July 1, 2020

Mistakes US Clients Make on Conference Calls and in Virtual Meetings (With Solutions)

I have provided coaching to over 4,000 professionals in India who work on virtual teams with US American counterparts or clients. Often, I am asked to help [Indian] team members to improve their business acumen and communication skills to perform better on daily status update calls, virtual meetings and presentations. In many cases, many assume the fault lies with the [team in India] because maybe they assume that they are not speaking clearly (their accent is not understood) or they aren't able to understand the US American English accent. While there are cases where the teams in India can upskill, there are areas where the US based team should be working on communicating with more clarity.

So, instead of always blaming yourself for miscommunication when working offshore, take a look at a few of the common problems I have noticed that US American citizens (aka Native American English speakers) make while on conference calls, and possible ways you can navigate and overcome these situations. (These examples are derived from observing over 100 different types of virtual interactions over the years.) 



Problems and Solutions to Communication Problems in Virtual Calls & Meetings


Problem: Continuously Asking Others to Repeat
Working on global, international, virtual teams, native speakers encounter a variety of accents and ways of using English that, at times, can be hard to follow for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it's not just the accent (phonetics or sounds) that could be misunderstood, but also word choices. Just like words and phrases can differ regionally within a country, commonly used words in conversation, English phrases, idioms or slangs and even professional industry terms can differ from country to country. Add to this the additional complexity internet connectivity problems, and we can see how even the simplest sentence by the clearest of speakers on either side can be misunderstood. 

Due to this, often times, many of us default to asking our conversational partners to simply repeat. However, this causes many problems. Simply asking others to repeat from either side (native speaker or non-native speaker) including: the person being asked to repeat may think the others aren't really listening, the non-native speaker may lose confidence in speaking thinking they have a 'bad accent,' (which leads to other team dynamics, including having those with 'better English' talking on behalf of those who speak with less clarity or confidence), or, worse yet, this becoming a habit from both sides anytime anything is not 100% clear. 

Solutions to Apply
Rather than simply asking to repeat, we could try these approaches:
  1. Summarize a few points that were heard and ask for clarity.
  2. Select a section you did not understand and ask only about that (as compared to repeating everything). Based not the context you could use any of the following: "Could we please review X again?" or "I'm sorry I am not familiar with X term." or "Could you please share an example of X?" or "How does X show up in your work process?"
  3. Extract a word and ask for clarity about that one word, "I heard you say C hash, is that C sharp?" or, "What is CPP?", or "Was the phrase, "home stretch" an idiom? I am not familiar with that." 
  4. If the speaker was talking about more than one point, maybe asking the speaker to talk only about one point at a time. "I think I heard you speaking about three different bugs? Is it possible to focus only on ticket number 469 first?" (The conversational partner hopefully will stop after talking about that particular bug, then give the client a chance to respond.)
Asking others to repeat can be frustrating for both sides. However, we have to keep in mind that even native speakers (of any language) do not understand each other 100% of the time. Approaching it from this point of view, we not only will strive for more respectful, inclusive communication, we will also improve our cross-cultural business communication while building the confidence of all of our team members.


Problem: Speaking Too Fast 
We are not asking anyone to speak like a robot, but we are hoping that people can speak at a pace so that people from other areas of the country or world can understand with more clarity. Often there are conference calls with international participants from more than two countries, some of those participants speak English as their first and only language, and some do not. 


Solutions to Apply

We can always take care to speak in a more global way- in a plain version of the language, without many localisms, slangs, or jargon (including technical or professional jargon when talking to someone new to our outside of our industry). We should try to speak slow, but not like a robot. We should learn how to inflect our speech to sound natural and not rehearsed.

If you hear a word you do not know, and do not want to ask directly about the meaning, don't forget to keep listening. Listen to the entire context and then try to respond (even native speakers may not know the meaning to every word they hear) or ask for clarity on that word is not understood by paraphrasing and asking a clarifying question. For example: 


So far I understand that we must continue to handle the tickets as they come in. We have Aseem on the day shift and Dhruv on the evening shift. Is this what is referred to when using the term rota

In fact, these are good conversational exercises you can use to practice when learning and using new vocabulary. I often use this in fluency coaching with good outcomes.


Problem: Speaking in Long, Complex Sentences 
The most complex thing in the world is to simplify things. When one person speaks for longer than 4 or 5 minutes on a call in long, winding sentences (longer than 12-15 words, using filler words or connector words), listeners will tune out and get bored or get tired from listening. Listening is an active activity, and for non-native speakers can be even more taxing. And, on the phone, all we have to go by is voice. With an absence of non-verbal in-person cues, listening can be twice as taxing for your participants on the phone. 

Solutions to Apply
The number one solution to apply whenever we are delivering complex messages over online conferencing tools is to turn our video on. The others in the meeting may not need to have their video on, but as the speaker delivering a complex message, it helps to provide non-verbal contextual cues to our listeners to have our camera on and show our face while we talk.

Another idea is to add other visuals to our presentation, such as slides with minimal words (we don't want to distract listeners by having them read our presentation), images or other types of visuals. If we are trying to describe a feature in a system, a screenshare demo may be the best option - walk the listeners through the platform or screens while we are performing the action.

It probably won't be a good idea to ask people to speak in shorter sentences. Firstly, if we take this solution upon ourselves, it could be possibly mirrored by our client over time. But, meanwhile, again the best solution you can apply is careful listening and paraphrasing where you aren't clear.

When people speak in long sentences (or write), the grammar gets confused and the main topics or ideas get muddled in a sea of words. If your non-native speaking counterpart talks in long sentences or tends to talk for a long time before giving you a chance to speak, have a pad and paper nearby to take notes. Do not write out every single thing he or she says, but write the main word/topic. Then, when it's your turn to talk, reflect back for clarity calling out main points.



Problem: Not Testing the Equipment or Understanding of Acoustics 
Just recently I overheard a conference call where an English native speaker was speaking on a conference call. To me, it clearly sounded as if she was using a speaker phone that was sitting on a desk, possibly sitting in a room with other people and sitting far from the speakerphone. It sounded as if she were in a tunnel. She did not know how to project her voice properly, and it was hard for international participants to hear. What complicated things is that native speakers from other countries did understand her (maybe they have known each other longer, and understood each other's tones and pitches better), so those who were not non-native speakers could not understand what she asked. 

Problem: Bending into the Call 
When a person doesn't have good posture or breath, they will not sound clear and may speak too fast. I have heard this on quite a few calls, too. Possibly, a person who has not been participating in the call for ten or fifteen minutes has been asked to participate and is now bending into the table speaks. Now they will not sound clear as they are constricting the air in their abdomen or their neck. This will impact clear communication. 

Solutions to Apply 

As we do not have control over our client's technical gadgetry, it will be our responsibility to manage our own gadgetry and our own posture. Possibly, another approach would be to know the ins and out of the technical specifications of the platform we are using. If you are well versed in the digital online platform or phone calling technology, you may be able to provide 'technical support' to your client to assure they are audible or their equipment (such as mic or video) may be working properly.

If not working from the office, it may be tempting to take a call while relaxing on the couch or bed. This will not be a good idea if you need to be heard clearly. Lounging and having bad posture makes your voice not as clear as if you are sitting up straight with a straight neck. If you don't believe me, jump on a call with me and turn off your video. Talk sitting or laying in different positions, most of the time I can tell when you are bending your neck or lounging. It doesn't sound professional, and will sound as if you are casual or not serious.



As we wrap up this article, just keep in mind the if you are blaming yourself for the miscommunication in your global client interactions, it's not always your fault. Though there may be things we can always do to improve our own approach and communication, our clients or colleagues are not perfect either. I hope this article has given you some insight into that as well as some ideas to overcome some of the common problems.



If you work on a global team and face these situations, Jennifer Kumar, the author of this blog, works with your teams on leadership and communication skills across international borders in virtual work environments. Contact her for more information

Related Posts: 
When Training Is Not Always the Answer (With Case Study)

Original post date - July 1, 2015

Updated - July 1, 2020, Jan. 2021

Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.