We all have embraced e-mail in our world. In fact some of the younger generations use e-mail and text messaging almost exclusively to communicate. We have regions of the United States that e-mail communication has become the preferred method of communicating our message in the personal and business world. I have clients that I work with in these areas in the Silicon Valley area of California or Seattle, Washington where the way they sell, service customers, handle problems, and generally communicate is through the medium of e-mail.
There is time savings in e-mail if the communication is short, quick, to the point and simple rather than complex. For this type of communication e-mail is highly efficient and effective. If you are delivering a large document that otherwise would have been typed, licked, sticked, addressed and mailed via snail mail, again the time savings can be wonderful.
My view is that it’s the in-between documents and discussions where the challenge lies. It’s the middle ground where verbal discussion, negotiations, complex problems and challenges need to be brain stormed, crafted and resolved that e-mail is an inadequate delivery system of our communication. We need to quickly recognize; is this issue or problem one that I can handle through e-mail? Is it the best form of communication in terms of speed and quality?
E-mail is ideal for:
- Short answers
- When you need a written record of communication
- When sending attached documents, reports, and articles
- Forwarding information to multiple parties in the decision process
- When you are unable to reach a person through the phone
E-mail is not ideal for:
- Unveiling new ideas because there is zero sizzle, emotion, or enthusiasm
- Dealing with an emotionally charged topic
- Personal or professional confrontation or correction in behavior
- Issues that need clarification
- Complex issues and problems that need solutions that demand thinking
Another great use for e-mail is when there are large differences in time between business partners and people. For my international clients, e-mail is a vital tool because the time differential. For example, in the Middle East to where I live on the West Coast in the United States can be 10-14 hours difference. Our work times are not synchronized. It does allow me to keep our business deals flowing without getting up really early or staying up late. E-mail also aides in the language barrier that exists as well. I don’t have to be challenged by heavy accents or dialect differences that make it harder to understand their verbal communication.
E-mail will never ever be a good substitute for verbal communication. There will be times in business where you need to stop the e-mail cold and make a call. You can tie up large amounts of time e-mailing back and forth, sending dozens of e-mails between you and a colleague when a simple two-minute phone call would have resolved the problem quicker than the host of e-mail.
I feel that the biggest advantage that e-mail affords is flexibility. We have the flexibility to respond when we want to in our schedule. We have a record of receiving the correspondence or question today. We have the option to wait a few hours or a few days to respond when we have more time in our schedule. E-mail creates options in our communication time frame.
E-mail is just one place where we can lose ourselves in time wasting activities. For most of us we feel at work that we are respectful and responsive with our time. There are considerable hours lost weekly in productivity for even militant time masters due to e-mail of the non-business variety. Too much time is invested in reading, crafting responses, forwarding, editing, sending and then filing personal e-mails. It is a function of personal discipline as well as skill. There is an epidemic of forwarded jokes that infect most companies. Most of the jokes are at best mediocre with a real gem that comes along every once in a while. Are you the type of person that forwards the chain letter that arrives in your box to the four friends to avoid the bad luck of losing your marbles?
We all know that we receive too much e-mail. If e-mail wasn’t free and faster than a business letter it’s use wouldn’t grow so significantly from one year to the next. Just because it comes fast and easy shouldn’t mean that we relax our standards of business communications.
I find that before e-mail we would let papers, memos, and letters sit in our inbox for sometimes days. We would deal with them when the time was right. Is our responsiveness today because of importance or because we fear the e-mail back up in our inbox?
Don’t allow the fact that you’ve got mail to interrupt your priorities of the day. It’s not necessary to respond to all e-mail. In fact if the e-mail is not worthy of a response ignore it and move on with your day. Hit the delete key and start your next project. Set specific times during the day when you check your e-mail. If you get too tempted because the icon comes up on your computer screen or your computer beeps, chirps, or sounds off when you get mail, turn off that feature so you are oblivious to the new arrival. Don’t interrupt the flow of your workday to check on an e-mail sent to you.
I often get asked how frequently I should check my e-mail so I don’t reach overload. Your need to check regularly will be based on your job. Is e-mail a strategic and primary form of communication? Are you on the front lines with an international customer base? Are you a key administrative player who multiple people delegate to? If you answered yes to any of these your frequency will need to be more regularly. People will be sending you fires that need putting out.
The ability to plan ahead with e-mail communication saves you loads of time. For many of us we field the same FAQ numerous times during the week or day. If that is you then crafting standard responses that are templates, drafts, or placed in folders for use is advisable. It allows you to cut and paste your responses saving time to craft a new answer to a repeated question. You might have standard responses or at least send a short note even to inform someone you’re working on their project. Informing them that the project is in your cue of activities but you will not be able to send it to them until _________ conveys to the sender you got the message, you are working on it, and to expect it by a specific date. It also demonstrates professionalism, courtesy, and importance for their problem.
Another technique to employ is the automated message. This is especially effective if you are going to be tied up for days in meetings or on the road and away from communication. You can set up an automated message that informs the person e-mailing you of when they can expect a response, when you will be handling e-mails, or another person to contact if they need more immediate help from you. In many cases people don’t mind who contacts them as long as they are contacted. You can even have standard messages for when you return from the road. The messages could say that you will get back to them later in the week with your response.
One of the famous lines from the 70’s sitcom era was from "All in the Family"; "Edith stifle yourself." Sometimes we need to take that advice ourselves with regard to e-mail. For certain people e-mail communication is a challenge in achieving results, solid communication, and time savings. If you are angry, frustrated, hurt or insulted my advice is don’t craft a message for mass distribution or even single distribution. If you are angry with your spouse, children, manager, subordinates, or boss wait to respond. If you feel that you must craft an e-mail in order to fully vent your thoughts and emotions do so. The secret is to park it in your draft folder until you cool down some. People can easily let their emotions get away from them and fan the fire of anger.
We also tend to misinterpret the communication. An e-mail carries little emotion, sincerity, passion, and caring. The interpretation is up to the receiver. Frequently that interpretation is incorrect. I used to have an employee in my company who thought I was out to get him. This made e-mail communication impossible with him. He was always looking between the lines of my messages. He was looking for hidden meaning that wasn’t there. I quit e-mailing him and we talked from that point forward. The sender could have written something that later in the day recognized wasn’t correct. They misinterpreted the message because of their mental picture of you.
For most people we should wait to respond to e-mail in the afternoon. It’s when most of us start to run down our energy levels. If you start to crash at 3:00 pm in the afternoon, save your e-mail responses until then. Know your most productive times during your day and make them e-mail block out periods. Most people hit the reply button to jot down a quick note and send it back. It’s as if we are playing a tennis match and the ball is on our side of the court. We need to slow down for a number of reasons. There is a significantly higher level of typos and grammatical errors in e-mail correspondence than snail mail letters. As a professional I see little difference between the two forms of communication. Most of us would never send out a business letter without thorough review of the contents. Too few people use their draft box to hold their thoughts to send later. We usually employ the strategy of hitting the send button right after we sign off with regards, sincerely, best wishes, or whatever we use to close an e-mail. The more controversial, confrontational, or emotional the topic the more we need to pause it in the penalty box or dog house. Once you have taken a few hours or a few days break from sending it, review and revisit the content, desired outcome, and message before sending it out into the world. In my formative years "M*A*S*H" was a television show we watched as a family. When the wounded would come to the unit, a specific doctor would perform triage which determined the priority of patients. We need to engage in triage for our e-mail. There is a portion of the e-mail that is dead on arrival. It needs to be deleted and removed from our lives until the next time it jumps into our inbox. Anything that you would consider spam would fit into this category. There is e-mail that needs to go into the "deal with later" category. These we need to put into a file or folder so we can deal with them later. These type range the gamut from personal e-mails that you want to read carefully and take time to craft response. It could also include flexible time line projects that don’t have to be done today or even this week. The last group would be the "immediate concern" message. This is where you need to take immediate action or as with the doctors on M*A*S*H by delaying are putting the patient at greater risk. An immediate concern would be something that needs to be addressed today before close of business. Many of these will fall into the "reply right now" category. Hopefully you don’t have too many of those emergency do it now e-mails. The best strategy on those is to do them if they really warrant your immediate attention so you can get them out of the way and get back to your day.