Effective Client Communication
Choosing the Right Medium for Your Message

By Wells H. Anderson

Let’s say you are working on a legal matter and you need your client to answer a question for you. You don’t need an answer immediately, but you are under some time pressure and are busy with other matters as well. You call the client and get a voice mail greeting. Now what do you do: Leave a voice mail? Send an e-mail? Instant message? Call later?

Or perhaps you are drafting an agreement involving several parties. You could e-mail attachments to everyone and work it out through volleys of e-mails, but are there better alternatives?

Choosing the Best Option

In this article, we consider the best communication options for various situations and the dos and don’ts of these technologies. We take a fresh look at e-mail, voice mail, and phone calls. We consider virtual meetings and videoconferences as new alternatives. And we discuss the business reasons for using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, as well as instant messaging (IM). Each has its own strengths, weaknesses, and appropriate uses.

Whatever our technological advances, the essence of good communication is the same. Your emotional intelligence and self-awareness are important in communicating with others. You need to think through not only what to say and how to say it but also how your message is influenced by the technology you use.

Interaction and Nonverbal Cues

Many of us take satisfaction in how much we can do and how fast we can do it using communication technologies. Yet each of our modern methods of communication has drawbacks. When we choose one method over another, we should appreciate how the technology affects us and our message. Communicating electronically can be isolating and tiring. Dr. Edward M. Hallowell notes in a Harvard Business Review article (“The Human Moment at Work,” January/February 1999), “Staying on-line or on the telephone for extended periods, just like any other long and monotonous activity, wears you out. The brain becomes starved for fuel: rest and human contact.”

Lack of human interaction can create a state of mind that colors our judgment and perception. According to Hallowell, we can become isolated and oversensitive. We may misinterpret e-mails and voice mails because we aren’t getting the nuances of vocal tone and facial expression that “typically mitigate worry.” In essence, we are communicating only from our own frame of reference, and it is easy without feedback from others to have misunderstandings.

The more feedback we receive, the more effective and efficient we can be in our interactions. The visual and vocal cues we send and read in others are determined by the technology we use. Below is a list ranking six methods of communication:

  1. Face-to-face meeting
  2. Videoconference
  3. Virtual meeting
  4. Phone call
  5. Voice mail
  6. E-mail

This sequence moves from methods involving the most personal interaction (featuring both immediate vocal and nonverbal expression), to those involving some interaction and vocal expression, to a method involving no interaction and no nonverbal expression at all.

In Communicating for Results (Thomson Learning, 2001), Cheryl Hamilton summarizes Professor Morten Hansen’s call for face-to-face communication when the situation and topic are more complex. A criterion here is whether various viewpoints need to be considered and discussed in order to reach an understanding. Hansen recommends e-mail for information that is easy to understand and is not so subject to interpretation.

E-mail

Of all the communication technologies available to lawyers and other knowledge workers, e-mail may be the most tempting. If you are in a hurry to get a lot of things done, e-mail often offers the path of least resistance. Unlike a phone call, you know that you will get through to your client without spending more time. You won’t face the prospect of talking to an assistant or having to leave a voice mail. You know that you can be very precise in what you say.

But resist the immediate urge to start composing an e-mail when you have something to say to a client. Think about the value and impact of a face-to-face meeting, a live phone call, or a voice mail message. “When people are stressed out, e-mail is the worst way to communicate,” says Paul Argenti, professor of management and corporate communication at Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College. With e-mail, “you’re more likely to say things you will feel sorry for later” (“Don’t Let Stress Strain Communication,” Harvard Management Communication Letter, January 2003).

Although e-mail is typically used for a great variety of messages, it is best used for concrete requests, specific questions, and factual responses. Bear in mind:

E-mails convey no vocal tone and no facial expression. For this reason, they are inappropriate for providing negative feedback or anything that might be interpreted as critical, contradictory, or emotional. Your tone of voice is crucial at these times. E-mail cannot convey your inflection.

E-mails can create an expectation of immediate or rapid response. After reading an e-mail, wait a moment before replying. When you write your response, set aside the message whenever possible and review it later. Editing can result in an immense improvement in your communication. Use a good grammar-checker and spelling-checker as errors in e-mails are often hard to catch.

E-mails are forever. Keep in mind that e-mails can be intercepted and can be retrieved from backup media years later. Think about the lifespan of your e-mail before you press “Send.”

Voice Mail

You do not get any feedback from the recipient while you are leaving a voice mail. Help people understand and respond to your messages by following these voice mail best practices. Perhaps some of them seem too obvious. Yet we leave messages so often that we can develop bad habits without being aware of them. Reconsider your habits as you read these voice mail guidelines.

  • Speak clearly and distinctly. Your recipient may pick up your message in an area with background noise or poor reception.
  • Give your name and phone number at the beginning and again at the end of the message. Even if the recipient “has your number,” it may not be easily accessible.
  • Avoid leaving long messages except in especially important or urgent circumstances. Much of what you say in a long message may not be particularly important to the recipient, who has no opportunity to let you know what he or she really needs to hear.
  • If you have a lot of information you want to convey or if you need to talk interactively, propose a time or times when the recipient can call you back. This will cut down on phone tag.

Outgoing greeting. Consider the following for your voice mail greeting:

  • Call your number from a different phone and listen closely to your greeting. Does it sound muffled or too quiet? Is there background noise? Do you sound artificial? Stand up and re-record your greeting with some enthusiasm.
  • Pay attention to the position of your mouth by the receiver or headset micro​phone. This can make a big difference in the clarity of your voice on the phone: too far away and your volume drops, too close and you will blow air into the microphone.
  • For your business voice mail, change the message every day, but only if you can do so without sounding like a robot. If you are unavailable part of the day, consider telling callers the best times to reach you.

Voice mail dos and don’ts. If you take nothing else away from this discussion of voice mail, bear in mind the following brief list:

Dos:

  • Outline what you need to say before you call.
  • Limit your message to 100 words—people are busy.
  • Provide a compelling reason for returning your call.
  • Put emotion in your voice to connect personally.
  • Ask for a return call today.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t use your speakerphone to leave a message. Switch to your handset or headset.
  • Never leave a negative message. Be patient and wait until you can talk face-to-face or live on the phone.
  • Don’t forget to slow down when you say your number.

Telephone Calls

It is easy to underestimate the power of a live telephone call. You can communicate so much more with your voice than you can with your keyboard. Emphasis, urgency, humor, compassion, all are weakened or obscured when you communicate via the keyboard. And a phone call—versus a voice message—is interactive, allowing each participant to take the communication in new directions. Before you reflexively respond to an e-mail, voice mail, or message with another e-mail, consider how much more efficient a phone call could be.

Mobile phone and landlines are mainstays of attorney-client communication. They are popular with all generations. Phone calls are so familiar you may make them without giving them any thought. Despite your lifelong experience with the telephone, you have room to improve your effectiveness.

Consider the following guidelines for your phone communication:

  • Take some time to think about the call. Before dialing, jot down the purpose of your call along with three points you want to cover.
  • Before calling, determine when you will be free to receive a return call so you can suggest some times should you need to leave a message.
  • Consider the call from the perspective of the person or people you are calling. Make a note of any expectations you believe they may have so you can address them.
  • Focus your attention on the call. Turn away from your screen unless it is essential to look at it. Clear the area on your desk immediately in front of you before picking up the phone.
  • Listen to the people you call. Tune in to them.
  • Stand up while talking to have more energy, be more relaxed, and improve your speaking voice.

Virtual Meetings

In phone calls with clients you now have the option to work more efficiently by sharing a computer screen spontaneously. Because everyone sees things together in real time, you all can cover more material faster. You cut down on the need for follow-up calls and the phone tag that goes with them.

In an online meeting, participants confer on the phone and watch one person’s computer screen. You may not realize how easy it is for you to share your screen with others and how much more productive you can be.

Today you can choose from a variety of services for online meetings. In evaluating your options, consider these questions:

How easy is it for your client to get connected? If the process is easy for you and your clients, you are much more likely to make a positive impression. You will be more at ease setting up and running meetings.

Whose screen do you want to share: your screen or your client’s or both? The service should allow you to switch between your screen and your client’s screen. This feature prevents the delays and distraction of e-mailing attachments during meetings. Instead, just switch screens and look at a document or image together.

How fast can you and your client share a screen? It should take less than one or two minutes to get connected.

What tools are available during online meetings? The ability to transfer or share control of the mouse and keyboard is important. A highlighting pen and drawing tools are handy extras. A text chat window can be surprisingly useful both for one-to-one and for multiple--participant virtual meetings.

How much does the service cost? Beyond the monthly charge for a service, consider the hidden costs. Your time is valuable. A bargain solution is no bargain if you pay the price in terms of client frustration. Be sure to factor in the peace of mind and cost savings of simplicity and dependability when comparing your options.

Our favorite service is GoToMeeting ( www.gotomeeting.com) from Citrix Online because it does the best job with all these critical issues.

Some solutions require advance installation of software on each computer. You are better off with software as a service (SaaS) like GoToMeeting. You and your meeting participants do not need to go through a lengthy installation process. You can start an instant meeting by giving other people on your call a website and an access code.

With SaaS, you also have the freedom to use the service when you are away from your office. You can start an online meeting with one or more people from any computer anywhere on the Internet.

Videoconferencing

High-quality videoconferencing truly is the next best thing to being there. It delivers interactivity and nonverbal expression. But for small firms and solos, the quality of affordable videoconferencing is limited.

For videoconferencing frequently with one particular client, affordable proprietary equipment is available that delivers acceptable image quality across a fast Internet connection. But to communicate with a variety of clients, this technology is not so practical because each client must have the same equipment.

Existing video chat services and web-cams currently fall well short of offering acceptable image clarity for business purposes. Another major drawback of webcam-based videoconferencing is the absence of eye contact. Your face is relatively close to the screen. If you look directly at the other persons’ eyes on your screen, they do not see you looking directly at them. They see you looking down or to the side. If you look directly at the webcam, they see your eyes but you don’t see theirs.

At a greater distance from a larger screen, each of you is better able to see the other’s eyes. Eyes communicate a great deal. Let’s hope for an affordable future development that puts the video camera directly behind or inside your screen so that we can have direct, albeit virtual, eye contact.

Video chat services such as Skype ( www.skype.com) can be wonderful for staying in touch with far-flung family and friends, but at this point the drawbacks for business use outweigh the advantages. In a business context, the video and audio quality, backdrop, lighting, focus, and background noise all take on greater significance.

As with any other activity, you become more comfortable and more effective at videoconferencing with experience. For that reason, look for opportunities to video-conference in your personal life.

The business world is beginning to use videoconferencing on a more regular basis. The cost of high-quality equipment keeps dropping. If you gain experience with videoconferencing now, you will be better prepared for the time when it becomes more affordable and commonplace in the business world.

Social Media

You have an important choice: How much time will you devote to the latest forms of communication: None? A little? Way too much?

Today’s wave of communication technology, social media, lets you reach prospective clients and people in your professional and personal areas of interest. You may build hundreds or even thousands of potentially valuable new relationships. What these relationships may lack in depth they can make up in numbers, variety, and relevance.

Social media and social networking services allow you to publish information about your work, personal life, and activities. You can discover similar information about others, communicate via messages, and share resources, links, and photos. You choose the people you want to relate to by “friending” them or “following” them, and you decide how much or how little you reveal to friends and the public.

Some hear the buzz about social networking tools such as Facebook ( www.facebook.com), LinkedIn ( www.linkedin.com), and Twitter ( www.twitter.com) and dismiss them as part of a fad without real business value—much noise and idle chatter. True, technology fads come and go, but innovations that attract tens of millions, let alone hundreds of millions of followers, have staying power.

Jeff Hancock, associate professor of communication at Cornell University, studies the effect of technology on social interactions. The results of his research confirm the benefits of establishing relationships in cyberspace:

In one study, some participants had access to an unknown partner’s Facebook profile and some did not. Both groups were asked to get their partners to like them in a short instant-messaged conversation. Those with Facebook access used that information—such as the partner’s interests or favorite music—to ask questions to which they already knew the answers. Or they mentioned the information to make themselves similar to the partner. (Quoted by Susan Kelley in “Want to Win Friends and Influence People? Use Facebook and IM, Studies Suggest,” Cornell Chronicle Online, November 19, 2008.)

Participants were more successful when they had access to the Facebook profiles of the people with whom they exchanged instant messages. More than 97 percent of the people they chatted with did not detect that “their new friend seemed to know an awful lot about them.”

In another study co-authored by Hancock, he examined e-mail, text messaging, and other text-only communication. According to Ben Eisen, writing in the Cornell Daily Sun, Hancock found that “people who send instant messages not only unconsciously reveal their mood in their messages, but they also pass that mood on to their texting partner” (“Study: People Use Face-to-Face Cues Online,” Cornell Daily Sun, December 1, 2008). The studies Hancock conducted “demonstrate that basic human psychological processes operate even in relatively new communication environments involving text messages and social networking Web sites.”

Of the many social networking tools, Face-book, Twitter, and LinkedIn are the ones to look at first. Facebook has developed incredible momentum with more than 175 million users in the first quarter of 2009, and that number is growing at a geometric rate. Joining Facebook allows you to post information about yourself so that others can get to know you and you can get to know them, at least to a limited extent. You can post photos, links of interest, news, and a great deal more. Facebook serves as a platform for applications that add features ranging from sending voice messages to sharing PowerPoint presentations.

LinkedIn has a reputation as the place for business people to network. Career advancement and helping each other find new job openings are strong reasons for adding people as Connections in your LinkedIn account. It is also a great place to offer and receive answers to narrow questions within your specialties, reaching many other knowledgeable people quickly.

Twitter generates streams of short messages, each up to 140 characters. You begin to receive messages from other members after you “follow” them. To gain your own followers, you need to get the word out by posting messages and by giving out your Twitter name. As others see your name, they can choose to add you as someone to follow. Why would you want people to follow you? You want them to know you, at least casually. The exchange of information is mutually beneficial and builds useful relationships.

What are the drawbacks to social media? The subjects of privacy, security, ownership of intellectual property, and return on investment of time deserve a separate article. In short, you need to be careful about what and how much you publish and say in your pages and communications.

The biggest question you need to answer about social media is the one that opened this section: How much time will you devote to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others? You face a real risk of wasting your time. The new media are compelling but distracting. One approach is to develop your own written plan specifying what you want to accomplish and how you plan to do it. A good place to start is Susi Schuele’s article “Social Networking for Lawyers” ( in this issue of GPSolo ), which takes an in-depth look at how you can build relationships through social networking. Schuele, who has a strong background in legal technology and currently advises lawyers on using social media, makes the business case for social networking and provides practical guidance on what to do and what not to do.

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging (IM), once the province of teenagers and geeks, has moved into the business world. A personal and immediate medium, IM lets you get and give quick answers or comments in real time.

You can send and receive instant messages on your PC using a small program running all the time that alerts you to incoming messages. The most popular device for IM is the mobile phone. Because most phones have limited keypads, users often need to press the same key multiple times to enter a particular letter. Acronyms, abbreviations, and “smilies” make up a diverse language that allows IM users to minimize the number of keystrokes and fit messages into small screens.

Instant messaging usage has grown well beyond the exchange of short, personal updates via mobile phone. Writing in the June 2008 issue of GPSolo ( www.abanet.org/genpractice/magazine/2008/jun/onlinecollaboration.html), Seth G. Rowland of Basha Systems LLC called IM “an essential tool for the connected lawyer.” He observed that wherever you have Internet access, “you can set up ad hoc conferences in private invitation-only chat rooms.” He noted: “A tool originally designed to let teens send pictures to each other can be used to send legal documents to the private chat room participants to further the discussions.”

A downside of IM is its potential to be a time-consuming distraction. Conversations, whether in person or chatting via IM, can take you away from your work.

Other concerns about IM involve security and privacy. Alexey Dolya of Kaspersky Lab, an antivirus software company, reported that in a study of business IM users: “The overwhelming majority (92.4 percent) of respondents acknowledged the dangers associated with information technologies, but one in two (48.6 percent) did nothing of a practical nature to prevent undesirable events from occurring” (“Instant Messenger: Making Business Friendlier but Less Secure,” Viruslist.com, August 20, 2007, www.viruslist.com/en/hackers/analysis?pubid=204791959).

Before you activate IM software on your computer, make sure you do what you need to do to protect and manage your IM network and information. After using a technology for personal purposes, it is easy to start using it for business without paying much attention to security. You have more at risk on your computer than you do on your mobile phone.

Perhaps the biggest threat to IM users are infected files that can be sent along with messages. Make sure your antivirus defenses cover IM. We recommend Norton Internet Security 2009 ( www.norton.com). After losing its once top-notch reputation owing to bloat and compatibility problems, Norton has regained the respect of reviewers with its 2009 line of security products, which efficiently protect against IM threats, among many others.

Conclusion

The communication options you choose will depend on what you want to accomplish and what you and your clients find comfortable. In our opening examples, you could leave your question in a voice mail if it is short, specific, and factual. Otherwise you could suggest some good times for a return call. For drafting an agreement with several parties, setting up a teleconference supplemented with GoToMeeting for jointly viewing, discussing, and modifying contract wording could save everyone a good deal of time.

In planning your marketing efforts, stay up-to-date on how you can use social media to become more widely known in your fields of interest. Consider the value of using social networking and instant messaging to share resources inside and outside your usual circles.

Be aware that each generation has communication technology preferences. Instant messaging is often preferred by Generation X (under 50) and Generation Y (under 30), whereas Baby Boomers prefer e-mail and mobile phone calls. You may find yourself out of touch with clients, co-workers, and associates who gravitate toward media you do not use. Chris Penttila’s article “Talking about My Generation” in the March 2009 issue of Entrepreneur magazine charts generational preferences about communication technologies (www.entrepreneur.com/magazine/entrepreneur/2009/march/200104.html).

Communication is about relationships. Each of these technologies can serve to promote and extend your important business and personal pursuits. They also have the potential to foster miscommunication and to function as ineffective distractions.

Refer back to the suggestions in this article periodically to reassess your communication habits.

Let the nature of your messages and relationships, the importance of nonverbal cues, and your emotional intelligence inform your choice of the right medium for each situation.

Wells H. Anderson, J.D., a veteran legal technology consultant, runs Active Practice LLC and offers a new secure service designed for attorneys, Active Online Backup ( www.activeonlinebackup.com). A Time Matters software expert, he works re-motely with lawyers and staff across North America. He may be reached at .

Copyright 2009

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