Convenience, timeliness and ease of use have made e-mail the principal form of business communication for many professionals. However, for all its convenience, e-mail can hurt your business if it isn’t used correctly. Sloppy writing, misunderstood subtleties, poorly labeled messages and other missteps can waste time, delay decisions or even fray relationships with valued customers.
Don’t think this affects you? Consider this.
Research commissioned by palmOne last year in Europe found that 81 percent of respondents had negative feelings toward those who sent e-mails with spelling and grammatical mistakes. Over 40 percent of senior managers said that badly worded e-mails implied laziness and even disrespect. One in 10 respondents admitted to having had confrontations with colleagues because of e-mail misunderstandings.
There’s no need to risk confusing, alienating or offending customers, partners or peers. Follow these basic e-mail guidelines and you’ll improve the effectiveness of your communications.
Get to the Point Quickly
E-mail messages are often more difficult to read than other printed matter, especially if they’re viewed on a portable device with a small screen or are accessed on the fly. Long e-mails can quickly discourage recipients. Paragraphs should be short, and separated by blank lines. Numbering or bulleting separate points makes them easy to comprehend.
Face-to-face or phone conversations can be augmented by factors such as pace, inflection and tone, but e-mail is based solely on written words. It can be very difficult to determine the sender’s demeanor from the text of an e-mail, and subtleties can easily be missed. Make your points clearly and directly, and be sure your meaning can’t be misunderstood. Remember this when reading e-mail as well — a tone that appears to be aggressive or derogatory may simply be the result of someone’s haste in dashing off a reply. Re-read messages to see if you may be misinterpreting the words.
Stay on Topic
Don’t force recipients to scroll through a long, multi-topic e-mail to find information that is relevant to them — they won’t, as a general rule, so important information can be overlooked. Cover one topic per e-mail, and send separate messages to cover each unrelated issue — even if the questions or comments are for the same person.
Utilize the Subject Line
E-mail readers particularly dislike subject lines that make it difficult to determine what the e-mail is about. Make your subject lines meaningful. For example, if you’re sending someone product details, write a subject field that has the actual name of the product instead of just “specs.” Similarly, the focus of a message thread may change over several e-mail responses. When that occurs, change the message field to reflect the shift — i.e., “Your 5/10 Order (was Network Information)” instead of “Re: Network Information.”
Keep Threads Relevant
Message threading — where the text of a previous e-mail is included in a reply — ensures that your response can be read in context. But use this feature judiciously. Multiple threads can make the e-mail overly long and confuse the reader, especially when the original topic has shifted. Read over old threads and manually remove any you feel are no longer appropriate.
Copy With Care
Use the “cc” field only when recipients need to know about a topic. Do not include a list of people in a thread that has become a two-way conversation. In general, use the “to” field to identify the e-mail’s primary recipient(s). Use “cc” for those people who are not active participants and do not need to reply.
Err on the Side of Formality
Stay away from online slang in business communications. Abbreviations such as LOL (laugh out loud) or BTW (by the way) are best avoided, as are smiley faces 🙂 and other emoticons.
Tag the Truly Urgent
Flag e-mails as “high priority” only when you really need to alert the recipient that it requires immediate attention. Show similar caution with the words “urgent” or “important” when used in the subject field. And don’t assume an urgent e-mail will be read right away. Follow up with a phone call to draw the recipient’s attention to it.
Make No Mistakes
Proofread every e-mail you create before you send it out to be sure it conveys your message properly. Look at it through the eyes of the recipient to avoid possible misunderstandings or inappropriate comments. Double-check spelling, grammar and punctuation. If you’re in a rush, slow yourself down — better for a customer to wait an extra minute than to misinterpret your message.