Sending an email is fast, and you can transmit at any hour, but that may be where the effectiveness and efficiency ends. Remember the bad old days of telephone tag? You would waste time swapping phone messages until you could finally have a discussion with meaningful, real-time give and take. Wait — what? Meaningful, real-time conversation to quickly iron out issues once you connect? That sounds pretty good. But combining telephone and email for a 1-2 punch may be the most effective communication choice yet.
What’s So Bad About Email?
Some people get 300 or more business emails a day. Yours may get lost in the morass. Or something about your message may trigger the recipient’s spam-blocking system. This can be a word or the number of recipients. Some recipients do not know how to tag a sender as “safe.” Many don’t have the time or motivation to find out.
Some people will give a quick response indicating they have seen your email and will get back to you — and never do. On one occasion, I followed up with someone who had sent me one of those “I’m on it” responses, and the person denied having received the original message. (Sigh.) If you don’t get a response within a reasonable time, you need to do something else: send another email, maybe text, or (gasp) use the telephone. Sending multiple emails to get the recipient’s attention is a definite time-waster.
Of course, you craft your email subject lines to convey the importance of your message. “Status Report” doesn’t do it. Unfortunately, “Settlement Authority Needed in 48 Hours” doesn’t always work either. An entire industry exists to teach people to write “Re:” lines so recipients will open emails. But perhaps you disdain subject lines offering “one weird old trick to solve your problem.” Just because the recipient opened your email doesn’t mean you will get a response. Email marketers consider a 1 percent response rate a huge success — not what you’re looking for.
Another problem with email is the loss of tone. You may send a message that sounds perfectly reasonable and polite in your own head yet offends the person on the other end. Some email programs are flexible about font size and effects that can help get a recipient’s attention, but that doesn’t really solve the problem. Emoticons do not appear professional.
Many companies have sophisticated email filing systems to retain your message and attachments. Email creates admissible evidence of what and when information was sent. However, most clients prefer you resolve substantive issues rather than work on building a Motion for Sanctions.
Then there’s the time lag. You send your email in the morning and maybe it gets read in the afternoon, or the next day or the next week. Email has lost any sense of urgency. Texting seems to convey urgency, but it is useless if you are trying to reach a landline or convey more than a snippet of information. “URGENT- CALL ME” might work, but then why not simply phone?
Throwback Every Day
Just call. Maybe you’ll get lucky on the first try. Courtesy requires you to immediately ask, “Is this a good time to talk?” If not, set a definite appointment to get back together.
Calling very early or late in the day works best if your target is often in court or meetings. (Yes, you might have to call from home.) Lunchtime calls may also reach these people. Increase your chance of getting through by asking your client, opposing counsel or witness when they prefer to receive calls. Do this early in the relationship, and ask again if things seem to have changed.
Sometimes the best way to reach a busy person is to talk to that person’s assistant. Many businesspeople never answer their phone, letting their executive assistants run interference. If your opponent’s brief lists three lawyers, the top name may be the decision-maker, but to get to the decision-maker, it may be most efficient to talk to the bottom-named person.
The 1-2 Punch
If you cannot get through, leave a voicemail, punch 1. Then immediately email “confirming today’s voicemail,” punch 2. If you get a return email resolving the issue, great, you’re done. But maybe this issue requires a lot of give and take. This is true especially if you are trying to avoid a knee-jerk negative response. The best way, for example, to get authority for that out-of-town deposition may be to have a discussion. Settlement discussions can be delicate; email generally is not.
Email is an excellent way to quickly convey text and documents when you want the recipient to review content before discussing or acting on it. When you email attachments — here’s a reverse double-punch — consider including a request for a phone appointment to discuss them in your message. In your follow-up email, suggest possible times to connect by phone. Clarify who will initiate the call (probably you). Then make sure you do call at the appointed hour.
If you don’t get a timely return call, keep calling. But don’t leave a voicemail every time. You don’t want to come across like a stalker. If the voicemail/email combo doesn’t get you what you need, send a letter. You remember, those things on paper. Consider using a traceable carrier for proof of delivery.
Being “It” in a game of telephone tag can be frustrating. Make sure people trying to phone you don’t have to play. Provide multiple ways to call you: your landline, cell number, assistant’s contact information. Let people know the best time of day to reach you. Some lawyers with consumer practices have “call hours.”
You might feel sorry for the lawyer whose mobile phone only does one thing, call people. Your pity may be misplaced.
Theda C. “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers’ compensation cases throughout California. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at www.WCMediator.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @WCMediator.