with both the comfort and features.  Beware that many “Bluetooth” wireless headsets made for phones may not work with computers (especially Windows computers).  There are “UC” (Unified Communications) versions for computers.  A good example would be the Plantronics Voyager 5200 UC.

We are going to be doing remote web conferencing for a long time to come so it is well worth the investment to get a headset that works for you.

Internet Bandwidth

Add www.speedtest.net as a favorite to your web browser and use it often.  You will find that there are two tests – one for download and one for upload speeds.  Internet providers promote their download speeds (make sure you actually get that speed) but never tell you what the upload speed is.  For conferencing over VOIP systems, you have to have strong download AND upload.  Most inexpensive internet connections may give you 20-30 mbps download but only 1-5 mbps upload and that is where the problem is.  For audio-only, 1-5 mbps could be fine IF it is stable.  You will be amazed at how erratic your speeds can be.

In order to account for the sometimes erratic connection, my general recommendation is to have a service with at least 50mbps download and 10 mbps upload for audio and 300/100 mbps for video.  I have a fiber connection in my house with 1000/1000 mbps and I even have problems with some meetings. Don’t hesitate to scream at your ISP regularly if you have frequent problems.  They may have a junction box with a loose connection and won’t actually look at it unless you require them to come out.  They will happily blame your hardware for the problem until they come out to look at all of their hardware connections.

If you do start to have problems, turn off your webcam to save bandwidth and maybe ask others to do the same.  You can also call in on the conference phone number just in case you lose your connection entirely.

Also, two last notes on bandwidth.  Most wireless routers can only broadcast at best around 400 mbps.  There are very expensive routers that can broadcast at much higher speeds.  If you buy a package above 400 mbps, using an ethernet connection to your device (computer) is the only way to get that speed.  Second, other users in your home or business can degrade your connection, especially by video streaming, gaming or multiple web conferences going on at the same time.  If you have an important meeting, make sure you are the only one on the line.  Don’t forget, you may also have security cameras, or other “always on” devices on your network.

Conferencing Hardware

Good hardware can be key to having a pleasant experience.  Here are some thoughts on required hardware.

  • Headset – See my rant and suggestions above. Make it a habit to use a headset.
  • Microphone – VOIP offers very clear audio and a good microphone can make you stand out.  This is especially important if you expect to have multiple people in the room.  Built-in microphones on laptops are generally mediocre at best.  When buying a good external microphone, do your research.  There are some very good microphones (and not very expensive) that YouTube producers use that you may want to consider.  Again, if you don’t like it, send it back and try another. Using a separate microphone and speakers still has the potential for feedback and echoing.  See the recommendation below on Speakers.
  • Speakers – Just like microphones, better speakers can really help to make sure you can hear the conversation clearly.  The problem here is that separate microphone and speakers can cause feedback or echoing, so be careful.  If you plan on using it for multiple people in a room, a combination unit can work very well.  Generally, these devices help with better duplexing as well.  A good example that is widely used is the Jabra Speak 510. It’s portable and has conference call features like mute, volume and disconnect right on the unit and its sound quality for conversations is very good.
  • Video Camera – A good 1080p web camera add-on for your desktop or laptop is a good idea.  Logitech makes a number of them that are reasonably priced and work very well. The Logitech C922x is very good or the Logitech B525 HD is a less-expensive model with lower resolution.

Etiquette

Etiquette in conference calls is critically important.  Respecting others on the call and being aware of your impact on the call can lead to much more pleasurable meetings.

  • Hosting a meeting – If you are the host, make sure someone else is a co-host (most platforms allow for this) in case something comes up or a previous call runs long. Open the meeting 5-7 minutes early and welcome users as they log on.
  • Be on time – Log on to the meeting early if you can.  I get busy working on other things and sometimes forget to look at the clock or I’m oblivious to the alert when it pops up.  I generally log on 5-7 minutes early and then go back to working until the meeting starts.
  • Turn your camera on by default – Sorry if this makes you get dressed up and do your hair, but seeing your body language and smile goes a long way to developing a good meeting environment.
  • Mute your microphone when not speaking – Get into the habit of muting your microphone to eliminate background noise when you aren’t talking.  If you are in the habit, you will also remember to unmute when you want to talk.
  • Reduce background noise – When you’re not speaking, your microphone tends to increase its gain (sensitivity) automatically when you aren’t speaking and pick up noises further away. A computer fan can sound like a jet engine on some of them.
  • Ask to speak before just jumping in – Especially with larger groups or if you are in a room with others that are all on one device for the conference. Use the “raise hand” feature in large groups and the host will let you talk.
  • Multiple people in the same room using one device – This is always tricky and requires sensitivity and patience.  Many of the rules above can help. Make sure that every person should be equidistant to the/a microphone so that all can be heard equally clearly and at the same volume.
  • Use the chat feature – Beware that it defaults to the entire group.  Learn how to chat privately with individuals in the group. Keep your eye on the chat alerts.
  • Don’t speak louder than normal – There is a weird tendency that all of us have to speak louder on conferences.  It isn’t usually necessary unless you are truly a very soft-spoken person.
  • Other users sound quality – It’s OK to tell other users if their sound quality isn’t very good.  There is no way for them to know otherwise.  Just do it after the call is over in a one-on-one meeting or send them a friendly chat or email if you know them well.
  • And finally, if you use the dial-in number from your office phone, DON’T PUT THE CALL ON HOLD! You probably never call into your business and don’t realize that there is most likely an audio track (music or a corporate commercial) playing when users are put on hold.  And, like television networks seem to play commercials louder than the movie or show, your on-hold audio is going to be loud to the other users in the conference and will completely block others from speaking.  If you need to answer another call on your office phone, its best to just drop the conference call and then call back in.

A Bit of Humor

Humor is a powerful tool.  Sometimes just being upbeat and extra friendly helps to set a mood for a call and helps everyone relax.  If you need a laugh after a stressful meeting or you want a good opener to a meeting, look at the YouTube video A Conference Call in Real Life.  It’s hilarious!

COVID-19 has changed the way we do business forever.  Don’t think that we will just go back to “normal”.  Remote working and more web conferences with much less travel is the new normal of the future.  Let’s all learn how to work in this new environment.

I’d love to hear about your experiences, and especially your pet peeves with audio and video conferencing.  Reach out to don.pagel@pagelconsulting.com and tell me a good story.  I may update this article or write a new one of just great funny stories! 

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