Is E-Mail Really Good for Business?

SAN FRANCISCO (03/15/2000) - The lawyer is discussing a case settlement with a client by e-mail.

"I think our firm deserves US$1.1 million," the attorney writes. The client fires back an answer: "You must be kidding, right? Let's not waste each other's time, OK? Send me another message when you're interested in having a productive discussion."

Would the reply have been the same if they were sitting across a conference room table? Or would they miss the smile, the knowing nod, or the other nonverbal cues that prompt a different answer?

Face-to-face negotiations certainly have their place, suggests a Stanford University study. But e-mail can be another medium that contributes to "the psychology of trust" important to business relationships, says Michael Morris, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He ran several laboratory experiments to study trust development in different media, especially e-mail.

E-mail is an appropriate vehicle for rapid-fire notes and information. But often, a message that's especially direct can come across as rude; and one intended to be humorous can come across as hostile, Morris finds. That's when negotiations conducted over e-mail break down, he says.

Combining Communiqués

For example, e-mail is a useful way to deliver documents, but it's not necessarily the best way to discuss them, suggests Ted Latty, a partner at law firm Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, LLP.

"We use e-mail extensively for internal interoffice (communication) as well as with clients," Latty says. "It's become almost imperative."

Face-to-face meetings are also sometimes imperative, he adds. Discussing contracts by conference call based on e-mailed documents can kill productivity.

"Often, a substantial amount of the conference call is spent saying, 'what page is that on?'" Latty says. "There are some times that you can negotiate or revise a document by e-mail, but it's not the most efficient means since there is a time lag and it's not as effective as speaking. There are many nuances that a conversation can clear up."

Banking on E-Mail

The Stanford study finds that nonverbal emotional cues give face-to-face discussions an edge over telephone negotiations, which still support greater inflection than e-mail.

E-mail is not effective "if you want to develop a personal relationship and you want to look in someone's eyes to see whether or not they're sincere," Latty agrees.

But e-mail is most effectively used in relationships that are already established, suggests Stewart Klien, senior vice president at BancOne Capital Markets.

"In our industry, most negotiations are face to face," he says. "Trying to build a lot of business through personal relationships using the technology is more impersonal. E-mail is good to send jokes around."

Nevertheless, Klien says most of his ordinary day-to-day communications are done via the phone.

Speed Counts

E-mail carries a speedy message from one to many recipients unlike any other medium, however. Some public relations executives consider it vital.

When making pitches in a deadline-oriented industry, e-mail is the least invasive way and frequently the most effective way to get a message across, says Sara Robboy, a public relations account executive at a New York firm.

"I would much rather e-mail someone than call," she says. An e-mail message doesn't interrupt an editor scarfing down lunch. "It also allows the person to look the information over and decide what they think rather than listen to you blather on," she says.

In fact, Morris finds that skilled e-mail negotiators benefit from some of e-mail's properties. Primarily, it gives people time to react before answering; face-to-face negotiators sometimes commit to hastily constructed action.

Successful e-mail negotiators insert relationship-building content to their messages, Morris finds. They may write, "Thanks for your flexibility in working with me on these points," or "We have been making great progress together in this negotiation."

This helps the e-mail fill the same role as nonverbal expressions and voice tone during an in-person meeting, Morris says. Effective communications have no single formula or medium, however, he adds. It's still a matter of finding the right mix of message, medium, recipient, and rapport.

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