Posts Tagged ‘Email’

Email Penalty #4 - False Start

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

Kiara Orange BeltLast Saturday, my daughter earned her orange belt in Karate. So we decided to treat her to some ice cream at Baskin Robbins.

You would think that an ice cream shop just down the street from the YMCA on a Saturday afternoon in August would be packed with happy chocolate coated faces.  Yet, we were the only customers.  Strange….

As we ate our ice cream and I walked around I started to realize that something was odd.  See if you can guess from these pictures I took with my cell phone…

No Restrooms

No Tipping




I’m sure the owner had a good reason for each of these signs. But taken together, the impression I got was that she didn’t trust her employees and she didn’t trust her customers. In short, she didn’t consider how her customers’ might interpret or misinterpret the message that these signs were supposed to convey.

Emails can be the same.

When you write an email, you know exactly what you mean to say. But emails are just words and words are open to misinterpretation. If you write something in haste or just the wrong way, you can give a false impression, even if you don’t mean to. As a simple example, here is an email that I received recently from a former co-worker to whom I had not spoken in over 10 years:

My son’s high school robotics team has a competition at Northridge this week, so we’re going to be in town.  Here is our rough itinerary (below).  Would love to meet you and Joyce and any others at some point on the itinerary.   Please make suggestions for an activity (spice it up a bit — think like a high school kid).

I’m sure that Dave just wanted to catch up on old times.  But I felt like I was being commissioned to plan an activity that was going to keep his high school age son, whom I had never met, from being bored. Not exactly what I had expected.

To be fair, I’ve done this too. What makes email so powerful, is that it is quick, easy, and immediate. And that is also the danger when it comes to misinterpretation.  Back in the “old days”, when we had to hand write and mail letters, we had plenty of time to choose our words carefully and read and rewrite what we had written. With email, you can just hit “send” and off it goes.

So, how can you and I keep from making this mistake?

A good rule of thumb, before sending an email, is to read it and ask “how might this email be misinterpreted”? Read it like you’re reading it for the first time. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipients. Try to anticipate what they might misinterpret and fix it. Especially if the email is important or sensitive. Especially if you are delivering bad news.

Better yet, if there is any doubt, pick up the phone or get off your butt and walk over to have a face-to-face conversation. And if it’s a real sensitive topic, discuss it over an ice cream.

harry the ASIC guy

Email Penalty #3 - Illegal Motion

Monday, July 28th, 2008

About 5 years ago at Synopsys, I set up an internal email alias so that everybody working with one of our top customers, Qualcomm, could communicate important information to the entire team. All get on the same page. Make sure the left hand knew what the right hand was doing. Make sure we were communicating the same data and recommendations. Account managers … applications engineers … consultants … R&D … all working as one well oiled machine. I must say, it was a great idea … on paper.

One morning, after driving down to the San Diego office, I hopped onto a 10 AM conference call and logged into my email. As I watched my Inbox load, I noticed that there were about half a dozen messages sent that morning back and forth between two individuals who reported to me on the Qualcomm team. All regarding the same subject. Each one sent less than 5 minutes after the previous email.

As I settled into the conference call, I took a look at the latest email in the thread to get a sense of what was going on. Apparently, there was a disagreement between two members of our team as to the correct approach to addressing some methodology issue.  That’s fine.  People disagree.  But this was different.

Have you ever been at a party and a couple starts arguing in front of everyone?  At first you ignore it and make believe you’re not aware.  But then the tone gets angrier and the language gets personal and the voices get louder. Until you can’t ignore it and everybody stops what they are doing to watch in embarrassment what is happening in public that should have been private.

That’s exactly what was happening on this email thread.  As emails 7, 8, and 9 came in, the tone got angrier and the language got personal and the voices got LOUDER. And thanks to the email alias I had set up, there were now about 25 other people watching this “couples spat”.

I had to stop this, but I was stuck on this damn conference call !!!

Forget about the actual issue. This was now a matter of saving these two individuals from the ridicule of others on that email alias that were witnessing this boxing match. I sent urgent emails to the two individuals asking them to stop the emails and that I’d speak to them at 11 AM.

Email #10. #11. #12.

Mercifully, the call ended a little early and I was able to reach the consultants on their cell phones. One of the individuals was a contrarian, so from my previous post on the subject you know that:

1. If everyone else wants to take road A, he wants to take road B.
2. If everyone else wants to take road B, he wants to take road C.
3. If you’ve got a plan, he’ll tell you why it won’t work.
4. Once he takes a stand on an issue, he’ll never give up.
5. He doesn’t really care what others think about him.
6. Every battle is worth fighting … to the death.

Bottom line, he thought there was nothing wrong with “having it out” over email with everyone else copied.  In fact, this was good documentation since everybody on the team could now see the rationale of how this decision was arrived at. He was just trying to get to the right answer and can’t be bothered about having to worry about other people’s feelings.

The other individual just couldn’t resist replying to the emails since they came so fast. And he totally forgot that everyone else was being copied. He was pretty embarrassed.

In the end, the damage to these individual’s reputations was not that bad. As it turns out, the one individual already had a reputation as a hothead and contrarian and the other was more the victim than the aggressor. Still, I overheard comments in the office that day about this “tiff” and, in the end, the issue was not really addressed.

The morale of this story is that there are two rules:

1) If it takes more than 3 or 4 emails back and forth, then pick up the phone or walk over to the other person’s office. Email is a very inefficient and slow way to have a discussion or solve a problem compared to good old fashioned talking about it. Still, sometimes, and this was apparently one of those times, people just find the allure of the quick email response too appealing to resist.

2) If you break rule #1, don’t be stupid enough to copy everybody else.

harry the ASIC guy

Email Penalty #2 - Delay of Game

Monday, July 21st, 2008

The prime directive drummed into me as a freshman AE (Applications Engineer) was to ALWAYS get back to the customer in a timely fashion.

Even if I did not have the answer…

Even if I was already working on the problem…

Even if I was not the person who could help him…

It’s practically no effort to return an email or a voice mail and just let your customer know what’s going on, so he’s not sitting in the dark.  A matter of fact, I’ll write the email for you and you can just fill in the blanks:

Hi <customer name here>,

I got your email regarding <problem, issue, question>. I’m going to <look at it tomorrow, send this on to R&D, ask my boss to handle it, etc>. I expect to have an update for you <in an hour, tomorrow, next week, etc.>. If you need an update sooner, please feel free to contact me directly.


<your name here>

Simple, right?

I’m sure I’ll get little argument that this is the right way to treat real customers.  But, what about our internal customers?

In my job, I’m amazed at how long some people will “Delay the Game” without responding to an email, without a simple 1-minute acknowledgment that they would get back to me. Instead, I’m often left wondering what is going on, sometimes sending follow-up emails, voice mails, dropping by the office…all just to find out what is going on.

Look. I know you’re busy and you have more important people and issues to deal with than my little request. But, just realize that everybody that sends you an email asking for something (a question, a file, a meeting notice) is your customer. If you keep them in the dark by not responding, and you do this enough, you’ve lost your customer.

harry the ASIC guy

Email Penalty #1 - Too Many Men on the Field

Monday, July 14th, 2008

As I stated in my previous post, I’m starting a series of posts on “Email Penalties”…football style.  For the first penalty, to get into the swing of this, I thought we’d warm-up with one that happens every day and we all can relate to…

Too Many Men on the Field (5 yards)

More directly, too many people on the cc: list.

Several months ago, I came in to work to an email from Payroll that had been sent to a long list of distribution lists, informing us of new timekeeping processes.  Only one problem … I did not use the timekeeping system in question, but another one altogether. So, I did what any sane person would do … I ignored it.

I guess I was not the only person who had received this email in error. But apparently I was one of the few sane ones.

Throughout the morning, I received 3 or 4 emails from others like me, protesting that this did not apply to them and asking to be taken off of whatever email list had incorrectly tagged them. Fair enough, but only one problem.  Instead of replying directly to the sender only, they had hit “Reply All”, so I and everyone else on all these distribution lists now knew that Joe Smith (name made up) did not use this timekeeping system. What a waste!

The emails stopped around noon and so I figured this was over. I was wrong. This was only the tip of the iceberg and there was much more to come.

You see, a totally unrelated event had occurred that day.  There was a Blackberry outage so all the Blackberry users without email access had not seen this email. About 5pm the outage was resolved.  And thousands of Blackberry users checked their email and discovered this erroneous email sitting in their in boxes. And so, with fingers furiously striking tiny keys, they started to “Reply All”.  Peter had wandered into my office to discuss a technical issue, but every few seconds another email would interject from someone else that they “did not use this timecard system and please take me off the distribution list”.

This had become an event.

It was obvious after 15 minutes and dozens of emails that “Reply All” was not a good idea. There were numerous individuals sane and brave enough to admonish others not to “Reply All’ … in an email that they sent by hitting “Reply All”!!! Duh.

One person sent a “Reply All” that said “The Yankees are going all the way this year.”

Another said “Greetings from Virginia” to which came the reply “Greetings from Florida”.

“I’m not like all those others.  ADD ME TO YOUR LIST!!!!”

“I haven’t seen a reply from President Bush yet–or did I miss that one?  Go Sabres/Bill”


One person referenced the poster on Idiocy, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

I packed up to go home, a 20 minute drive, and found 200 more emails waiting for me. Eventually, the torrent subsided.

The next day, the entire company received an email from the CIO informing us that the previous day’s email “generated 15 million unnecessary emails” throughout the company.

harry the ASIC guy

Email Penalties

Friday, July 11th, 2008

There’s no debate that email has become at once a valuable tool and a misused and overused communications medium. Seth Godin recently posted an extensive email checklist of do’s and don’ts for marketing email. I’d like to do something similar for corporate and business email, the kind of day to day email we use at work.

I’m also big football fan.

(The American kind … my apologies to the international folks).

I won’t tell you which college and pro teams I root for, but their initials are USC and NYG ;-)

So, with the football season coming up, I thought I’d address the corporate email issue by suggesting some new penalties that need to be added to the game of “email”.

Starting Monday, I’ll be posting one each week, up until the football season begins. And I welcome your contributions as well, especially good stories and anecdotes that help to illustrate the new penalties.  Feel free to email them to me (harry at theASICguy dot com) or post them as comments.  And let me know if it’s OK to use your first name, full name, or no name.

harry the ASIC guy