Chapter 6

Relationship Management Through Email

Email enables professionals to communicate efficiently with a broad network of people, independent of time zones and geographical constraints. Nonetheless, electronic communications should not be viewed as an all-purpose replacement for conversation. Live interactions, whether on the phone or in person, are valuable tools for building and sustaining professional relationships that can help you throughout your career.

Therefore, don’t overestimate the utility of email. And, when you do use it, use it wisely. Below are some guidelines on managing relationships effectively through email.

1. Don’t barricade yourself behind your computer.

In this electronic age, people sometimes fail to recognize the value of spoken communications, whether on the phone or in person. Preferring email, they avoid face-to-face or phone conversations. This strategy is unwise. For one thing, it may cause you to be perceived as aloof or inaccessible. In addition, having a conversation is in some cases more efficient than emailing, particularly for issues requiring significant discussion. Email should complement rather than replace the spoken word.

2. Be responsive to your clients’ and managers’ communication preferences.

Regardless of your own preferences, be sensitive to the communication preferences of your clients and managers. If some of them prefer to communicate through email rather than by phone, for example, communicate with them by email as much as is possible or reasonable. You may think — or know — that emailing will be less efficient than talking by phone, but proceed with caution in overriding their preferences.

This applies to stylistic choices within email, too. For example, although it is generally unwise to bundle multiple unrelated issues into a single message, if your manager tells you that he or she prefers a single long summary email each day, you should respect that preference.

3. Don’t rely solely on email to communicate about critical subjects.

To communicate with someone about a really important issue — an imminent major deadline, for example — don’t assume an email will be enough. In such cases, try phoning instead of or in addition to emailing. You can’t assume people will see and respond to email quickly, especially not if they travel a lot or receive dozens of email messages a day. If you are emailing someone you don’t know well with an urgent request for information, make sure your phone number appears in the message; including it will increase the likelihood that you get an efficient response.

4. Remember that your email communications represent you in your absence.

If you are writing to your clients or managers, pay even more attention than you normally would to email quality.

That doesn’t mean that the other emails — to your employees, vendors, and so on — don’t matter. How you treat other people reflects on you. People who habitually send careless messages — messages that are confusing, or unclear, or in which the name of the recipient is misspelled — to people over whom they have power may be sending a message that those relationships don’t matter much to them. Good email skills are part of good management skills.

5. Don’t boss the boss.

In writing to your boss, avoid using the imperative mode — in other words, the command form of a verb. Within the bounds of reason and law, the boss can, after all, do what the boss wants. The following are all examples of commands.

Let me know what you think.

Please let me know what you think.

Review the attached document.

Please review the attached document.

While the Please in the second and fourth sentences adds courtesy, the inclusion of that word doesn’t change the fact that these sentences are commands, and hence not generally ideal for communications to one’s boss.

Try one of the following instead:

I would be glad to answer any questions.

I would welcome your comments.

I will check in with you later this week to see whether you’d like to discuss the document in more detail.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Grammatically the last sentence is actually a command, too, but this type of sentence amounts essentially to a veiled offer — you would be glad to answer questions — and therefore sounds courteous rather than bossy.

Your current manager may be oblivious to such linguistic nuances. Nonetheless, it’s good defensive emailing to observe this guideline, as you may well encounter a manager in the future who is not oblivious.

6. Don’t use email to communicate about sensitive or inflammatory topics.

Be sensible about the types of subjects you try to address through email. If you sense that an email dialogue is becoming confrontational, stop communicating about the topic online and have a phone conversation — or, even better — a face-to-face discussion with the person. It is usually less effective to communicate about sensitive topics through the medium of the computer than it is to speak in person or over the phone. By talking things through, you are more likely to keep a situation from spiraling out of control.