On the one hand, e-mail is the No.1 Internet application. On the other, e-mail can cause more problems than it solves.

Time sink. E-mail can waste an untold amount of a recipient's time. Lead carpenters of a client of ours were each spending up to two hours every day dealing with e-mail. Three-quarters of it was an unnecessary distraction —salespeople asking questions they could have researched.

The black hole. Nationally, over 40% of sales-inquiry related e-mail is reportedly going unanswered. That can't be good for business.

Written records. Courts usually don't consider e-mail legally binding (because it can be easily altered), but you can bet your customers will.

If you're going to use e-mail in your organization, you need a policy. Here are some hot points that should be put in writing and signed off by every employee.

You own it. E-mail coming to company e-mail addresses and stored on company servers is your property; you can do with it as you see fit. The courts are wishy-washy on this if you don't have a written policy.

Work e-mail is for work. Do not allow your employees to use their company e-mail addresses for personal correspondence.

Use sparingly. E-mail is not a substitute for picking up the phone or doing legwork.

Customers are trickier. Don't discourage e-mail correspondence from clients, but pre-screen what your field operation needs to see. Give clients a generic e-mail address and route messages as you would paper mail. It takes a little administrative overhead, but it will ensure that prospects and clients are being responded to quickly by the right person. —Joe Stoddard is a process/technology consultant to the building industry. www.mountainconsulting.com.