John Warnock was correct in his assessment of the Internet’s capabilities, function, reach and future. The Internet has become a major source of information and entertainment for people around the globe. We are online gathering information, conducting transactions, being entertained and, most of all, communicating.
Business people today send more than 17 billion e-mails every day. Unfortunately, industry analysts estimate that more than 70% of Internet traffic is spam, phishing and other abuses of our bandwidth and time.
E-mail has become such a vital link in business communications, from business to business and business to consumer, that the government has established clear guidelines on e-mail archiving. E-mail databases are increasingly subpoenaed and the information is used against the defendants. This means that you as a professional have to be more concerned about what you say and how you say it in your e-mail communications.
For company executives, Internet-based communications provide a new and exciting opportunity to reach people directly. With broadband access available in most businesses, we are accustomed to being able to effortlessly send enhanced documents, audio and video files and comprehensive presentation materials.
The same bandwidth is rapidly being deployed in homes as people begin to use the Internet to do more than just send e-mail. In addition, the ability to access this versatile high-speed communications tool is showing people that they can enjoy Internet radio and television. They can also instantly share photos and videos with friends and family.
The Internet has become a widespread and immediate means of communications, and it puts all businesses—large and small—on competitively equal footing if it is properly used. It provides unprecedented opportunities to reach broad and niche markets and customers anywhere in the world.
As a result, the Internet should be one of the primary communications tools of every business professional. Unfortunately, too many of us are typical Internet users. You undoubtedly are using the Internet more for activities rather than communicating with business partners and customers, and you probably do it subconsciously. At the end of the day, you may find that your to-do list has not shrunk.
“Actual work takes up approximately a third of the day, not counting the lunch hour,” said author Peter Straub, “and the remaining two-thirds are spent in meetings, gossiping and checking out e-mail and news on the Internet.” And we wonder where the time went.
Because most of our information today is electronic, business professionals have to assume responsibility for how they communicate as well as what the communication says about the organization and the originator. Professionals also have a responsibility to properly protect company-sensitive information.
The Two-Lane Highway
E-mail is a high-speed two-way street—you need to make certain that no viruses or worms come into the company or are sent out. You also need to ensure you do not overuse the power of e-mail by carrying out aggressive spam activities and shot-gunning every present and prospective customer in your address book.
Today’s executive spends even more time than the average U.S. employee reading e-mail (Figure 1). An inquiry from a customer, prospective customer or business associate should never go without a response for more than 24 hours. Your power tools—cell phones and BlackBerries—allow people to reach you and for you to reach others when immediate answers and assistance are needed. No one should rationalize that they are too busy to respond. You should handle e-mail as though you were talking directly to the individual. Waiting 10 to 24 hours to respond simply is not professional.
As a matter of company policy, we respond to every e-mail we receive throughout the day before we leave in the evening. Nothing sits in our e-mail inbox overnight. We feel it is only professional and courteous to provide the answer, advise that we are working on the issue or get the appropriate individuals involved.
Many leaders of multinational organizations have a similar policy. Even if the response is only that you need to gather the information and will get an answer within 24 hours, and you meet your commitment, it shows that you respect the request and the individual.
Because we all rely on e-mail communications, it has become time-consuming and cumbersome to manage all of the messages. Develop a system of online file folders that work best for you and allow you to access information quickly.
E-mail Writing Skills
A recent study by Information Mapping, Inc. found that e-mail writing skills are “extremely” or “very important” to the effectiveness of a professional doing his or her job. Thirty-four percent of the respondents said they spent 30 minutes to an hour reading and interpreting poorly written e-mails. This is a needless waste of employee productivity.
Granted, the survey was across a broad range of corporate employees that included MBAs and senior executives, but sloppy writing of any type should not be tolerated. If e-mail is such a vital business communications tool, e-mail writing is a skill that every professional must practice on a daily basis.
Clear, Concise, Fast
Organize your e-mail message clearly and effectively. Poorly written e-mails are more than just a waste of time; they can lead to misinterpretation and miscommunications. They are also a poor reflection on you and your organization.
When writing an e-mail, make certain:
- The recipient understands what you have said so that person can use and act on the information;
- To organize your e-mail just as you would in a news release or in a presentation;
- That important information is included in the e-mail and is easy to find; and
- You do not make it challenging for the recipient to wade through a long, wordy and difficult-to-read e-mail. Get to the point quickly because their time is as precious as yours.
Every computer today has two important application software packages installed that every businessperson should use religiously before sending an e-mail: spell check and grammar check.
Forget what Peter Steiner said with his 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” If you cannot use e-mail effectively to communicate with stakeholders, they will find out faster than you think.