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3-2-1 Contact

Evaluating the best ways to stay in touch with your customers, staff and vendors

The phone rings off the hook all day long in A. Blake Christensen's office. If it weren't for e-mail, says the 35-year-old CEO of ShowBizKid.com Inc., a Newport Beach, California, start-up networking resource for the entertainment industry, he'd miss out on corresponding with many of his existing clients and sending internal memos. "E-mail is easy, direct and fast when you're stretched thin for time," he says. "I can communicate with clients and partners anywhere in the world."

Well, why not? We're all wired to the Web 24/7. Just one mouse click, and e-mails are zapped to an entire customer or prospect list. Sounds like the perfect productivity tool, too, for getting out the word when you're dealing with vendors and employees.

Well, hold on there. Aimee L. Drolet, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Business, says many entrepreneurs wrongly believe e-mail is the way to go. Sure, it saves you time and money, but is it the lazy person's answer to handling the company's various relationships? While e-mail beats snail mail every time in terms of speed, it can be too easily deleted or lost to the ether elves.

In fact, you can turn off customers if you depend on e-mail too much, especially if you don't use blind carbon copy when communicating with more than one client. There are times when a letter or phone call are the best ways to build your business.

Fortunately for Christensen, he's taken those lessons to heart. Nothing beats a personal meeting if you need to size people up and see firsthand what kind of business they have. And he likes to snail-mail color brochures to investors for a personal touch. When he does make phone calls, Christensen makes sure he has all his documents in front of him and a list of questions to refer to throughout the conversation.

Michael W. Morris, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found in a recent study that negotiations conducted by e-mail were more likely to fail than face-to-face negotiations. Indeed, observing body language, mannerisms and facial expressions can give you far greater insight into the other person's intentions and attitudes and lead to a better business relationship than an e-mail or a phone call.

So when is it appropriate to use your computer, your phone or your own two feet to get in touch with customers, staff and vendors? E-mail usually serves in-house communications best because of its informal style; for suppliers, e-mail or the fax machine are fine. If you need to jump on an opportunity, e-mail (on your letterhead and with a note that you'll send hard copies by mail) can work-however, some people balk at casual e-mails, so, ideally, your initial contact should be handled through the mail. A follow-up by telephone to introduce yourself personally is the next step.

Finally, a face-to-face visit allows both of you to decide whether you want to do business. Then you'll find e-communication can carry you forward, with an occasional visit to recement the relationship.

Whichever form of communication you choose, take the time to decide which is best for each situation before firing off that oh-so-easy e-mail.


Jill Amadio communicates through her columns in Newsday and 115 newspapers and e-zines.

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