E-mail is obviously fast; it can be an efficient use of time, and it's become ubiquitous. Susan Cosentini of Cosentini Construction, Ithaca, N.Y., reports using e-mail with 100% of her clients and considers not working with people if they are not online. “E-mail eliminates the emotion and adds massive amounts of clarity,” she writes via e-mail. “It can be done any time of the day or night, and with my life of mom/business owner, that is crucial.” She appreciates the “paper” trail left by e-mail and the clients' ability to re-read communications as well as her ability to link them to sites to elaborate her message.

But what about miscommunication? Nuance?

“From the design professional's perspective,” says Ben White, an architect and vice president of Benvenuti & Stein, Evanston, Ill., who also uses e-mail with clients, “you can communicate fairly effectively the number of bedrooms, but when it comes to talking of drawings, the proportion of spaces, it's hard to accomplish electronically. As soon as the experience leaves the world of the mundane, electronic communication is a shortcut fraught with the potential for distortion.”

Conflicts and issues that might need negotiating can also be hot spots. Says White, “The suspended animation of e-mail allows for a considerable amount of speculation regarding the motives and messages that get sent.”

Virginia Shea, author of the book Netiquette, offers some advice for using e-mail with clients:

  • Remember that you're dealing with a human; don't write anything you wouldn't say to your reader's face.
  • Stay away from sarcasm or humor; they are too tricky in writing.
  • Be sure your clients check e-mail frequently. If they haven't in the past, they probably won't change their habits.
  • Says Shea, “Develop a face-to-face relationship and have a good sense of the person” before beginning an email relationship.