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Doctor Polite’s Email Etiquette

Many, many moons ago, I worked with a database programmer who felt there was no need to lubricate human relations, like so many other tech people I’ve worked with. We had one client who felt there was no need for subject lines in email missives, so this database dude fired off a mince-no-words email TO OUR ENTIRE CLIENT LIST on the need to include subject lines in emails, only he said it with a little less diplomacy than that. The damage control I had to do was legend, I tell you, legend. But, despite the nuclear disaster he nearly created, he was right. Sending emails with no subject line whatsoever is, well, bad email etiquette.

Email etiquette, like customer service, is really very simple. You’re in business, so every communication you make is part of doing business. Everything you do right or wrong in email communicates to vendors, employees, and customers what you think of them. In other places, I’ve said that customer service is always marketing. Customer service is always the most powerful and memorable way to communicate your company’s positioning. Well, email is, too. And, like customer service, getting email etiquette correct is free and simple. So why do so many get it so wrong?

Email demands more than just your usual dose of polite how-dee-do. Stuff like subject lines and attachments add whole new dimensions to human interaction. More after the break.

Re: Those damnable subject lines
Okay, very few people are as egregious as the client I described who would send emails with no subject line whatsoever. Blank, nada, white space only. But, you know what, most subject lines are little better than white space, especially when they subject starts with “Re:”.

A surprising number of people send emails by simply hitting the reply button, even if the email isn’t a reply. So every email they send has a subject line that says, “Re: Something or other,” even if the subject of the email is something else entirely. We’ve all seen “Re:” snowballs as two or more people keep up a conversation just by replying to each other’s emails. It doesn’t matter that the subject has effectively changed, everything is “Re:” to the original email. Listen, I have emails from folks dozens deep all with the same subject line starting with “Re:”.

Subject lines are not an afterthought. They tell recipients what your email is about. Because each email is not just communication, but a record, subject lines also help recipients to search for email content. Suppose you send an email giving Angelina Jolie’s contact information and the subject line says, “Re: operational difficulties.” Now, the person may miss the email entirely. But, worse, they have no way to search for the email later. How’s the other guy going to find it? The subject line says “Re: operational difficulties,” not “Angelina Jolie’s contact info.” Do you expect your recipients to reread all the emails you’ve sent, most of which have as their subject line, “Re: something or other”?

Just as bad are email subject lines like “A quick note,” “FYI,” or “Hi.” Now, seriously, folks, what the hell? Really, what the hell? Think of email the same way you think of a PowerPoint. Here you are, in front of a client or your upper management, dressed to the nines and sweating bullets and your first slide says, “FYI”? The title page of your handout says, “Hi”?

The subject line of an email should always describe as cogently as possible what the email is about. If you are legitimately replying to the content of a person’s email, then “Re: Something or other” is a perfectly valid subject line. If the content of the email is not a reply, then take the time to write an original subject line that describes the email. If the purpose of the email is to send Angelina Jolie’s contact information to someone, then the subject line should be, “Angelina Jolie’s contact info.” This isn’t rocket science, ladies and germs. The time you spend (seconds, really) tells recipients that you take them seriously.

Speaking of re’s, don’t send an email serial novel
Since we’ve got the “reply” button on the table, you understand that sending an email with the “reply” function appends the previous email (and any emails appended to that email) to the recipient? And each “re” adds yet another email to the dogpile? Do this enough times back and forth and pretty soon you have 12, 15, 40 emails all trailing along like noisy cans on each email you send. Why clutter your’s someone else’s inbox with those steadily growing, serialized novel emails? I’m telling you, if Trollope were alive today, he’d write all his novels this way.

Do you really need to send a record of every email ever sent since the beginning of time when you just want to confirm someone’s address or send them an update?

Here’s the rule to follow: if you’re directly addressing the content of an email, then it should be included in your reply as a forward. If you’re not, delete the forwarded email or emails. If the only content of any value is the content of your email, not any forwarded emails, then the only thing you send should be your email, no forwards.

Again, this is a simple piece of etiquette that tells the recipient that they deserve original emails, not “replies.” Just select all the appended emails and delete them. Five seconds work tops. And the next time you use reply to email the recipient, you’ve got less work to do deleting appended emails.

If you want to tell a recipient they’re unimportant, send them email novels with “Re:” in the subject line. If you want to tell a recipient that they and their concerns are important, send only one email with a unique, descriptive subject line.

Who the hell are you?
Unless you’re deliberately trying to keep yourself anonymous, then you should make every effort to let your recipients know who you are. A signature line is mandatory in terms of etiquette, but so is an easily identifiable “From” line. Five weeks ago, an entrepreneur friend outsourced SEM and got a reply from a guy called “[email protected]” Why would you want to do business with someone called “SoulflyMaggot,” unless you’re in the market for something illicit?

If you went to a conference, would you wear a badge that said, “Hi, I’m SoulFlyMaggot”? You’re probably going to be polite to everyone and wear a simple-as-mashed-potatoes badge that says, “Hi, I’m Rick.” Why can’t your “from” line be that simple, too?

Finally, if you use a service such as AOL, Google, or Yahoo!, you’ll have to determine if “free” is worth not having your company or personal name in the address. You’ll also have to determine if you want to be [email protected] or [email protected] Who do you want to be? The one and only Jason, or one among thousands at AOL?

Reply instantly
When someone sends you an email, reply as soon as possible. Even if your reply is, “I’ll get back to you on this.” You need to confirm that the email has been received and you’re taking it seriously.

If you do reply by saying, “I’ll get back to you,” be smart enough to include a general timeline, like “I’ll get back to you on this tomorrow morning.”

No ads, please
Even though they’re unobtrusive, the ads served up by services such as AOL and Google are intrusions. An ad-free email is a more polite and professional email than one trying to sell you Viagra at the bottom of the email.

Use the phone
Nothing beats person-to-person communication, especially when there’s a problem or a misunderstanding. A good rule of etiquette is this: if you can, phone. If it’s important, phone. If it’s a problem, phone. If it’s a conflict, phone. Nothing beats email from making a misunderstanding or a conflict worse, because whatever you write in an email sounds more impersonal, more insulting, and more angry than it really is.

That is, of course, if you want to resolve the conflict. If you’re severe Axis 2 and you thrive on being hated, then use email to try to resolve conflicts, arguments, and misunderstandings. You’ll have a great time. I have a friend who only uses email when he wants to express his displeasure. It’s always a losing proposition. Always.

Sum up long emails at the beginning
If you’re going to write a long email, take the time when you’re finished to write a brief summary at the beginning of the email. Don’t make your hapless recipient have to slog through every gormless thing you have to say just to get at the main points.

Never email while angry
This is such an obvious rule that it really shouldn’t be said. See what I said above: email is practically guaranteed to make any bad situation, misunderstanding, conflict, or disagreement worse, usually much worse. You really should have learned this by now, but if experience has taught us anything it’s that no-one learns from experience.

Here’s where the rule really applies: sometimes you’ll find yourself perfectly calm typing away at an email. Then you begin to heat up. Slowly. And the email slowly heats up. It’s hard to stop, but stop you must.

Confirm attachments
When an email includes attachments, open them right away and then confirm to the sender that you received them in working order. Whenever I confirm attachments, I always name the attachments I received, especially when there’s two or more. Why? Because sometimes the sender may have forgotten some attachments. When I reply with a list of attachments I’ve received, the list may jog their memory.

I cannot count the number of problems I’ve encountered when recipients do not confirm attachments I’ve sent. Days or weeks go by before I find out that an attachment didn’t get through; meanwhile, the project has gone completely south. In fact, that’s usually when you find out an attachment didn’t get received: when the mistakes start arriving.

Of course, if you’re missing attachments and you know it, or if the attachments won’t open, sending this information immediately avoids time and cost overruns. It also tells the sender that you’re serious about them.

List attachments
When you send attachments, write out the list in your email. If you’re sending a large attachment, you should send an email without the attachment first telling the recipient to expect the large attachment in the next email. Why? Because sometimes a large attachment will cause an email to be bounced or the email may take a long time to download. Either way, your attachment-free email that’s sent first lets the recipient know there may be a potential problem.

When I send large attachments, I always include the size of the file in the subject line. So the subject line might read, “Retail Study PDF (5 MB).” If the email bounces, the server will record this (so the recipient knows the retail study bounced). If the email is taking a long time to download, the recipient can know precisely why.

Sometimes it’s better not to email attachments
Sometimes it’s better to put large attachments on an FTP site. It’s a little bit more work, but the download is faster for the recipient. You can use a free FTP site or you can have an FTP site on your own server devoted solely to the purpose of sending large attachments. Again, you send an email that gives the recipient all the needed information: FTP site, login, and a list of all the attachments that the recipient will find.

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2 Responses to “Doctor Polite’s Email Etiquette”

  1. soulflymaggot says:

    Hi im soulflymaggot and I see what you are saying, that is the wrong name to use and it was an accident it E-Mail accounts, Totally agree 100%

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] In a previous post, I discussed how every email you send reflects on your business. Every email you send is also a marketing piece, an ad, a positioning statement. Would you seriously purchase a print ad or a Yellow Pages ad that had as it’s headline, “Tell me something impossibly stupid. I’ll believe you!” So why send an email that says the same thing? [...]


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