It's hard not to be infatuated with e-mail. It's fast, it's cheap-and today, it's as common as triple lattes and body piercings. The sophisticated deal-maker, however, should not be so easily impressed. Like snail mail, phone calls and faxes, e-mail is just another way to communicate, and it has its own strengths and weaknesses, especially when used in negotiations.
In the asset column, e-mail is swift and convenient. It's great for getting answers to simple questions, arranging meetings and circulating information. When there's a need to build a consensus, you can reach lots of people quickly-and in many cases, it affords easy access to all levels of an organization. Because it's written, e-mail gives you time to reflect before responding. All that is very, very good.
In the event of litigation, poor word choices, flip responses lifted out of context and stupid jokes will all come back to haunt you.
On the other hand, few people type as fast as they talk. Preparing e-mail responses can eat up your time. Often, the phone is more efficient. Also, when negotiating in groups via e-mail, it can be hard to tell who's reacting to what, especially with e-mail threads arriving fast and furious.
More important, e-mail, like other written communication, deprives the recipient of nonverbal cues. When you consider that experts believe as much as 90 percent of face-to-face communication is conveyed through body language and vocal cues, relying heavily on e-mail can be a bad idea. Without direct contact, rapport could be weak, which makes it tempting to take uncooperative positions. Ian Ballon, a leading expert on Internet law, sums it up this way: "E-mail is useful for narrowing issues or conveying information. It's not a good medium for negotiations, however, because so often negotiations require listening as well as talking."
There's also a hidden pitfall to e-mail. Although many people treat e-mail like casual conversation, they don't realize they're creating a permanent record. In the event of litigation, poor word choices, flip responses lifted out of context and stupid jokes will all come back to haunt you. So, always think twice before you click the "Send" button.
It's amazing how quickly e-mail has become a business necessity. But even at its very best, e-mail will never take the place of face-to-face or even phone-to-phone communication.