Being a freelance writer who works primarily for the web, I don’t do very much in terms of face-to-face interactions with my customers. Naturally, I have lunch with John every Saturday at dot com pho, but seeing how the guy who runs Mobile Magazine is in Victoria and Bob Buskirk — the guy behind Think Computers — is in Pittsburgh, it’s not like I can just hop in my car and pay them a visit. I think it’s largely a matter of personal preference, but I tend to direct my customers to use email to contact me and I’ll tell you why.
If I talk to someone on the phone, it’s difficult for me to have a hard record of the conversation, short of actually taping the whole thing. I might forget if something was mentioned or if we agreed on something in particular. I could take notes, sure, but they’re just not the same as getting an email. This is because the words would then be coming straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and we can then avoid any “operator” effect. We’ve all played that game in elementary school, right?
When I’m on my home computer and using MSN Messenger, my computer automatically keeps a copy of the conversations, but I find that Windows Live Messenger can be pretty wonky sometimes. I prefer to use Meebo, because it has yet to fail me. The problem with Meebo, or instant messaging in general, is that it is extra work to try and keep a proper record. This is why email wins. It’s date stamped, time stamped, or organized beautifully in Gmail.
Of course, this applies to outside the world of freelance writing too.
But alas, there are always two sides to every coin. In an issue of the Metro (a local free newspaper) last month, I remember reading an article stating that more than one third of workers surveyed were “stressed out” by email. They check their inbox “as often as 40 times an hour” and they feel obligated to reply to all messages promptly. This is particularly true of people who carry around BlackBerry devices, because of that whole instant push email thing that they do. People simply are not comfortable with letting an email message sit in their inbox for the whole day, because they feel that they have to reply to it as soon as they read it.
This is obviously not the case, but you can see how spending that much time with your email can severely stunt your productivity. If you’re checking and replying to messages, you’re not doing the things that bring home the bacon. In my case, for example, I could be spending that time busting out another review for The TechZone rather than reading some inane email or scratching my head over a strange unsolicited request. And that’s above and beyond all the spam we all get.
In this day and age, we can’t exactly banish email from our lives. I’m not suggesting that, because without email, my freelance writing career wouldn’t be where it is today. Can you imagine if I was only restricted to local work, attempting to advertise via postings on the wall and random flyers distributed to neighboring businesses? I wouldn’t be doing any work for Think Computers, that’s for sure. What I am suggesting is that you should be more efficient with your email and stop wasting time.
Avoid the back-and-forth. When replying to an email, draft it up in such a way that it does not encourage an ongoing conversation. If you need to ask a question and you already have a follow-up question in mind, why not include that in the original message? When replying to a request from a customer, write it in such a way that they’re unlikely to have further questions.
Don’t let email waste your time. And don’t feel obligated to reply instantly. People have to understand that you have a life outside of your interaction with them. I’d say anything within 24-48 hours is perfectly fine, longer if it’s over a weekend. Would you agree?