When email fails: 4 times when it's best to pick up the phone

Robert Half



In workplaces everywhere, digital has become the default communication method. Emails and IMs fly back and forth all day. But, sometimes, there's just no substitute for picking up the phone.

Prefer a keyboard to a handset? Many people do. But phone aversion, even a mild case, might work against your career goals. There are simply times when having a phone conversation is more productive and appropriate.
We've identified four situations where it's best to pick up the phone.


Situation No. 1: You still haven't resolved an issue after three emails
Some things are just too complicated to work out over email. If you're still nailing down the details of that new project after several email exchanges, it's probably time to pick up the phone and talk in real time. Often, you can clarify in five minutes what might still be cloudy after a dozen emails.

After you hang up, quickly recap any decisions or action steps with one final email. This will ensure everyone is on the same page and has a written record of what was agreed to.
Want to avoid this situation in the first place? Reconsider any email that stretches beyond three short paragraphs. Many people lose focus -- or simply stop reading -- after the first few sentences (what they can see without scrolling). Keep it to one point or question per email. And save more complex discussions for phone calls or meetings.
Winning phone tip: Some professionals view unexpected phone calls as an interruption. Try sending an email or IM to see if the person is available for a quick chat.


Situation No. 2: You're hoping to develop a new relationship
In the business world, relationships matter, and it's hard to grow strong ones by email alone. Face-to-face is best, but when you're not in the same office or city, a few phone calls can be almost as effective.

Make a point to pick up the phone and talk to your new networking contact, colleague, client or vendor regularly. If you struggle to make it a priority, program an automatic reminder that pops up on your calendar.
Then use these chats to slowly learn more about what matters to the other person -- everything from career and business goals to hobbies. You'll discover a lot through tone of voice and conversation styles alone. And it's easier to accomplish just about any business task when you have a strong relationship.
Winning phone tip: Try starting with a simple, "It's so good to hear your voice. How are you?" before jumping into business. A little small talk goes a long way.


Situation No. 3: You need something ASAP
Technology makes all sorts of things faster, but when it's truly urgent, a phone call can be the quickest way to get what you need. Think scheduling job interviews, hiring a new contractor or securing approvals on deadline.

Are you reluctant to pick up the phone? Know that it can cost you. You might miss out on the perfect job candidate if your email gets lost in that person's inbox. Or you could blow a project milestone because you didn't call the three people who needed to approve the new website copy.
Winning phone tip: No answer when you phone? Don't rely on voicemail alone -- many people are slow to check it. In truly urgent cases, leave a voicemail, then follow up with an email to double your odds.


Situation No. 4: It's a sensitive topic
If you're breaking bad news or discussing something sensitive, you'll want all your interpersonal skills at your disposal. It's much easier to convey tone with your voice than with words on a screen, and if there's a misunderstanding, you'll be able to address it in real time.

Pick up the phone to discuss HR issues, missed deadlines, negative feedback or general conflict. People respond better when you take the time to actually talk them through something. And everyone is less likely to get heated when they're not hiding behind a screen and keyboard.
Winning phone tip: Nervous? Jot down your main points on paper and run through them before the call. Start with something positive if you can, but don't drag out bad news by stalling.
Email is a powerful tool, but don't let it become a bad habit. The next time you start typing a new message, stop and think about whether it's the best medium for your message. Would a phone call work better? If the answer is yes, back away from the keyboard and start dialing.

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