Communication is increasingly happening electronically. Still, there are times when conversing the old-fashioned way -- through the telephone or face-to-face -- is best.
With so many forms of communication to choose from, knowing which to use can be difficult. “There are many factors to consider when determining the best approach, from the product or service you’re selling to the person you’re dealing with,” says Gina Rubel, head of Furia Rubel Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in Doylestown, Pa. “It’s not always clear what’s appropriate.”
Here’s a look at three types of interactions and the most effective communication form for each of them:
1. Employee Communication
For some situations, a face-to-face meeting is essential. “For anything involving a critical conversation or emotional issue, do it in person,” says Rubel. Also, for small businesses that don’t have offices, important meetings -- discussions of goals for the coming year or regular planning sessions -- should be done face-to-face. Employee evaluations should always be conducted in person, according to Rubel.
Job interviews also require face-to-face discussions. “I would never hire someone to work in my office without meeting them first,” says Rubel. “The risks are too high.” One exception: If you’re hiring someone for a lower-level job who’s too far away for a feasible face-to-face interview. In that case, you might conduct the conversation via Skype.
The situation may be different for independent contractors, however, especially if there’s a lot of information available about them on the web. When hiring graphic designers, for example, Rubel finds that a telephone call does the trick. That’s because she generally can see samples of their work on their website or through Google searches. “Today, there’s enough information online, you can get a good feel for whether someone is a good fit without seeing the person in person,” she says.
As for day-to-day matters, those can be discussed via email or telephone. But, if you talk on the phone, follow up with an email. When Rubel is out of town, for example, she always asks employees to confirm conversations electronically. “People get so distracted,” she says. “If they don’t get it in writing, they’ll forget.”
If it’s a high stakes negotiation, you have to meet face-to-face. That’s especially true for discussions with potential manufacturers or other partners in foreign countries. For one thing, in many cultures it’s expected that you’ll spend time cultivating a relationship in person so you can establish a bond of trust. In addition, you need a feel for the nuances of the conversation, something that can only happen in a face-to-face conversation.
In addition, if, you’re hiring a company to manufacture a product, you need to be able to see the physical location. Rubel recalls a client who recently discovered (during an initial tour of a plant in China) that the factory was using child labor. The negotiations were called off.
Once you’ve finished that phase of the process, however, then you can rely on email. In fact, according to Rubel, that’s preferable and will ensure interactions are documented. “From a legal perspective, getting into the nitty gritty should be done in writing,” she says.
In other cases, telephone and email will do. That’s particularly the case if you already know the person, but you don’t need to have a previous relationship. For example, when working out contract terms with graphic designers, Rubel almost always uses email. The same is true for many customers. “We have a lot of clients we’ve never met in person,” says Rubel.
3. Client Interaction
Generally, for day-to-day communication, email is fine. In most service industries where the quality of the relationship is essential, regular in-person meetings for more important matters are de rigueur. That’s especially true for lawyers, accountants, human resources professionals, financial advisors, etc. In between those meetings you can communicate via email.
Despite all of the guidelines, there’s no hard and fast rule. When it comes to clients, it’s best to find out ahead of time how they like to communicate. A financial advisor, for example, may learn that more tech-savvy people prefer conversing electronically. “Some clients are too busy for anything but email,” says Rubel.
Still, if you’re interested in sealing the relationship, personal interactions are the most effective. Rubel, for example, recently switched from a major national bank to a smaller, local one. In December, a bank vice president dropped by her office for a visit and brought a Christmas basket with him. “That kind of personal interaction shows they value our business,” she says. Sometimes, you can't cut corners and it pays to make time for a personal visit. For every other scenario, there's a wealth of communication technology to choose from.