In an industry with a knack for forging relationships face-to-face, it seems unlikely that sales reps would turn to e-mail as a prospecting tool. Yet some LBM experts sees an uptick in the platform’s use.

Rick Wedding, an inside sales rep at McCabe Lumber in Cincinnati who runs the “Building Supply Guy” blog, spots a trend away from the phone-first tactic as sales reps adapt to the schedules of clients who now can respond “when they get a spare moment.” Keith Reimer, owner at Forest Lumber Co. near Chicago, agrees, adding that e-mail prospecting among his six outside sales reps picked up about a year and a half ago thanks to the widespread growth of mobile technology.

In 2003, ProSales contributor and president of New South Construction Supply in Columbia, S.C., Jim Sobeck supplied his sales team with BlackBerrys; he says his top sales rep’s e-mail-first approach now runs a 75% to 80% rate of return.

Yet quickly dashing off a couple of poorly spelled lines requesting a meeting is less likely to generate that kind of response. Sobeck recommends keeping the body of the e-mail brief but to include a few key items: your product line card, informative links to specific products, mentions of and available links to similar projects you’ve supplied product for, and a request to discuss next-steps. And lest the subject line be forgotten, Inc. Magazineadvises on how it can be used to grab attention before the e-mail is even opened: stick to 4 or 5 informative words that don’t cross any lines.

ProSales columnist Rick Davis also runs through the finer points of maximizing e-mail's potential as a sales tool.

To be sure, not everyone is fully on board. Elton Mayfield, a building products consultant in Kansas City, Mo., acknowledges that e-mail may be easier but says the phone-first approach is better for lasting impressions. “Some aren’t going to sign the deal until they shake your hand, see you face-to-face,” he says.

Is e-mail a cop-out? Wedding doesn’t think so. “People will look at it as long as it’s well-qualified. I think they respond better to it,” he says. “It’s on their terms at that point.”

Sobeck adds that the approach may be especially advantageous with out-of-town clients. “You are actually doing a huge service,” he says. “You are getting to him with information he really needs and doesn’t really know where to look for it.”

The key to weighing e-mail’s effectiveness is to know your target. “What’s the communication channel that your audience works in?” Mayfield asks. “You almost have to be in every channel.”