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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

When is enough, enough?

Editor's note: After writing the original version of this posting, the owner at the Internet Service Provider we use sent a lengthy email, concerned about how we were representing his business. I picked up the phone to respond. I explained this posting is NOT intended to speak negatively about his business, but to relate the complexities and challenges of relying on email communications for marketing and branding. To avoid any misunderstandings, I've removed any reference identifying the organization involved. They really give great service -- the somewhat testy email example is reported below to show the risks and challenges of email communication, not to criticize the service we've received.)

In the email era, I am amazed how much work and communication we complete after hours. One prime time I've discovered is between 10 pm and 1 a.m. It seems many of us are at our computers then, with the children asleep, and we are catching up on business. I often use this time to take care of the nitty-gritty details of our still-under-construction websites, e-letter writing, and blogging (though I write most of my blog entries when I wake up the next morning -- it is my best writing time.)

Last night, I had the challenging task of transferring PDF files for features and news stories for our September print issues to our salespeople. This work includes sending the original PDF files, and setting up the documents at our Internet Service Provider (ISP) host server, so employees can paste the links into communications and provide direct weblinks for clients and their own blogs. Since our business at present only has five employees, we don't have an internal webmaster -- the job rests on my shoulders. I generally enjoy this non-executive responsibility, though I cannot claim to be an expert and sometimes things are exasperating as we wait for our contracted web developers to complete their work and set up a new comprehensive, complete site.

Facing a technical difficulty (and yet another email at 11 pm from one of my employees questioning why the links I had provided weren't working), I received this response from one of the partners in the ISP we use:

I would be more than happy to create the links to the adverts for nc (North Carolina) sites and create links for you for files you need to share (and the sub directories to store them in), the cost would be 95/hr with 1 hour minimum per session.

Our support team is always ready to assist you, please don't hesitate to contact us with any questions or problems you encounter.
The type faces/sizes are proportional to the original. The bottom "Our support team is always ready" is template material. Do you notice an inconsistency here?

I responded, intuitively, and angrily, that I would be "happy" to pay the $95.00 if the developer would show me how to do things so I don't need to bother him again. I realized on waking up that I had been (partly) unreasonable here -- the developer, working at 11 p.m., fielding yet another unpaid request for service/support, had reasonably expressed his frustration. And so was I -- facing the email conundrum with at least two employees bugging me with requests at the same late hour.

This morning, I recalled Ford Harding's email earlier in the day reminding of the Synchoblog he has co-ordinated for September 22, when a four-person blogging team will answer "The Email Question".

Getting a head-start, I'll observe some qualities about email that are both good and bad:
  • Email facilitates communication at otherwise inconvenient times, increasing productivity and effectiveness. (I solved problems and learned about issues at 11 p.m. last night relating to our websites.)
  • Email can facilitate incomplete or less-than-positive communications, resulting in absurdities such as the note from my web developer. Carelessly applied, you can damage relationships with insensitive or inappropriate communications, especially when you fail to read the nuances correctly or turn the thing off.
In mu own business, I've always asked employees not to phone me or each other after hours unless the situation is critical. The phone is intrusive, disruptive, and often inconvenient -- do we really need business calls when we are with our families? (Our clients' businesses thankfully operate within regular business hours, so we don't need to worry about what would otherwise be essential after-hours service.)

Conversely, I tell employees they have two options with email. They can send it and read it any time they wish, but they do not need to respond after hours -- late night exchanges should only happen when both the sender and receiver wish to communicate.

These are some of email's biggest advantages: It is fast, quick, quiet and non-disruptive of others, and you can respond quickly, or in a timely and thoughtful manner. Just remember, you cannot always read the nuances or inflections accurately and you can be caught, like my internet service provider did last night, with an inconsistent response that distorts client service and relationships.

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