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My Experiment in using the Telephone instead of E-Mail

Red Telephone HandsetIf you e-mailed me last week, then chances are that instead of an e-mail in response you received a ‘phone call from me instead.

That’s because last week I tried experimenting with using the telephone instead of e-mail wherever appropriate.

I say “experimenting”, because it was my belief, as it’s probably your belief, that e-mail is a quick and effective method of communication. Picking up the telephone and calling somebody takes time, and much of the time we don’t have time – we just want to get things done and move onto the next thing. E-Mail is supposed to help us do that.

Is E-Mail effective?

But over the past few years I’ve come to challenge just how effective e-mail is.

As a Freelancer working with multiple clients, I have to respond to e-mails in a timely fashion.

I don’t receive a huge amount of e-mail anymore – probably 20-30 legitimate e-mails per day. This is mainly because I’ve implemented techniques in how to manage e-mail overload – filtered the spam, unsubscribed from newsletters, turned off un-necessary notifications, and so on.

However 20-30 e-mails per day at 3-4 minutes reading and responding per e-mail typically means I spend an hour to two hours each day responding to e-mails, usually in two blocks of time (once in the morning, once in the afternoon) per day so I’m not continually checking e-mail. But for every e-mail I respond to, another e-mail typically appears. E-Mail begets e-mail.

I noticed a trend. It’s not unusual for me respond to e-mails because I think it’ll shift the responsibility off my plate and onto someone else’s. But then if that person is sat in front of their e-mail, they’ll have the same idea and by the time I’ve responded to all of my current e-mails – I refresh my inbox and have as many (if not more) e-mails than I started with! E-Mail ping pong!

It’s good to talk

So last week I focused on looking for opportunities to pick up the telephone instead of using e-mail.

  • When I received an e-mail asking me a question, I picked up the ‘phone and answered that question.
  • When I received an e-mail inviting me to an event, I picked up the ‘phone and graciously accepted the invitation and finalised details of the event, or politely declined stating the reason I couldn’t attend.
  • When I received an e-mail from somebody who I couldn’t remember actually speaking to inside the last quarter (or more), I picked up the ‘phone and caught up with them.

The results

So how did my experiment pan out?

  • Firstly, whenever I picked up the telephone and spoke with someone – I felt a lot happier and typically came off the ‘phone with more energy. Some people seemed surprised to hear from me, but it was a pleasant surprise that I’d “gone to the trouble” of calling them. We chatted, we caught up. It was an enjoyable conversation!
  • Secondly, my levels of incoming e-mails fell. E-Mail ping pong was noticeably reduced.
  • Thirdly, the amount of time I’ve spent on responding to e-mail is about the same. So my conclusion is that typing a response to an e-mail and then getting the inevitable e-mail response back is no quicker than simply picking up the ‘phone and speaking to somebody. And with less of the benefits.

Conclusion

This is hardly a scientific experiment, and some might say it’s a lesson in stating the obvious – but how many of us respond to an e-mail when we know picking up the ‘phone would be easier?

How many of us have exchanged numerous e-mails with somebody, but not actually spoken to that person in months and months?

Don’t get me wrong – there are many cases when e-mail is a better fit than a ‘phone call. When you’re relaying detailed facts, dealing with people in different time zones, or simply working with someone who just doesn’t answer the ‘phone. But often, picking up the telephone is quicker and easier than typing out a response.

In the modern world of e-mail, SMS, Facebook messages, Twitter, Google+ and more – it’s not that we don’t have multiple options for staying in touch with people, it’s that often we don’t choose the most appropriate option – and typically that’s the good old fashioned telephone.

You might disagree, but for me – the experiment was a success because it reminded me of this fact.

What’s more, I’m going to work to keep this habit going – using the telephone instead of e-mail where appropriate.

So if you do e-mail me, don’t be surprised if you get a call in response!

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Richard Tubb

I help IT companies grow their businesses in a scalable and sustainable way. My clients are business owners of small to medium sized IT firms.
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Comments

  1. Interesting post and very much in line with my own experiences where I found that Customer Contact is King. It’s too easy to hide behind email and much better to talk it through too. Email (text) can’t convey ‘tone’ and that’s so important in any communication. Email is for fact. Conversation better for discussion.

  2. Agreed!!
    There remains a huge number of people who got into the habit of using email as an excuse for not communicating. How often have we heard the line “Well I sent XYZ an email” as a means of justifying not having conveyed some message or other.
    How do you feel now about the issue of people who “screen their calls” i.e. don’t answer the phone? Personally I give up quickly with these folks; if they do not wish to take my call they are invariably wasting my time!

    • Ian – definitely, e-mail and CC’ing people into e-mails is used as a “cover my back” tactic.

      If I can’t reach somebody by telephone I leave a message for them and follow-up by e-mail – “I tried to reach you by ‘phone, so feel free to give me a call back at x”. I hate listening to Voicemails (they are so inefficient) so I assume others do too.

  3. A few additions:

    YES you absolutely need to call back in response to email. Often it’s more important to know and discuss the intend of a question rather than knowing and responding to the question itself. Someone might ask a question as a means to solve an issue they don’t understand how to solve. Understanding the issue at hand would thus be more important than the question itself.

    NO you don’t know that people don’t want to speak to you if they don’t respond to email AND voicemail. All you know is you haven’t received a response.

    • Jakob – great point. A conversation can often uncover the “Why” of a request.

      I also agree with your comment as to why people sometimes may not respond to messages. Sometimes it’s not that they are avoiding you, but perhaps have other things on their plate.

  4. Hi Richard,
    I’m glad your experiment worked, the pennies you save on not calling people certainly can waste your day away.
    Its so easy to have a whole stream of emails with someone who if you chatted for 5 minutes, you would get the gist of what they were really saying/worried about/actually happened, so much quicker.
    Prehaps documenting stuff after the conversation so its clear what the result was is good, but the initial chat sells the human help aspect rather than a faceless toneless IT help machine.

    • Phil – thanks, and yes, I see the value in an e-mail following up a call to confirm agreements or action points for clarity. Appreciate the feedback!

  5. I love this approach and I love how you document your investigation/conclusions. Very social of you!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] I started this a while ago and do it more following a blog from Richard Tubb (@tubblog) about his phone experiment. I might do it to 2 or 3 clients a week, which takes no more than 15-20 minutes out of my working [...]

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