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When an E-Mail Isn’t Enough

July 18, 2017
Want to know how to lose a customer in 25 words or less? Deliver bad news in an e-mail.

In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream. Face it. In our industry, sooner or later something is going to go wrong. Your stake-bed truck breaks down with a day’s worth of deliveries on deck. A fixture with a four-week lead-time finally shows up — broken into 10 pieces. Instead of shipping to Cyclone, MO, your switchgear order ends up in Cyclone, TX. Now you must tell your customer something he or she is not going to want to hear. Today’s business climate calls for a quick response to advise your customer of the situation. Naturally, you’re going to dart off an e-mail.

Hold it! Not so fast. Before you fat thumb that message, you need to know the one rule for delivering bad news via an e-mail. Here it is: Never send bad news in an e-mail. In fact, never send a negative message of any kind. Your customer may actually perceive from your e-mail that you are minimizing or dodging the problem. If he’s going to be mad anyway, sending an e-mail is only going to make his mood worse, because there’s no one present to acknowledge his frustration, no “shoulder to cry on.” Pick up the phone and make the call. If the news is real bad — like thousand-dollars-a-day-liquidated-damages bad — then face the matter head on. Drive to your customer’s business, look him in the eye and tell it to him straight. Your customer will respect your earnestness and view you as a collaborator, rather an agitator.


E-mail doesn’t replace the sound of a human voice. It doesn’t achieve the personal touch of a handshake or a face-to-face sales call. With e-mail, we’re missing the body language, the facial expressions and the tonal changes that help us to wholly communicate with one another. Without these nuances it’s easy for customers to project their own interpretation and emotions onto your words. Is the subject complex? Your customer will have questions and those questions will lead to more e-mails. Is your message confidential? Imagine how your e-mail will sound if read aloud in a court of law. Is it ambiguous? Then, you run a risk of being misinterpreted. Did you make commitments without checking the facts? Consider that written words are like a contract for which you can be held liable. Take a lesson from 1920’s Boston politician Martin Lomasney who knowingly said, “Never write when you can talk.”

Is this e-mail necessary? Sometimes you just have to do it. You need a “paper trail,” a timeline of events, some kind of record. If that’s the case, be concise. Write with clarity and purpose. Insert white space every two or three sentences to make it easier for the eyes of your reader to follow. Never assume your customer will discern the intent of your e-mail. Tone of voice doesn’t convey in an e-mail. That’s why we resort to emoticon and emoji to help the reader better understand the sender’s meaning behind the text. But, if you feel the need to pepper your e-mail with tongue-in-cheek smiley faces to keep from being misunderstood, then perhaps a phone call or face-to-face meet would be a better way to communicate your message.

Call me maybe. Okay, so maybe you have a message that isn’t exactly bad news, but you feel it runs a high risk of being misunderstood. That’s when it’s a good idea to precede the e-mail with a phone call.

Here’s an example of what this looks like. A trusted customer of ours returned a contactor he didn’t need. Because he gave us what appeared to be an unopened box, we didn’t look inside until he had gone. Though it was in the original box, we discovered that the faceplate was missing. Rather than try to describe the missing part to our customer in an e-mail, I took a picture of the contactor alongside an identical unit from our inventory and circled the missing part. I attached the photos to an e-mail pointing out his oversight, but after mulling it over, changed my mind before sending it.

It seemed I couldn’t think of any way to bring up the missing faceplate in an e-mail without sounding like I was accusing him of something. I decided to call first. I explained that I was going to e-mail him a picture of the missing part, so he would know what I needed. That way he could hear in my voice there was no accusatory tone. Then I sent the e-mail with the pictures. He looked around his workbench, found the missing part and returned it. No feelings were hurt during this production.

Before you press send — proofread. Then proofread again. If it’s a wordy paragraph and it’s technical or complex, have someone you trust read it, too. There’s a good reason for this. Because you wrote it, you know what it’s supposed to say. It’s easy for your eyes to skip past grammatical goofs and omitted words. One omitted word can change the entire meaning of a sentence. There’s another good reason. You want to know how your message will “sound” to someone else. Your proofreader can provide you feedback on how you’re coming across. Of course, by the time you do all of that, you could have just made a phone call.

Less is more. Now that you’re more aware of all the ways your e-mail can be misused, misconstrued or misrepresented in a court of law, you’re likely to start spending more time editing and rewriting sentences. I’ve often spent 10 minutes writing an e-mail about something that could’ve been handled in a two-minute phone call. A rule of thumb is that if your message wanders past five sentences, it may be more efficient to pick up the phone and call. Or better yet, go see your customer, shake his hand and have a face-to-face conversation.