It’s a classic he-said, she-said case that ends up in court on a daily basis…

Widget buyer Ms. Robinson testified that Mr. Smith, the Widgets Corp. sales manager, told her that if she put her order in immediately, the price would be discounted by 20 percent. Mr. Smith argued that that was not what he said. According to his testimony, he agreed to give a 20 percent discount only if Ms. Robinson ordered at least one million widgets, which she did not. The widgets were manufactured and delivered, and the client was billed for the full amount. The client is refusing to pay the full amount and the manufacturing company is throwing it to a collection agency. If brought into a court of law, who would be right?

Provided that neither party can produce a signed contract to back up their case, there is no way of knowing who is right.

However, let’s suppose Ms. Robinson produces an e-mail she sent to her boss copying Mr. Smith that says, “I made a deal with Mr. Smith, the sales manager at Widgets Corp., to get a 0 percent discount for 500,000 widgets ordered.” Let’s also suppose Mr. Smith cannot produce any e-mails, contracts, or memos to the contrary. Now the chances of Ms. Robinson winning her case go up exponentially. When faced with two credible witnesses whose recollection of an event or agreement are in dispute, the court is most likely to favor the person who has corroborating documentation to support their side of the story.

E-mail has Become the Primary Means of Communication and Negotiation

In the not too distant past, business people would communicate primarily through face-to-face meetings, telephone conversations, faxes, and the occasional paper document. When a “my word against your word” dispute arose, a court case could be awarded to the person who seemed more confident or credible.

Nowadays, e-mail has become the default mode of communication. It’s very common for a buyer to communicate to a seller entirely by e-mail. Transactions are done without the two ever meeting and in some cases, never speaking. As a result, the “my word against your word” conundrum becomes more of a contest between emails, as opposed to a competition between the memories of the people involved.

The upside of this situation is that if you can produce an e-mail that supports your version of the facts, you have a leg up if it goes to court. The downside is that most people are careless about what they say in an e-mail. They don’t think about it ending up as an exhibit in a courtroom under close scrutiny leaving them with the only explanation, “I know that’s what I said, but that’s not what I meant.”