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“Rejected,” read the e-mail response John received from his counterpart half a world away.

It was a one-word reply to John’s initial request (also by e-mail) that his counterpart evaluate in detail the concerns John had expressed to their contract.

His counterpart’s reply, unfortunately for John, moved the process backward, not forward. And John had partially contributed to the problem. How? By prematurely using e-mail to negotiate in a situation not yet ripe for that method of communication.

What should John have done instead? Set up a telephone appointment in which he could orally express his concerns about their contract. He could then have solicited his counterpart’s input and negotiated the solutions.

Here’s the challenge concerning negotiating by e-mail — it seems so efficient in an environment where we appear to have less and less time to do more and more work. Yet it comes with some costs, each of which should be considered when strategically determining how to communicate.

Here are a few disadvantages associated with negotiating by e-mail, including ways to overcome them. Of course, evaluate these relative to the major advantages of e-mail — efficiency and having a written record of your communications.

1. Harder to establish initial relationship. It’s often critical to start negotiations by establishing rapport with your counterpart and finding some common personal and/or professional interests. This could be as simple as learning you both grew up in Minnesota.

By doing so, you begin to develop a relationship that can help you overcome later problems.

For most people, it’s harder to establish a strong relationship through written communication than over the phone or in person. Business-related e-mail tends to be more dry and factual and shy away from the small talk and rapport-building that characterize phone or face-to-face interaction.

Of course, this is easily corrected. At the beginning and at regular intervals, make sure you spend sufficient time developing the relationship over the phone or in person. Don’t just rely on e-mail when the negotiation involves a long-term relationship between the parties.

2. Significant potential for miscommunication. Let’s face it, few of us spend the same time and effort in drafting e-mails that we do in drafting letters.

We read the incoming e-mail, hit “reply,” type in our thoughts, maybe reread it once, and hit “send.” Then it’s gone. This relative lack of effort increases the likelihood of miscommunication.

It’s also difficult even for the best writers to incorporate the wide variety of tones and nuances that we naturally include in our face-to-face or even phone conversations.

Given these dynamics, it’s inevitable that our e-mails more likely will be misinterpreted than many of our other forms of communication. How often have you wished you had thought more carefully about the language in your e-mail before you sent it? Or perhaps you wished you had not sent it at all.

The solution, of course, is to pick up the phone in certain circumstances, or spend the extra time to edit your e-mails appropriately.

3. No immediate interactive element. Once an e-mail has been sent, it’s impossible to gauge the recipient’s reaction and/or clarify issues unless you receive a reply.

Even then, depending on the nature of your counterpart, the quality of their writing, the time they spend on their reply (if any), and what they want to tell you, you may be under a misimpression as to how they reacted to it.

In a telephone conversation or a face-to-face meeting, you often will be able to immediately determine if your counterpart misinterpreted your statement. You can then clarify it.

With e-mail, you may never know. And even if you do, in the time it takes to find out and respond, the negative impact already may have occurred and solidified.

4. Practical over-reliance on an imperfect delivery system. Finally, sometimes e-mails get lost in cyberspace or inadvertently get caught up or delayed by increasingly aggressive spam filters. If you believe your e-mail offer has been received — but it never was actually delivered — your negotiation may come to a screeching halt.

After all, you don’t want to appear too desperate by following up and making sure it was received. But by just waiting, you may lose the deal if you inaccurately assume their failure to respond is because of strategic reasons.

Look, e-mail is an integral part of almost every business negotiation. And it has significant advantages in added efficiency and other ways.

But it also has disadvantages. So be strategic about when, where and how to use it. Sometimes, it may even be more efficient to pick up the phone or even to jump on a plane. Even if you’re going half a world away.

Published April 4, 2005 The Business Journal

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