Proper communication is paramount. In the same way that handing someone a cheap, faded, crappy business card paints the wrong picture about your company and brand, a poorly communciated message does the same about yourself as a person.
We live in a time when it often feels there are more communication options than people with whom we communicate. Further, those people (us) are getting bombarded with endless streams of communications, 24-7-365. So how should we communicate with them, and when we are using these mediums, what are the communication expectations?
I will begin first by mapping out the major categories of communication media and then break each one out into more detail.
Major Communication Media
- Chatting / Texting: Includes SMS (cellular phone text messaging), Instant Messengers (IM) such as Telegram, WhatsApp, Matrix, or – more precisely – any real-time live stream of text-based communication.
- E-mail: E-mail includes e-mail. It’s awesome that e-mail requires no explanation after 40 years…
- Voice (phone) call: Includes online Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP) conversations (such as skype), video conversations, cellular voice phone call, ‘FaceTime’ and other such human-to-human, voice-to-voice communication.
Chatting / Text
Typically speaking and historically speaking, such a chat medium would never be used professionally. On the old T9 keyboards on a cell phone, you would have to push the single number button three times to find the letter ‘c’ while composing. Messages would typically be ‘See you soon’, or “I’m 5 min late”. That’s it. You would never consider this kind of medium to be acceptable in a business environment. Nor would you even give someone related to your work or business your personal cell phone, unless you were an occupation such as a REALTOR who would require a weekend phone call. You also would never have your cell phone on or audible in a public environment (gone are those days, sadly), so it was not a very reliable way to communciate, even if it was permissible.
Then came the ‘instant messages’ which started to blur the line between voice, email and texting. The same kind of skills were used but it was faster and ‘always on’. Traditionally, though, this was for either internal stuff at a company, or between friends and family. No professional would use such a medium in the context of, say, a sales conversation or even a REALTOR communicating with his/her client. There is also a high risk associated with texting / chatting because once delivered, it’s a written record and oftentimes we send these messages while angry, or – some people – even while drunk. Much less common does one send an e-mail in this way, simply because it’s a touch less convenient.
Expectations in Business
For personal communications ‘do what you want’ but in business, I would recommend limiting this form of communication to zero for any external communications related to traditional selling, communications with vendors or professionals. The context of a live-chat text chat on a website or tech-support live chat is fully acceptable because the content is always the same and 100% focused on the task at hand. Very rare would you talk about sports with the sales rep on a website, but, if this happens, staff should be instructed not to engage and politely bring the focus back to the task at hand. The risk is too high, the record is permanent. Above all, cellular sms / text-messaging should always be avoided, 100% of the time whether personal or professional because the technology is so insecure and open that you might as well post it on the lamp post. Never use sms/texting if you can avoid it, and if you use it, never ever put personal or sensitive info in the message.
For internal communications, however, texting/chatting can be an excellent communication medium and should not only be accepted but also embraced. The ‘ping’ features (ie. using the
@ before the username) of most chat apps are very useful way to reach out to someone for faster and more pointed communications. Services like Slack, Rocketchat, etc, can dramatically improve collaboration as well.
Context / Function
- Typically used between friends and family.
- Not recommended for external business communications. For instant stuff, when a quick response is needed.
- Useful when a real-time on-the-fly discussion is required and can’t wait out the wait of an e-mail, or the coordination of a voice call.
- Limited thinking required for grammar and style
- Good for quick surveys questions
- Easy to lose
- Easy to forget
- Not very permanent.
- Easy to make career-limiting and life-reducing errors in the heat of the moment…
Historically, the name ‘e-mail’ means exactly what you’d guess: a hand-written piece of paper mail, but sent electronically. As a result of being one of the first electronic written forms of communications, long-standing expectations exist whether you know about them or not. Although the use of PGP technology can secure the email very well, most people do not use this end-to-end encryption, and as such, the e-mail should not be considered secure or private in any way. Further, if somone decides to try to sue you, e-mail can and will be used against you in a court of law.
Expectations in Business
E-mail format is more formal, and more professional. Composition time is longer and requires more thought process (a good thing), and more thoughtful responses.
The expectation of the speed of response of someone on the other side is, conveniently, also longer. This is excellent for a busy person because one can organize their time better with e-mail. The level of grammar is higher, the use of ‘lol’ and other ‘chat-based-stuff’ is avoided. However, the use of an occasional text-based smiley such as 🙂 would nowadays be considered acceptable if used tastefully and after the relationship with the person on the other side is somewhat matured.
Although it depends on your business, it is often acceptable to respond within one business day. Your competitors will probably respond within the same day or sometimes the next day. To assure you are one of the fastest responders in your industry, I would recommend ‘less than 3 hours’ if you can, wherever possible. Responding too quickly could present the appearance that you are not busy and may have an adverse affect so consider this too.
If an email is written to you, someone has essentially declared, “I’m spending my time to communicate with you”. As such, whether they say it or not, they will have an expectation of a response to show respect of their time. It is very easy to respond and we can break e-mails into the following two general categories: A) an email where an action is required or B) an email where no action is required. Let’s explore both of those in a bit of detail.
A – If an action is required you should, as quickly as you can:
- Reply to the e-mail with the action item completed, if you can do the action right away, or,
- Reply to the e-mail with an estimated time of completion of the action item, if you can do the action, but cannot do it immediately, or,
- Reply to the e-mail immediately explaining the situation / explanation, if you cannot do the action item at all.
By replying to the e-mail in all the three cases above, you are acknowleding the person’s time, and helping them plan their situation accordingly. Otherwise, they are left in limbo. Silence, in the world of e-mail, can be more frustrating than a negative response or rejection.
B – If an action is not required, you should, as a general rule and as quickly as possible:
- Read the email, and respond to the email with a polite confirmation of receipt if you are able to properly read it, or
- Respond with a confirmation of receipt and let them know by when you will read in detail and respond, if you are not able to read it properly for a fairly long period of time.
In this case, not much is required of you but the confirmation of receipt will really help present you as a good communicator and respectful of others’ time.
It is wise to simplify it as follows: an e-mail requires a response every time, unless the email is absolutely informational only (ie. mass newsletter to a group) and there is no chance the person would expect a reply. If you aren’t sure, send at least a confirmation of receipt, such as ‘Received, thanks’, or ‘Thanks!’.
While we are on the topic of group e-mails, do not use the reply-all feature, unless it is absolutely required and you want to announce to the whole group that you have read it. This is typically considered super annoying when people do this. The reply feature is sufficient to confirm receipt, unless there is a reason to announce it to the group.
With e-mail, be very careful with humour. Due to lack of skills in the communication language, ethnic differences, cultural differences, etc, humour needs to be handled very carefully, until a solid relationship is established. Avoid the usual politics and religion until the relationship is established. At that point, it could be a very enriching experience to be ‘more real’ with all these great folks and use the God-given gifts you have with boldness.
E-mail requires a higher level of language proficiency and professionalism – if you’re going to send a poorly-written email with spelling errors, missing capitals, and typos to a customer or even a vendor, it would be worth considering not sending it at all. The good news, however, is that it’s super easy to write a proper and professional e-mail. This simple how-to blog is an excellent starting point. If you need to write it less formal, just tone down the salutation and add a bit more personal fluff. I would highly recommend reading this blog and consider implementing the concepts of ‘keywords in subject lines’ and ‘bottom line up front’. I firmly believe if everyone did this (at least internally) in business, we’d all have a much better life.
Context / Function
E-mail is ideal for business and recommended as the default communication for anything serious in writing. E-mails are regularly used in court cases and should be treated in the way a hand written letter would have been written back in the day. When an e-mail is sent, business is being done. Typically a professional dialogue would never take place by a chat/text environment as our friend has been doing, but instead by e-mail.
- Long history of solid functionality. It ‘just works’.
- Very ‘official’
- Requires more time and skill to compose.
- Has a higher chance of mis-interpretation than a voice call or a text chat because of its context of being a more serious communication.
- Slower response time.
- Less convenient.
- Rarely secured by encryption (although possible).
For this section we will assume the traditional ‘ring ring telephone call’ even though an internet video / voice call could do the same thing.
The first ‘instant voice communication’ and a reliable and proven and effective medium.
Function / Context
This is the most old-school communication tool in the world, other than snail mail and is very personal as you can hear the person’s voice or even see their face with video. The communication is instant (phone) and effective. Regardless what the other kids say, more can be accomplished in a 5 minute phone call than a 30 minute meeting (and it’s more enjoyable).
Expectations in Business
A phone call interrupts someone’s task and someone’s day. Let me say that again because it seems a lot of people don’t get this simple fact: A phone call interrupts someone. When you make a phone call, it better be important or valuable to the person you are calling, or, you better have a strong tone of humility and politeness if not. For sales people, this is paramount because if you call someone and try to sell something, even if they need it, and you are interrupting their crisis situation, they will hate you and your product (and your dog and goldfish while they’re at it). Always ask, “Is it ok to have a quick chat right now?” This one sentence will save you much pain.
A phone call is technically more private. Although audio can be recorded and is being recorded, typically speaking it’s much more difficult for a voice call to become part of a court record. If you need to communicate something sensitive or ‘on the side’, definitely this medium is the best. It is also one of the most clear forms of communication because you can hear more of the person’s emotions and nuances in their voice. In the other text-based communications it’s very (very, very) easy to communicate something unintended, by just one word. Countless are the stories of fights that have started over one misplaced or out-of-context word. Always use the voice call if there is risk of this.
- Long, proven, and reliable network with a really wide reach. “It just works”
- Reasonably secure and private
- Better for communicating ‘nuance of the language’ that written format
- Highly prioritized
- Very interruptive
- Pretty annoying
- Getting less and less acceptable to younger generations
Nothing is more important in business than your communications and your communication style. You could have the nicest business card in the world but it will end up in the garbage can if you fail on the items above.
Of course, we must conclude the topic with the word ‘grace’. We all fail. I’m by far the worst. I like humour and humour in communications is risky business and I’ve offended not a few folks already as a result.