I’ve been having a look at business communications in the UK this month – with some surprising discoveries for our brilliant 21st Century connected world.
Twenty-five years ago, as an office junior, I would marvel at the wonders of a fax-machine. The speed that a written message could be pushed down a telephone line and be printed out at the other end in curls of warm paper was wonderment. Colleagues would actually rush to the machine when it rang, to see what would come out and from whom. Today fax-machines are rarely used, and when they are, their pace appears exhaustingly slow and eyes roll to the sky as a whole bundle of papers gets dragged into the jaws of the machine, meaning the exercise needs repeating. It feels inefficient.
For many of us email was the real revolution. As an office junior I would push my trolley around six floors of office carefully collecting mail, to be fed through the franking machine, wrapped in rubber bands, into a red sack and then lugged each evening day to the local post office. Email changed all that. Once people had got to grip with the idea that people other than secretaries could have a typing machine on their desks without a diminishment of status, email blew the fax-machine out of the water.
Radicati report that 294 billion emails are sent globally each day. The majority of this (90%) is spam, but it all adds to traffic and leaves us with 30 billion non-spam emails. For those interested in know more, the BBC provide a smart little tool for knowing how many emails, blogs, Google searches are done each day - it also provides lots of other fascinating insight into global internet usage.
The growth of the email has led to quandaries in record-keeping for many organisations. Some British officials have been in trouble recently for deliberately using private email addresses  to avoid having the submit exchanges to public records. Mechanisms for archiving emails, running systems that are auditable, and ensuring consistency in corporate message are all challenges facing organisations. But there is a bigger problem that is emerging – evident when I was working in government service, and with those I spoke to working in local authority, academia, and now also crippling British business – and that is the problem of volume.
Faced with hundreds of new emails arriving every day, I have been guilty myself of leaving an out-of-office message that requests senders to resend with URGENT in the subject line or face deletion. I have witnessed colleagues blindly hitting the delete key at a rate of five per second in a bid to manage their messages. In some working environments there is a habit of cc’ing for fear of leaving important people out of the loop – but the very habit means important emails meet the trash unread. Many people I have spoken to claim and even suffer work-place stress as a result of email overload, yet some claim they are too worried about taking time off work, because their inbox will be unmanageable on their return. The problem is so bad, that consultancies (like @emaildoctor on Twitter ) have sprung up in Britain to help us manage and prioritise our masses of emails. I couldn’t help wondering therefore, whether this miracle in communications was the best way of getting in touch with British companies.
Those I have spoken to say not – especially if you are cold-calling. One businessman said it was “absolutely the worst way to get my attention”. It may be likely that you never get a reply to an email, a quick initial phone call works better. But by far the best way to start business with a British company is to meet them in person – especially if your English language isn’t perfect – phone calls can create misunderstandings and a slip of the finger or incorrect verb tense can make your email even less attractive.
Not everyone wanting to communicate with businesses in the UK have the luxury of meeting in person. Half the population of Britain is now on Facebook , but many of its users are teenagers, so LinkedIn  might be the place to do business. There are four million Brits connected on this mainly business social site. I find that I am more likely to respond to a message on my LinkedIn account that I am my email – largely because there are less of them. But is it only a matter of time before this gets clogged too?
I guess my research hasn’t told me much that, as a communications professional, I didn’t already know: The most effective form of communication is face-to-face. It’s perhaps something I could have worked out all those years ago as an office junior. In some ways I have been reassured that I am not alone with my inbox problem – but I hope it will provide some useful insight for those who hope to do business with Britain – that although our internet penetration is huge in the UK, our use of the delete key is prolific!
Picture: Flickr user m-c