Tips on When to Use Email, Phone, or Video

We’ve all been there.  Someone sends you an email asking you a question.  You respond and ask for some clarification.  Three days of back-and-forth emails later, you get fed up with how slow the discussion is going and call the other person.  Three minutes later, you both have all the answers you wanted, and now sit there wondering why it took three days to conclude a three minute conversation.

There’s unfortunately not a lot of hard evidence out there for how best to leverage our varying communication and collaborative tools.  I can find studies that show video is nearly identical with face-to-face for gaining trust, but I’ve found little that shows which tool is best to use when.  I hope we can open that dialogue here.

Before the tips, lets look at the mediums we usually communicate through:  Video (with Audio), Audio only (phone/VOIP), email, and instant messaging (IM/chat/SMS).

We call the first two (Video and Audio) synchronous because there is an immediate dialogue; points are conveyed and responded to immediately.  The latter two are asynchronous because each time content is conveyed there may be a significant amount of time before it is received and responded to.  Each step in an asynchronous dialogue can take from seconds to days (or longer) to be conveyed.  In sychronous communication, all parties are working simultaneously (synchronously) on the discussion, whereas in asynchronous communication, parties are working on different parts of the discussion at different times (asynchronously).

Now that we know the landscape, when is the best time to use each tool?

Tip 1
How Much Discussion is Needed?

You may think that if you need an answer NOW!, you should stick with synchronous communication.  “Dang it!  I’ll just call him up and ask him!”  Ah, but what if he’s not in?  Not answering?  Nowhere to be found.  And, quite honestly, he’s a bit creepy and you really just don’t want to hear him breathe over the microphone.

Well, thankfully, a much better determinant about is:  How much discussion is needed?  If you’re looking for a simple answer that won’t likely require clarification, go to email or possibly a voicemail if you’ve tried to call.  IM will work great as well, especially if the recipient is extremely busy and available for IM.

If the recipient is likely to respond with questions themselves, or you’re likely to ask more questions based on their answers, try a video or voice call.  There’s no excuse to avoid human contact here because it will save time.  Lots of time.

Knowing there will be a follow up question is a sure sign of an actual discussion.  If the recipient is not available, send or leave an asynchronous message asking them to call you back as immediately as possible.  Unless you can start working from a partial response, don’t ask for the answer now.  That opening scenario with email has happened to everyone I know, and it’s because once a topic goes into discussion via email, people tend to keep it in email.

A warning against texters who claim they can happily hold entire lengthy conversations via chatting:  It creates a distraction from the other work you could be doing and I guarantee you can talk faster than your thumbs can type.

Without following this most important tip, you will relive the scenario I opened this post with.  Guaranteed.

Tip 2
Do You Need a Tailored Message?

This is a great use of email.  IM tends not to seem professional.  Synchronous communications are more likely to create faux pas. If you only need to send a message one way, and any response from a recipient would actually become a separate discussion, then take advantage of email’s ability to be written, edited, rewritten, approved, and then sent.

If you don’t need immediate real-time feedback, it’s the obvious choice.

How Busy are You?

You can make yourself available for people for those emergency “I need an answer NOW!” moments by staying available for IM.  If you’re super busy, don’t pick up the phone, only glance at email headers (if you look at them at all), and only engage IMs where the response can be quick.  If someone wants a longer response, either don’t chat back or ask to call them later.

LIKEWISE, if you’re suspicious someone is busy, or you’d like to talk to them synchronously but are not sure if they’re available, IM is a great way to touch base and ask for the deeper communication:  “Hey, when you get a chance, can you VSee me?”

Tip 4
Is There a Negotiation (or Conflict Resolution) Happening?

It’s one thing for a client to send an unhappy email.  It’s another beast entirely if there is a dispute between yourself and a vendor, or a potential customer feels misled, or you yourself feel slighted.  In the former case, you can craft a reasonable email response and let them know you care and are looking into the matter.  In the latter, the lack of personal interaction removes response inhibitions and fosters paranoia.  Admit it, we’ve all responded to emails we felt slighted us with even angrier emails.  Rather than resolving a conflict, asynchronous communication tends to inflame it.

Only respond to incendiary communications asynchronously if one of the parties is unable to communicate immediately.  Only ask to schedule when to talk by phone or, better still in these cases, video/face-to-face.  And before sending that invite, you probably want to sit on that text or email for five or ten minutes before sending it, just to give you time to cool off and reword anything you might regret when you finally get the other parties into a synchronous discussion.

Tip 5
That’s Plenty of Tips

There are quite a few scenarios I’ve left out.  Perhaps a few readers can add some.  Somewhere out on the net someone had made a communication flow chart, and I was hoping to link it here, but now I can’t find it.  If one of you see it, please let me know.  And post your own suggestions and tips about when to use what medium to communicate!  It’ll help us all.

Comments ( 4 )
  • admin
    MrPete says:


    Those are some good tips. We’ve done various presentations on this topic over the years; it is an ongoing arena of great interest for our clients (mostly non-profits) around the world. I’m just “stopping in” and would need to go search a bit to find some of what we’ve done. It’s been a few years and I honestly don’t remember 🙂

    Here are some other factors readers might consider:

    * Cool heads. It’s true that email tends to lack normal social barriers and thus can lead to inappropriate anger (flame wars) or even intimacy (broken marriages). However, we’ve also seen how certain topics when discussed face-to-face or even by voice can also lead to frustrating escalation of emotion for some people. Instant Messaging is often a “cooler” mode of communication, while still being quite expressive.

    * The value of a written record. When working on the wording of a document, textual conversation is of huge value. Likewise, it’s sometimes crucial to accurately remember what was already agreed on.

    * The value of grace. Conversely, an under-appreciated aspect of voice conversation is that what was said is quickly gone. This enables participants to have more grace for one another: people can change their minds, come to agreement, and move on. What was said before can be let go. [We’ve considered proposing a new Self-Destruct Date header field for email! Whatever is written is to be forgotten after the stated date. Wouldn’t that be a great solution for spam, but also so many other things!]

    * The value of mutual silence. There’s a richness in any relationship that includes the opportunity to just “be” together for a few seconds or minutes. Whether we spend time reflecting on what was just said, or what we sense about the other person, or our own thoughts, or even a spiritual aspect. It took me more than a decade to realize: it is impossible to be silent together via email. And almost impossible in IM. On the radio, extended silence is anathema: an engineer’s beeper will go off a few seconds after the broadcast signal goes quiet. Yet a phone call, a Vsee video chat, or even better face-to-face are great interactive media that support being silent together.

    * The value of presence. Most people who are not spammers care whether their audience is fully engaged. With snail mail and even email, it’s basically impossible to know. Same with IM. Even a teleconference call is pretty disconnected: how often hae you seen someone mute the line to go grab a quick drink, or even continue working on something else while they listen? That doesn’t happen in a face-to-face conversation, nor in some kinds of video links. (This is an area of current research for us. We did an experimental live+vsee presentation with a university class last year. The live and remote presenters “stood” next to one another. Result: the VSee presenter felt much more disengaged, unable to really see the individuals in the hall. Quite the frustrating experience, although much better than not being there at all!)

    So, there’s five more. Hope that helps! Feel free to get in touch sometime… obviously we care about this a lot. 😀

    [And say Hi to your buddies for me 🙂 ]


  • admin
    MrPete says:

    Forgot to mention: *why* IM can be better than a voice conversation…

    IM has almost the immediacy of voice, but allows you to edit what you are saying before the other party sees it.

    This is one reason I dislike one aspect of Google Wave — I would never assume that it’s a good thing when the other party can see your words as you type them. Tends to cause more trouble than it is worth.

  • admin
    Jesse says:

    I generally prefer email. I think the phone should only be used on a cold call if the person you’re calling can give you a fast answer w/maybe a couple of fast follow ups and you can’t use IM. For phone discussions/meetings, per your “no excuse” in Tip 1, you should schedule a time via email/calendar when the other party will be available. In short, email is considerate. It doesn’t interrupt the other person and it gives him or her time to consider/research their answer.

  • admin
    john says:

    You’re right: Try and set up a meeting for the non-“now” moments. I’m glad you brought that up.

    “Now” implies you can’t schedule a meeting, and you can’t afford giving the other party time to consider an answer, which, of course lends itself to synchronous communication. (People should leave messages on IM, voicemail, or email asking to be called back if the other party/ies are not immediately available!)

    Going with the “How much discussion is needed” model, I would even steer people away from voice/video if they only need a short answer “now”&#8212IM is much better suited to that.

    However, ANY time that you can cover a topic in a 5 minute call that would otherwise become 3 days of emailing back and forth, use voice or video.

    Believe me, I speak not only from personal experience, but also from others’ horror stories. I still follow this now. For example, when Milton and I really need to wrestle with the wording of something, I usually wind up calling him on VSee and we accomplish about 3 day’s worth of email discussion in 15 minutes.

The comments are now closed.