Phone vs: Email: When Should You Call, and When Should You Email?

Joel Goldstein - Wednesday, May 11, 2016
We’re deep into the email age, where email has become many people’s favorite way of communicating.

But is it the right option?
Yes, email is much more convenient. But many times it is doing someone - you, your customer or colleague - a disservice.

Sometimes, we simply must pick up the phone.

There are pros and cons for both email and telephone communication. The most important thing is context - why you need to communicate, and what you are communicating. Some things are best discussed through email, and some are best left for the phone.

Let’s go through common business situations and see when email is best used, and when phone calls are the way to go.

The Case for Email

We’ll start with the widely preferred option: email.

Many people think email is more convenient, and leaves them with more control over the conversation.

Yet sometimes, email is - quite bluntly - a cop out.

Here’s when email is best to use:

- Quick questions that take faster to write than to call.

- Follow ups where you don't want to appear too aggressive or pushy. Your prospects can answer at their convenience.

- When you need a written record of the correspondence

- When discussing a very detailed and complex series of steps that are important to have in writing to refer to - such as new procedures or instructions for software.

This may be painful for email lovers to hear, but anything more complicated than the above is usually best off settling with a phone call.

In Fast Company’s 30-Second MBA, Aaron Kwittken, CEO of Kwittken+Company, gave a standard rule for email and phone calls: “Anything you have to think twice about, anything you think might be sensitive, anything that you think requires your relationship skills, you need to call in your relationship, [and] absolutely you should pick up the phone.”

Yet phone calls can be difficult, especially for introverts and visual people. Do the benefits of phone calls outweigh the advantages of email?

Let’s take a look.

The Case for Phone Calls

Sometimes, we’re left rubbing our eyes at the screen, wondering how our client got insulted by a routine email. What hidden message did s/he see there? How could there have been room for misunderstanding?

Other times, a routine email requiring a routine answer turns into an elaborate back and forth conversation.

In exasperation, you finally pick up the phone. And miraculously, the matter gets cleared up in two minutes, instead of 21 emails later.

Phone calls usually provide more clarity. Written communications only provide the words - the tone, nuances, and emotions are missing.

Times you absolutely must call:

When finding out information

Jack is in marketing, and needs to talk to his client about a new product he developed. He shoots off an email, and his client sends back a medium-sized email explaining what his product does, along with some pictures.

Jack starts working on marketing his client’s product - and stops in middle, stuck.

He doesn’t have enough information.

A note about humans: It takes less effort for people to talk than to write. When we talk, we usually end up providing more information than when we’re writing a letter or email.

So when you need information, it is absolutely critical to call. You’ll get much more details that way - and some of those details that would be left unsaid in emails may be the ones you really need.

Also, when writing emails, our self-editor kicks in, and we censor our emails frequently. This may leave out the passion in our voice, the emphasis we place on certain details, the importance of certain topics. When you talk, your words flow and your self-editor is more muted, which means your client can pick up on what’s most important to you and the meaning behind your words - and vice versa.

When conveying anything negative or sensitive

Emails can be read over and over. They also are poor conductors of empathy and sympathy.

When you need to give critical feedback, deliver a sensitive message like discussing lackluster performance or turning an employee down for a promotion, or discuss a difficult topic that may lead to conflict or heat-filled exchanges, you absolutely must call.

Email is definitely easier in these cases. It’s an easy replacement for facing your discomfort - but it is not the professionally appropriate medium of communication for sensitive topics.

Here are some more advantages to calling:

- Talking to a live person breeds trust and authenticity. It proves that you're genuine, and that the message you wish to convey isn’t spam. And trust is priceless in today’s economy.

- Much more personalization, which is crucial in this day and age.

- Building a solid relationship with the person you’re calling.

- Lowering the risk of being misunderstood. Email lacks social cues like tone of voice, clear emotion and pauses, which can easily lead to your message being taken the wrong way. Remember, it takes a lot more effort to clear up a misunderstanding in an email than to pick up the phone and prevent the confusion in the first place.

Of course, for many business people, making phone calls can be difficult and you may find yourself pushing it off. Get some tips to help you make that sensitive phone call.

Ultimately - being a true communication master in your professional life means giving less thought to the most comfortable mode of communication - and more thought to choosing the best communication tool for each situation. Think about what your context requires, and you will find yourself experiencing better communication and better results.
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