When you ask the question "Should I email, phone or visit?", you can best answer with another: "What works best for the recipients?" You need to respect their personalities, priorities, values and their ability to effectively and conveniently receive your message.
Email has several wonderful and powerful advantages: It is fast, portable, and people reading your email communication can select the time to review and respond to your message -- they aren't forced into action. They choose to respond and it is easy for them to answer if they wish. Handled properly, therefore, email can be ideal for introductory and routine communications or (when you know the other people well) off-hours and weekend messages.
Email is far superior to voice mail for routine or introductory communications where you expect a response. Can you recall your frustration in trying to retrieve and decipher incoherent voice mail messages -- especially when the callers provide their phone numbers rapidly at the end of very long and rambling monologue? Think of how this problem compounds when you are rushing between airport terminals, trying capture your voicemail messages with your cell phone while holding your carry-on bags in your other hand? And as a victim of uninvited phone or in-person intrusions, you undoubtedly recall the irritating telemarketing calls, often at inconvenient times and locations (and even worse, uninvited door-to-door solicitations!)
These points noted, if you wish to develop a meaningful, longer and deeper relationship with your current and potential clients, you'll need to phone and ultimately meet them. However, you need to respect their time, and their convenience. If you wish to talk to someone on the phone, why not leave a voice message AND a communicating email, and suggest or invite setting the call for a mutually convenient time. (If the person receiving your message has a Blackberry, for example, he can simply click on the display number and return your communication right away -- even from the airport terminal.)
As well, if your message is complicated, or you sense frustration or tension or indications of miscommunication, you should phone rather than email -- you need to have clarity and immediate feedback-response to allay misunderstandings. Note this comment from Mike Davis in Michael Stone's Markup and Profit Blog:
The challenge with email is that you cannot determine the actual emotion that is behind it. I once had a client who was as sweet as sugar plum pie. I wrote an email to her and made a comment that I thought was funny. But, because of her mood when she received it, she took it as a negative. The damage that was done was almost beyond recovery. All because I was trying to be cute. Don’t ever use email as a primary source of communication. Use it only as a follow up to face to face communication.While I think Davis overstates the arguments against email, he is certainly correct that you should be careful about emotional nuances and implications -- and if your communication is long, complex, or could be misinterpreted, either phone or send an email requesting a phone conversation or meeting!
Finally, phone (not voicemail, of course) or private meetings are best where you must not leave any paper (electronic) trail in your communications, especially for legally sensitive matters.
These points lead to a crucial question: Can you build a really meaningful and lasting business relationship through email or phone, without personal meetings? The answer is that, for most people, you must have eye-contact to connect, to build trust, and to establish your relationships.
Conferences and association meetings are great for relationship building and face-to-face meetings, because in these environments, you can achieve spontaneity without inconveniencing the people you wish to see. I remember well, for example, getting together at the SMPS Build Business conference with Tim Klabunde and Mel Lester for our first face-to-face bloggers conference. And our company's sales representatives are provided a budget and encouraged to attend relevant association events.
You should also consider demographics: A young person raised in the era of instant communications, Twitter and the like, may prefer to conduct transactions and develop relationships by email, while you probably would want to use the phone, or better, find a natural meeting ground to connect with a baby boomer or senior citizen who is not interested in technology.
Here are some email/voice/in-person marketing don'ts:
- Unless it is a real emergency or you've arranged it in advance, don't phone outside of business hours, especially to cell phones. Who wants to receive any kind of solicitation or business communication you are 'forced' to listen to or transcribe after hours? (If you are in the consumer marketplace, telemarketing and door-to-door canvassing may be effective, but these are high risk/irritation strategies.)
- Never spam -- don't send unrequested bulk promotional emails. You marketing emails should individually communicate thoughtful and personalized ideas. You can also send email newsletters if you have received permission and the newsletters are directly relevant to the your readers.
- If you are leaving a voice message, don't speak quickly and make it hard for the person you are calling to transcribe/return the message. Repeat your information, clearly, both at the beginning and end of your voice message. (See Ford Harding's posting: How to Leave a Voicemail Message.)
PS: Consider the advantages of the Post Office for personal Thank You notes and gifts, and faxes or Fedex packages for follow-up documentation when you wish to convey urgency.