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Leadership Lesson - When To Use The Phone Versus Email

Business moves fast. We are all pushed to get more things done quickly.

Communication also needs to be fast. Sometimes the need for speed can cause us to be misunderstood or even worse, send the wrong message.

In this leadership lesson blog I discuss when it is a good time to have a phone conversation or in-person meeting rather than using email.

Crain's Business runs a regular column called "If I Knew Then ..." where they ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

In a recently published post, Paul Hofherr - Co-Founder of MUH-TAY-ZIK | HOF-FERa San Francisco based full-service advertising agency talks about how he made the wrong decision to use email rather phone and how it almost created a major loss in business.

I found the post by Paul Hofherr so relevant because all of us have made the mistake of answering an important message by email when the appropriate response would have been to pick up the phone and talk. While emails or texts are great for quick replies they can fall short when tone is important. 

Here is the Crain's article:

If I Knew Then - Paul Hofherr

The Mistake:

I sent an email when I should have used the phone.

About 15 years ago, I was running an agency with offices in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. I was the president of the San Francisco office. I actually had three titles: I was president, director of brand strategy and director of business development.

I was wearing many hats and when you wear many hats, you sometimes move quickly. What happened was a million, million, million-dollar mistake.

Sony PlayStation was interested in working with us, and Sony PlayStation is a dream account. It’s one of those accounts that if you win it, your agency becomes three times the size it was before.

So, I had a nice call with the client, hearing about the opportunity. Then I started doing my own fact finding. I learned that the incumbent agency was helping the client draft what things they should be looking for at their next agency.

And that struck me as odd. I wondered, “Wait a minute; why is the incumbent involved? Why are they helping draft what they’re looking for in an agency?” It didn’t feel right.

I emailed and my tone in my head was, “Hey, client, really super excited about this. I’m doing some fact finding and it’s my understanding that the incumbent is still involved in this process. Let me know what’s going on. I just want to make sure it’s a level playing field. Sincerely, Matt.”

I got a call back, and the client was ballistic. The client said, “How dare you! How dare you suggest I’m running a review that’s not ethical! How dare you suggest it’s not a level playing field! I’ve never gotten such an email!”

The client was just livid. And I asked, “What are you talking about?” But there was nothing I could say.

I knew that this was the perfect account, but to win it, I basically had to blow myself up. So, I told my partners to blow me up and I would stay behind the scenes.

They did win the account and they had the client for close to a decade and it was worth millions and million and millions of dollars. All because of an email, we might have not had that opportunity.

Email can be evil. If there’s any tone or emotion, you have to pick up the phone. 

The Lesson:

I learned a huge lesson: email can be evil. If there’s any tone or emotion, you have to pick up the phone. This is because email is just a horrible medium and in my career, that was the scariest moment I’ve had.

I learned that in the beginning of a new relationship, you have to see the best in the opportunity. What I was trying to do was protect my agency. So, I was looking at worst-case scenarios. It’s like a first date: I was suspicious on a first date, and you can’t be suspicious on a first date, especially in the business I’m in.

There should be a lot of optimism in the beginning of any new business opportunity. You need to be less cynical and more optimistic in the beginning. 

I can speak from first hand experience how mistakes can be made when wrongly selecting email as the communication vehicle. My business writing style is very direct and succinct. This has proven to be very helpful in my career in developing proposals, addressing issues, and providing analysis. I have also found that this style can mistakenly be perceived as being critical or skeptical. 

Anthony K. Tjan in his Harvard Business Review article "Don't Send That Email, Pick Up The Phone" provided some additional insights into why an over-reliance on email can be problematic:

Email has become a convenient mechanism for issue-avoidance. It is easier, quicker, less stressful, and less confrontational to have critical or challenging issues sent over email versus a live one-on-one with a counterpart.

Anthony K. Tjan goes on further to explain how this issue avoidance syndrome traps up in the never-ending email chain of replies (many times reply to all) that prove to be an unproductive use of everyone's time. He explains that we all should consider the following before selecting email versus the phone (or heaven forbid an actual in person meeting):

It is hard to get the EQ (emotional intelligence) right in email. The biggest drawback and danger with email is that the tone and context are easy to misread. In a live conversation, how one says something, with modulations and intonations, is as important as what they are saying. With email it is hard to get the feelings behind the words.

Email and text often promote reactive responses, as opposed to progress and action to move forward. Going back to the zero latency expectation in digital communications, it is hard for people to pause and think about what they should say. One of my colleagues suggests not reacting to any incendiary message until you have at least had a night to sleep on it, and always trying to take the higher ground over email. While by definition reactive responses occur in live discourse, they are usually more productive. The irony is that while email, as an asynchronous channel, has the potential to be more thoughtful, it often promotes the opposite tendency to be immediately reactive. Why? Because the bark is almost always bigger than the bite behind remote digital shields.

Email prolongs debate. Because of the two reasons above, I have seen too many debates continue well beyond the point of usefulness. Worse, I have experienced situations which start relatively benignly over email, only to escalate because intentions and interests are easily misunderstood online. When I ask people if they have called or asked to meet the counterpart to try and reach a resolution, there is usually a pause, then a sad answer of “no.”

Email is and will continue to be a productive communication tool for all of us. We all have to recognize that it is not necessarily the appropriate means to getting things done.

When you start to see that debates are prolonged or you have serious questions about a subject it may be good idea to pick up the phone or even walk over to the other person's desk and have a conversation.