Recently I have wondered if e-mail has made my professional life easier or just more complicated. Increasingly, my interactions with vendors and publishers are conducted electronically rather than over the phone or in person. My attempts to contact someone by telephone often lead to playing voice mail tag. I have discovered that if I sit at my desk all day, my phone never rings. On the other hand, if I am constantly in and out of my office, the phone seems to ring off the hook. Rarely do I place a call that a live person picks up on the other end. When someone actually does answer the phone, I am so startled that I forget why I called! At the same time, it seems that my electronic correspondence is generating equally unsatisfactory results.
I have noticed that in-person com-munications with vendor or publisher representatives is happening less frequently. To be fair, I may be responsible for this trend in my library. I insist that account representatives make appointments to see me, and strongly discourage drop-in visits to the point of refusing to see them. I am too busy to just drop what I am doing to accommodate an account representative that just "happened to be on this side of town".
Most significantly, I have noticed how the communication medium I use influences the information results I receive. I read an article on the subject by Harvard Business School professor Kathleen Valley who has been studying the effects of electronic communi-cations on negotiations. According to Professor Valley it is not our imagination, people really do behave differently when using e-mail than in face to face contact or even in telephone conversations. Individuals are less likely to fully disclose information when they are communicating through e-mail. In face to face contact, we instinctively share more information. It is easier for us to gauge one another’s response and receptiveness to ideas during personal contact. Whereas, e-mail communi-cation can be distorted. The infor-mation or idea can be exaggerated, it can be incomplete or, the person who received the e-mail can misinterpret the intent of the message. It is even more difficult to know what questions need to be asked or what information should be shared when using e-mail.
I encountered this recently in an attempt to establish a deposit account with a document delivery service. I initiated contact with the company with a telephone call, and I got as far as the account representative’s voice mail. The account representative responded to my voice mail. The voice mail message said that the account representative was out of the office for several days, but would check e-mail daily. According to the voice mail message, e-mail was the most efficient means of communication. I efficiently sent an e-mail to request information regarding the document delivery service, and instructions on how to establish a deposit account. An e-mail reply gave me a URL to read about the service and told me that a form was also on that site to set up a deposit account. This exchange took place over a two-week period without me ever speaking to the account representative. Since the Web page actually had several forms to establish different types of accounts, and since I was not sure which form to submit, I decided that a verbal conversation had to happen rather than continue with the e-mail conversation. This turned out to be just as frustrating, because the account representative only answered the question that I asked, seemed to be rushed and failed to volunteer pertinent information. I spent another two weeks placing telephone calls and sending follow-up e-mail messages. Since the account repre-sentative had assisted many other libraries in establishing deposit accounts for the document delivery service, I expected more proactive assistance than what I received. During the whole episode I kept thinking that if we were dealing with one another face to face, the negotiations would have gone so much more smoothly and would not have taken a month to complete.
Another aspect of using electronic communication is that an e-mail message is emotionless and can even "sound" rude. E-mail makes it much more difficult to reach an agreement effectively. The message or the intent of the message can easily be misinterpreted. When we negotiate face to face it is much more likely that we will come to a mutually beneficial agreement. Ironically, instead of e-mail encouraging communications it actually creates a barrier to communicating. Electronic negotiations tend to work better if we have already established some level of rapport with the other person. This generally requires a face to face meeting with the other person or at the very least a telephone conversation. When e-mail is the only communication medium used, it is very hard to establish the level of rapport that can develop from a face to face meeting. There is less likelihood that there will be any "getting to know one another" conversation or small talk. Using e-mail cuts through the warm fuzzy social part at the beginning of negotiations and gets us right down to business.
So why do we even attempt to use e-mail for business communication? Because it is a more efficient method of communication. There are no travel costs, no time lost scheduling and holding meetings, and there is no voice mail tag. E-mail allows us to communicate almost anonymously and at our convenience. We just have to be willing to acknowledge and accept that we lose some of the benefits from one on one or even telephone com-munication. We also need to know under what circumstance using electronic communication is not the best medium to use for negotiating. Your institution’s practices and procedures may govern this.
Once e-mail negotiating has begun, it is important to follow your instincts if you are not satisfied with the results. If you ask a question and feel that you are not receiving a satisfactory response, stop typing, turn away from the mouse pad, and make a telephone call. It might require that you make several telephone calls before you reach a real person, but once they know that you are persistent, they will return the call.
If you are interested in reading about Professor Valley’s study on negotiation outcomes based on the communication medium see ‘A matter of trust’: Effects of communication on the efficiency and distribution of outcomes. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, vol. 34 (2), pp. 211-238, Feb. 15, 1998.