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E-mail: Friend or Foe?

Ah, technology. E-mail has certainly changed the way we do business and, as with all things computer, it is quite probable that we are still only dealing with the tip of the iceberg. It seems that everyone on the planet is using e-mail but not everyone is using it well.

E-mail has obvious advantages that people are quick to point out. It is cheap (compared to the telephone) and it is quick (compared to mail). Indeed, e-mail is a marvelous tool and, in many ways, it has made our business lives much easier and made possible all kinds of strategies that were not viable before. However, it is not without it's downside. Everyone can go on for hours about the amount and content of spam that shows up every day. Between filters and the delete key, I am less challenged by spam than I am other aspects of electronic correspondence.

Because e-mail is (presumably) delivered immediately, there is a segment of the population that expects the answer to arrive immediately also. Apparently, to these folks, I spend my life sitting at the computer awaiting their missive so I can drop whatever I am doing to deal with the issue they raise. Since I tend to deal with e-mail in the morning and often do not check it again until the next morning, this means that I may not respond instantly to anything that arrives after 9:30 AM. It is not as rare as it ought to be to have the phone ring at 3:00 PM with someone on the line saying, "I sent you an e-mail a couple of hours ago. Did you get it?" I am not convinced this is good use of my time or theirs.

E-mail is such a convenient (and cheap) type of communication that it is easy to use it thoughtlessly or inappropriately. We don't stop to evaluate whether it is the best method to achieve our communication goal. We also forget how little information it provides the recipient. It is not unheard of for me to get an e-mail saying, "Are you available on March 25?" (No matter who is the subject of the sentence, the answer is no if you are inquiring whether the artist will play at your wedding for $150 and yes if you want to pay them ten grand to do 5 minutes at the Grammies.) I am only sure of one thing - they are interested in hiring one of my artists, not me, to perform but I don't have a clue which one. I need to gently inquire which artist they are interested in, where they are located and, in this case, if there is a daytime number where I can reach them. When I have as little information as is provided here, I find it makes more sense to talk on the phone. It gives us a chance to really explore whatever questions they and I have. Despite all it's advantages, E-mail does remove lots of information (tone of voice, verbal cues, etc.) that we use in decision-making. If I don't feel like I have much information to start with, I tend to use the communication method available to me which gives me the most information in the shortest time. Another situation that I find lends itself to phones as opposed to e-mail is trying to work out a date if we haven't been successful with the first two or three suggestions. This is especially true if the presenter is restricted in venue availability or is committed to a specific time frame. We can usually get more accomplished in five minutes on the phone with our calendars in front of us than 8 - 10 e-mails trying to hit on that will work for both of us.

Probably the biggest problem with e-mail is attachments. Everyone is understandably nervous about acquiring a virus so let people know if you will be sending them an attachment. Senders assume that recipients will be able to open a file without actually focusing on what is needed to do that. Sure, lots of people have MS Word but not everyone - and if they do have it, is it a version that can open the attachment? If you really want to maximize the chances the recipient will be able to read your file, send plain text. People attach files and send them whizzing through the ether without ever checking the size of the file. Net result: the file takes forever to download on the other end. Music and graphics file are the most frequent offenders here. The type of internet connection can make a big difference in what you can send. If you don't know for sure, assume dial-up or ask first.

I have been sent files that were so large that I spent fifteen minutes staring at "Retrieving message 15 of 34". I finally learned that I could go to www.mail2web.com, enter my e-mail and password, which allows me to read these messages right off my server. This means I am able to target and delete large files. Yet another reason to check the size of the files you send. People like me never download them at all; we just figure out ways to eliminate them.

Paul Schatzkin, the founder of songs.com who taught us that forming a music community for retail purposes could be both fun and profitable, points out that people often use attachments when there are better solutions. Rather than inflicting a massive file on someone (especially when it has not been requested), you can upload a file to the Internet and send them a URL to click on. That way, recipients can decide for themselves if they want to see or listen to a file. If you have an Internet connection, you likely received virtual real estate as part of the deal. You no longer need to know HTML to set up a website. If you are just planning to use the space as a virtual filing cabinet which will only be visited by people you invite, you can do something very simple with any number of easily available programs. As Paul points out, you may not even have to do that. If you upload a file to the Internet, the server will create an index of files and you could direct people there with instructions on how to download the file.

We have the technology - we just haven't quite figured out what to do with it yet. There are all sorts of interesting and innovative choices out there. We owe it to ourselves - and others - to learn how to use them effectively.

© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions

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