Question: “What are the pros/cons of calling people up to network with them, as opposed to e-mailing them or going through a social networking website like LinkedIn?”

Based on the handful of times I’ve ordered soup at a fancy restaurant, I’m pretty confident that the phrase “topic du jour” translates as “topic of the day” — but if a French speaker out there can tell me what the correct phrase would be for “topic of the month” I’d appreciate it, since the question above definitely counts as such — and seems to be on a lot of peoples’ minds this past 30 days!

For whatever reason, I’ve discovered that a lot of people seem to have very strong, entrenched opinions about what the most professional and preferred mode of communication is for reaching out to people these days.   Before I lead the witness, however, why don’t you quickly ping your brain and solicit your own opinion on the matter?  In situations where you’ve been given an influential contact name, and want to do everything you can to start some dialogue with the individual in question, what communication method do you use?  Do you a) fire them off an e-mail? b) pick up the phone and call them?  c) track them down as a “shared connection” on a social networking website like LinkedIn? or d) ambush them in person, either at their office or at their home address?

Obviously, there’s no right answer that works universally, in all situations, but if you picked option (d) above I suspect there’s a good chance you’d start accumulating a few restraining orders.  The first line of defense is therefore to rely on your instincts and common sense.  In most cases, there may be clues that suggest the most appropriate path to take.   For those times when you’re still on the fence, however, here are a few questions that might steer you toward the most appropriate communications method:

1) What’s YOUR most effective communications style?  If you’re the kind of extroverted high-energy person who does great on the phone or in face-to-face situations, you obviously should lean toward these approaches in your networking and communication efforts whenever possible.  If instead you feel you express yourself better in writing, when given time to analyze a situation and carefully compose your thoughts, you might be better off sticking to the e-mail route.  Not sure which of these categorizations fits you best?  Ask yourself whether you’re like me and secretly hope that a voicemail kicks in when you call people, at times, as opposed to reaching them live.  If so, this probably suggests you’re a more cautious person who should lean on the more deliberative e-mail route whenever possible… :)

2) What’s your CONTACT PERSON’S preferred communications style?  If the person you’re trying to reach always calls you back when you send him/her an e-mail, or always e-mails you back whenever you leave him/her a voice mail, you’ve obviously got a strong clue about which communication medium they naturally prefer!  And while it can be dangerous to overgeneralize, you’ll also probably find that people working for high-tech companies are more accustomed to the electronic communications route in today’s world, as opposed to picking up the phone.  Additionally, if you’re reaching out to a person for the first time through a mutual acquaintance, don’t hesitate to ask the referring party for advice about what communications route might work best with the individual in question.  It certainly can’t hurt!

3) Is the reason for making the contact TIME-SENSITIVE in any way?  If you’re running a deadline and need to get some information relatively quickly, such as feedback on a job offer or advice prior to an upcoming interview, your best best is to go the phone route — since people generally check their voicemail several times a day, which isn’t always the case with e-mail.  One rule of thumb I’ve heard, in fact, is that the current “social norm” is that you’re expected to call a person back within 24 hours, but have a 48-hour grace period when it comes to responding to e-mail.  Not sure where these rules of thumb come from, exactly, but they seem reasonably on target to me.  So keep these parameters in mind if time is of the essence, and if the need is urgent, make sure to let your contact person know and to give them the critical timeline in which you’re hoping for a response.

4) How SIMPLE/COMPLEX is your message?  In general, if your motive for contacting somebody can be expressed in less than 30 seconds, the phone might be the preferred route, since you won’t be interrupting their day too much with your call and can leave an appropriate message on their voice mail, if necessary.  So if you’re just trying to coordinate a time for coffee or get a quick question answered, don’t hesitate to dial for dollars.  If instead your message will take a bit longer to express, and requires several minutes or more to put in context, e-mail might be a smarter choice, since the recipient can prioritize and respond to your needs on their own appropriate and most convenient time frame.

5) How WARM/COLD is the situation?  Now this one gets a little sticky, since I’ve gotten into some spirited arguments over whether a phone call is, in each and every case, a “warmer” approach than an electronic contact or submission.  I’ll be clear: my belief is that it is not.  First, I know a lot of people who don’t appreciate being ambushed unexpectedly on the phone by strangers, even if that person drops somebody else’s name as the referral source.  In these cases, an e-mail will usually come across as more reserved, polite, and professional given that the recipient isn’t forced to react immediately to the caller’s agenda.  Additionally, when using sites like LinkedIn to reach out to people, an electronic request allows the recipient to review the contact person’s background/profile for credibility — and also allows the referring party to send along a few notes of endorsement to grease the skids and make the two parties more relevant to one another.  This approach may be more time-consuming than the phone route, but in many situations, it feels a lot “warmer” to me than a phone call given the added context involved.

Ultimately, my attempts to clarify this issue may make the chicken/egg debate seem elementary, in comparison, but I thought I’d at least give it a shot — and I DO think the question is a very valid one in terms of the job search arena.  Within the course of a typical job hunt, there will be dozens (if not hundreds) of times when you need to introduce yourself to a new contact, so when common sense fails you in terms of which approach to take, perhaps the guidelines above will give you some inspiration!

French speakers, please chime in — did I nail this “question du mois” effectively? :)