By Bruce Johnstone, Director Of The Business Growth & Development Programme At Cranfield School Of Management.

We use a lot of e-mail. According to some accounts the average corporate worker sends and receives 200 e-mail messages a day, and spends 40 percent of their time on e-mail. Much of that time is spent e-mailing people who are in the same building.

An estimated 294 billion e-mails are sent every day (although 90 percent will be spam). That works out at 2.8 million every second. It is easy to see why this has come about. E-mail has the advantage of being a free and convenient medium that, crucially, does not require the participants to available to each other at a particular time, in the way that a meeting or telephone call does.
It is easy to forget that e-mail is not the only means of business communication, and not always the best for every situation. Here are some situations where you might be better not to use it:

1. You need to explain something complex

Being entirely text-based, e-mail messages lack the non-verbal clues that are conveyed by tone of voice in telephone calls, or via body language in face-to-face meetings. A series of e-mail communications may provide fragmented information that lacks the context, detail and nuance needed to understand an issue.

2. You want to build a relationship

E-mail is not the best way to establish and build personal connections with clients. Face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations are a much more powerful means of strengthening a relationship. E-mail cannot replace the good impression you create with a firm handshake, eye contact, a friendly smile and a pleasant chat over a cup of coffee.

3. The situation is delicate.

Remember that, once you have pressed send, an e-mail can never really be deleted. You can push the delete button, and so can your recipient, but the message is likely to remain on one or more mail servers, which will be routinely backed up. The privacy of the e-mail messages you send at work cannot usually be guaranteed and it is a good idea not to write anything in an e-mail that you would not want made public. Delicate situations call for a quiet chat or a walk in the park.

4. The communication is formal

Formal communications, such as a complaint, resignation or a written warning, are often best delivered in the form of a letter. A letter can be on your business letterhead paper and sent in the mail, and often seems more appropriate. For example, when a business owner-manager qualifies for a place on the Business Growth & Development Programme (BGP) at Cranfield, we send a formal letter of offer rather than simply an e-mail or telephone call. Of course a PDF copy of the letter can still be attached to an e-mail for instant delivery.

Dr Bruce Johnstone is a director of the Business Growth and Development Programme at Cranfield School of Management. He can be reached on bruce.johnstone@cranfield.ac.uk

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