There has been more written on Telecommunications Etiquette than one could publish in a single volume, or even perhaps in ten.
This post is an attempt to frame out, at a high level, how to politely and professionally engage and communicate with someone electronically, and call out several major “DOs” and “DON’Ts”.
Everything outlined here applies to a professional setting — obviously there are different rules of engagement for personal communications.
Table of Contents
What is Urgency?
Many communication issues arise due to a mismatched sense of urgency. In many cases, either the caller thinks the issue is more urgent than the recipient, prompting the recipient to be annoyed with the caller, or the caller uses an inappropriate means of communication, such as e-mail, expecting an urgent response.
– Urgent issues are time-sensitive, regarding something critical to your business. If you have information about an upcoming deal, if you need information before a meeting today, if something critical has happened or is about to happen, or if the customer is waiting, all of those situations are urgent.
– A good rule of thumb is to ask two questions: “Will this impact the customer RIGHT NOW?”, if the answer is “yes”, then the situation is urgent. The second question is “Will this impact myself or others RIGHT NOW?”, if the answer is “yes”, then the situation is urgent. If something is minor, it’s not urgent. If something IS critical, but CAN wait, it’s not urgent. For example, if you hit a stopping point on one project because you’re waiting on information, you might be able to switch to another project while you wait for an answer. If the project has a deadline with monetary or client impact, then handle it urgently — actively seek the information you need for the project.
– Communicate the sense of urgency. Let people know up front if this is urgent or not — let them decide how to respond.
Phones are disruptive, because they are preemptive
When the phone rings, the recipient of the phone call has very little context, other than perhaps the caller’s number and name. It’s difficult to tell what the conversation will be about, and how long it will last. The recipient has to make an educated guess, based on who is calling, regarding the content of the discussion, and therefore how disruptive the conversation might be.
– DON’T call someone unless it’s urgent, sensitive, or unless you have some specific situation that’s too complex for e-mail. When you call someone, you’re interrupting what they are currently doing. Unless someone gets paid to sit around all day, the chances are good that they are already doing something important — their job. Have respect for someone by NOT interrupting them, especially for something trivial that could be handled by e-mail or some other way.
– DO schedule someone’s time — arrange a meeting when you need to speak to them about something that’s NOT urgent. This allows the person to agree on a good timeframe for the discussion, and possibly to prepare any necessary information in advance, maximizing everyone’s time.
– Some organizations prefer phone calls as part of their culture. Be sensitive to that. The thought process is that a “friendly” phone call maintains personal relationships more effectively than e-mail. Know you’re company’s culture, and avoid alienating people who think you might be ducking their phone calls.
– DO set expectations, by letting people know your preferred method of contact. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell someone, “the easiest way to get ahold of me is via e-mail”, or “text me if you need to reach me”.
– When someone calls you, recognize that it might be urgent. If someone has a track record of calling you for non-urgent issues, start ignoring their calls IF YOU are busy when they call. If you’re on a call and you can’t switch calls (for example, a client call), try following up with an e-mail, IM, or text. “I saw you call — I’m on another call, what’s up?” This lets the caller know that you’re busy, and they can decide based on urgency how to proceed. Likewise, if you call someone and they don’t answer, try to understand that they might already be dealing with an urgent issue.
– DON’T leave voicemail, if you have e-mail instead. If you DON’T have someone’s e-mail address, leave them a voicemail. Voicemail doesn’t have a purpose, if you already have e-mail. Most companies issue smart phones or BlackBerries that allow you to access your e-mail from your phone… a quick e-mail can be much more efficient than leaving a verbose voicemail.
Instant Messenger (IM) can kill productivity
Have you ever been working on something, and you get bombarded with IMs from multiple people? Instant Messenger is a great way to share information quickly, but it can kill productivity if misused.
– IM is good for obtaining status and quickly sharing information.
– IM is a good way to communicate MEDIUM-urgent issues — situations that are not highly-urgent, but for which expediting the response will improve a critical process, such as client satisfaction (get the client the right answer quickly), planning (are you free at 10 for a call about “X”), logistics, processing (to what cost center should I code this invoice), etc…
– DON’T use IM if you can wait on an answer. If it’s not urgent, use e-mail.
– DO use IM to get quick updates when someone is waiting on the answer. IM is appropriate where waiting on the answer might result in requiring another meeting, delay the client / customer, or waste someone’s time.
– DO respect someone’s status. If they are “busy”, send them an e-mail, or if urgent, call them. Don’t send them an “urgent IM” if they are busy.
– IM can be useful during client conference calls, when you need to communicate with other team members without the client overhearing. This can be VERY useful during negotiations, or when working on a technical issue, so that the team appears more cohesive on the phone call. Set your status to “busy”, and get all parties in to a single IM session so that you don’t have to juggle multiple discussions AND the client call.
– If you’re working on something critical or urgent (or both), TURN OFF IM. I know that sounds like blasphemy, but by turning it off, people are forced to either send you an e-mail or call you. They have to re-evaluate the sense of urgency, and make a decision about whether it’s important enough for a phone call. More than likely, you’ll get an e-mail that you can answer later, when you’re not busy.
– DON’T “stalk” people on IM. IM Stalking is when you track someone by their IM status. Respect the fact that if someone comes online at 10 PM, they MIGHT be connecting to check e-mail or work on something, and they probably don’t want to talk to you. You can’t “track” someone’s time via IM either — people might have a valid reason for not being “online” right away when they first walk in — perhaps they’ve walked in to a meeting before starting their computer. Likewise, just because someone is offline doesn’t mean they’ve left for the day.
– DON’T use IM for social purposes. I can’t tell you how much I detest getting an IM that says “HI”, regardless of who it’s from.
– DON’T use IM for sensitive or personal issues. Corporate IM is usually logged — don’t send passwords, don’t talk about other people, don’t talk about clients, and don’t mention anything that isn’t work-appropriate. The worst situation possible is when someone is presenting to the client from their PC, and they get an IM that says “did you see what so-and-so was wearing today? Just HIDEOUS”. This makes your entire company look like third graders in front of the client.
– DO TURN OFF IM when making a client or executive presentation (see above).
E-mail – The Corporate Communication Work-horse
Believe it or not, companies can survive longer without Phone and IM than they can without e-mail. In addition to the vast amount of information most people “store” in e-mail, most organizations use an e-mail application (such as Microsoft Outlook) for calendaring, so e-mail is also the schedule-keeper, letting you know when to meet, with whom, and what you’re meeting about. When the phone system goes down, people use cell phones. When IM goes down, it’s an inconvenience — people use e-mail. When e-mail goes down, the president of the company gets a phone call.
– DON’T store information in e-mail. If something is important, store it in a text file, spreadsheet, or document, and save the file on disk where it’s backed up and safe.
– DON’T send sensitive information via e-mail. It’s too easy for someone to forward the sensitive e-mail, or to send it to the wrong recipient (DARN autocomplete…. I sent it to the wrong “Bob”)
– DON’T conduct a personal or sensitive discussion in e-mail — CALL them instead.
– DO NOT EVER reprimand or fire someone via e-mail. Follow the proper process, discuss it with them, and THEN document it in e-mail after the fact.
– DON’T handle urgent issues via e-mail. If something is urgent, it’s OK to send them the information they might require via e-mail, but follow it up with a phone call. Don’t EVER assume someone is always reading their e-mail — you might not get an answer until tomorrow (or later if they’re on vacation!), and that might be too late.
– DO be concise. Don’t ramble in e-mail. “TL;DR” means “Too Long; Didn’t Read”. State what you want in the first sentence, and then provide supporting detail if needed. If your e-mail requires more than a couple of paragraphs, maybe a meeting is more appropriate. People DO NOT like diatribes — if you want to rant, FIRST ask yourself if ranting is appropriate — rant to your wife, dog, or beer if not.
– DO double-check the recipient list. Is every recipient the CORRECT recipient… don’t accidentally send client details to John A Smith in Accounting when you meant John C Smith in Sales. “To” means the person needs to have or directly act on the information. “Cc” means that the person needs to be AWARE of the e-mail, but no direct action is required. I know folks who have rules set up on their inbox, and basically ignore “CC” e-mails. Be sure that if you have something to say or need someone to respond, you put them in the “To” list.
– DON’T use “Bcc”. BCC is “Blind Carbon Copy”. The recipient doesn’t see who is in the BCC list — only the “To” and “CC” lists. It’s not easy to see when you’ve been BCC’d instead of CC’d. Maybe the sender didn’t want the recipient to be directly aware — many people “BCC” their boss on critical e-mails. A better approach is to consider directly COPYING (“CC”) instead, or if you really don’t want the sender to know, just go to “Sent Items” AFTER you send it, and forward it to your boss instead. This can avoid some VERY embarrassing accidental “reply-alls” when someone didn’t notice they were in the BCC field.
– DO spell check and use good grammar. Every e-mail program has spell check built in. NOT using it makes you look illiterate. Likewise, “they’re” is “they are”, “there” is a place, and “their” belongs to “them” — know the difference and use the right one. It might not SEEM important, but bad grammar makes you look MUCH less credible.
– DO proof read every e-mail before you send it. Check to make sure that a) everything makes sense, and b) what you’re saying is what you intended to say. If you’re sending a mass e-mail (such as a company announcement), have your Boss or a peer review it before sending.
– DON’T retract e-mails. On some e-mail systems, even if you retract the e-mail, it won’t erase the original copy. If you have to correct yourself, pull the e-mail out of “Sent Items”, reply-all, and type a short apology or correction.
– DON’T request receipts on every e-mail. A receipt is issued by the e-mail system when the recipient opens or deletes the e-mail. ONLY request receipts on critical e-mails. I know people who request receipts on every item, and it’s annoying. If something is critical enough to require a receipt, maybe it should be handled another way — maybe a phone call is required, or some other method should be used to document a transaction.
– DO NOT use all caps. ALL CAPS IS THE EQUIVALENT OF YELLING. Don’t do it.
– DON’T assume someone is making a snarky comment. E-mail doesn’t have a voice or a face, and sometimes, it’s easy to misinterpret what someone is saying. RATHER than respond with a snarky comment, CALL the sender and ask what they meant. Don’t make an assumption.
– If your corporate culture supports it, DO use emoticons. I know that seems childish, but you can convey the tone of your comment by adding a simple smiley or frowney to the end of a sentence. “A response is required” is much different than “A response is required :-)”. Likewise, if you’re the only person sending smileys in your e-mails, DON’T DO IT.
– DON’T send high priority e-mails unless it’s urgent or important. Some people send every e-mail with “high” priority, and it’s annoying.
Text Messaging should be a last resort
Text Messaging (SMS) is ubiquitous, and can be a convenient way to communicate when mobile. It should be reserved for situations where the sender and / or recipient is mobile. If you’re sitting in your office, and the person you’re texting is also sitting in their office, there’s no reason to text.
– DON’T TEXT AND DRIVE. Worse than talking while driving, texting requires that you look away from the road. There is NO good reason to text and drive. If someone requires an urgent response, they will call you, at which point you can continue to safely drive while using a hands-free device. It’s perfectly acceptable to call someone after they text you, and say “Hey… got your text, but I’m driving, here’s the information you asked for”.
– DON’T send personal or sensitive information via text. Text messages aren’t encrypted, and can be read by the phone company. They can also be subpoenaed for use in court! Call the person instead.
– DON’T USE text messages unless one or both parties are mobile. Texts are convenient because they can be “buffered” by the carrier’s network — the recipient will get a text when their phone is in range or turns on. Meanwhile, e-mail or IM accomplishes the same thing.
– DO follow up an urgent phone call with a text message. If it’s urgent and the recipient is out of range, a text message might get through.
– DON’T send someone a text message unless you know them and work with them. Nothing is more annoying than a quasi-anonymous text message saying “Hey, are you going to join that meeting?” Who are you? What meeting? What? Or even worse, “Hey, call me” Who are you? Why should I call you?
How to Schedule a Meeting
Here is a simple process for scheduling a meeting:
1. If the person isn’t aware of why you want to meet, send them an e-mail introducing the topic and possible agenda, and ask when it would be convenient to meet. Don’t EVER call someone to discuss scheduling a meeting — that’s redundant.
2. Pick a good timeframe. People hate early Monday and late Friday meetings. Be aware of time zones, and don’t book meetings over someone’s lunch. If the person hasn’t indicated what times are good for them, introduce the invitation asking if this is a good time to meet, and suggest that they should propose a new time if not.
3. If the person has an administrative assistant, work with the admin directly. Usually, the admin can schedule the meeting for you (it’s what they do).
4. Include any resources such as conference bridge numbers or WebEx links IN the invite. People don’t like having to fish through their e-mail because you sent the WebEx link yesterday.
5. If there is a document, such as a list of items or questions, to review during the meeting, attach it to the invite. Again, people hate fishing through their inbox. Conversely, people hate huge attachments, so if the document is over a couple of meg, consider NOT sending it — use a WebEx instead.
6. ALWAYS include a topic and agenda. An agenda can be as simple as “discuss topic ‘x’ “, or it can be a more complex list of objectives that you want to accomplish during the call.
7. During the meeting, stay on topic. Sometimes it’s easy for a meeting to degenerate in to a design or troubleshooting call — take control and suggest that there should be a separate design or troubleshooting call. Do not “chit chat” in meetings. Although a polite “hi, how are you” is nice, you don’t want to waste the first 15 minutes of the call discussing everyone’s personal life.
It sounds simple, but there are some behaviors that can be very annoying. Here are some DOs and DON’Ts:
– DO focus the time frame around the individuals with the most limited or more important time. If you meet with an exec, for example, don’t ask if they can meet after hours unless they suggest it.
– DON’T manage someone else’s time! DO NOT EVER put a “reminder” on someone’s calendar, unless they work for you. Instead, send them an e-mail, and trust that people can manage their own time. Suggest in the e-mail that they set themselves a reminder.
– DO have a clear subject and agenda, and include enough context so that people understand why you want to meet and what will be discussed. Ideally, people can prepare information in advance in order to maximize everyone’s time. EVERY meeting should have an agenda, even if it’s as simple as a single line item such as “discuss topic ‘x’ ”
– DO come prepared. If the agenda includes discussion about a particular topic, prepare the information in advance and be ready to present the information requested. This helps maximizing everyone’s time. For example, if there is a list of questions, answer them in advance and send the answers to everyone BEFORE the call so that they can see your answers. This might cut a 1 hour call down to 1/2 hour.
– DO work with admin assistants where possible. Rather than calling the person directly, or sending them an e-mail asking when they can meet, reach out to the admin assistant for that person, and ask the admin assistant to help you schedule the call.
– DO provide THREE time slots where you can meet. If someone can’t see your calendar, this gives people the flexibility to schedule multiple people and resources efficiently, without having to reschedule multiple times. Even something simple, such as “I’m available at 3CT for an hour on Tuesday, 1 CT for 2 hours on Wednesday, or we can meet next month” helps set expectations — meet this week, or wait!
– DO include time zone information. If someone asks you to meet at 1PM, don’t assume it’s in your time zone (unless you’re in the same office). Asking if they can meet at 1 PM ET saves the extra e-mail asking what time zone!
– DON’T assume everyone is in YOUR time zone. East coast folks are the worst about this — they tend to assume EVERYONE is in Eastern time zone. 8 AM ET is 7 AM CT, 6 AM MT, and 5 AM PT! If you have employees or co-workers in multiple time zones, RESPECT their time zone! Likewise, if you live in Paciric time zone, don’t ask an Eastern time zone co-worker or client to meet at 5 PM — that’s 8 PM for them! I’ve had to put fake appointments on my calendar to “block out” time before 8 AM, so that people don’t schedule me for early morning meetings that are “8 AM” calls in other time zones. LIVE, LEARN, AND LOVE TIME ZONES.
– DON’T accept a meeting invite unless you plan to attend. Inform the organizer that you may not make it, then “Tentatively” accept. Tentative means that you may or may not be there. Likewise, if you plan NOT to attend, decline the invite.
– DON’T forward an invite unless you inform the organizer. Nothing is worse than showing up for a meeting and getting ambushed by an attendee (or multiple attendees) that you didn’t expect to be present. Helping the organizer understand who will be there, and why they will be attending helps them frame out the agenda and content, as well as plan in advance for resources — perhaps the meeting is catered, for example.
– DON’T ambush someone with a meeting request. Send an e-mail or otherwise reach out to them to frame out why you’re asking to meet, and go the extra mile by asking for convenient times that they would like to meet. Even if you can see their calendar, no one likes a Friday afternoon meeting, for example.
– DON’T send an “urgent” meeting request unless the recipient is expecting it, or unless you reach out to them with a phone call first — they may not see the invite in time, and might not show up. (remember – “urgent’ means “time sensitive”)
– DO use free/busy calendar visibility to make sure you DON’T double-book someone. I have a simple rule: I will attend ONE meeting at a time. If necessary, I escalate to figure out which one to attend. You can’t be effective on two calls at the same time.
– DO give the organizer your full attention. They called the meeting for a reason. If you don’t need to pay attention, then you don’t need to be at the meeting at all — decline instead.
The One Level Rule
Different companies have different cultures, and various cultures support varying rules of engagement about who you can or can’t politely contact — for example, all companies have an unwritten rule NOT to call or e-mail the president / owner / CEO of the company unless you work for them or are assisting with a specific issue.
A good rule of thumb is that you can reach out to someone one level higher or lower than you, within the organization. If you’re an “individual contributor” — the politically-correct term for a non-manager, you shouldn’t reach out to a director-level person without first contacting YOUR manager or another manager who works one level under the director. If you’re a manager, you can reach out to another manager or director, but maybe not a vice-president. Likewise, if you’re a director, it’s courtesy to work through a manager rather than reach out to an individual contributor directly.
Obviously, for specific or urgent issues, sometimes you have to disregard the One Level rule, for the sake of something critical, or if you’re already assisting with an issue.
Dealing with Friction
Nothing can be more annoying than dealing with a co-worker who doesn’t share or respect your sense of etiquette about how to communicate. In many situations, the person simply doesn’t understand or perceive that they are doing something that annoys you.
The best way to handle a situation like this is to be polite but direct. It’s OK to say “Hey, for issues like this, in the future, can you please send me an e-mail instead of calling me?” Often, if someone understands how you prefer to work, they’ll go the extra mile to work with you productively.
There’s no value in friction. If someone annoys you, deal with it directly AND POLITELY, rather than have your annoyance for that person affect your work with them. If you can’t find common ground, escalate.
Matching your sense of urgency and preferred communications methods with the recipient, ensures that your message will be received, and that your recipient will be open to more urgent communications when the situation arises.
Sometimes, being polite and addressing someone the right way, can make the difference in whether they are willing to “go the extra mile” on your behalf!