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Modern Email Etiquette for Business

A friend has a rule for when she receives an email that makes her angry enough to write a snappy reply – write it then delete it. This way, she says, she vents her frustration while not living to regret anything she puts into words. Strangely, writing the email often changes her attitude. She sees there is an alternate way of reading the email, and that it was not as offensive as she first thought.

This ability to provoke offence can be heightened by factors other than an email’s content. Sometimes it can be the size of the font or what’s written in the subject line that can annoy people, and as a business person, you don’t want to annoy people. You want to communicate clearly and effectively, without any ambiguity. Here are a few points about email etiquette to make sure you don’t fall victim to an ERC – an email-related catastrophe.

Capital offences, bold moves and subject lines

The first rule of emails is never, ever use capitals. It’s like having someone screaming at you and is designed to make the receiver see red. Stick to black and don’t try to highlight parts of your message using red as if the recipient is too stupid to know what’s important. Bolding text has the same impact – if you need to emphasise part of the message, start a new paragraph and use a header.

Speaking of headers – never include your entire message in the subject line. These sorts of messages look too informal, as if you did not have enough time to bother with greetings and sign offs. At worst, they look bullying and demanding. Clients will quickly form the impression you are treating them dismissively.

Greetings, endings and responding to queries

No matter how informal your relationship is with the recipient, unless it’s a personal email always start with a greeting and the person’s name. This keeps everything on a professional basis, setting a respectful tone. If you are responding to an email, make sure you begin by acknowledging the prior message and addressing any questions it may have raised. Not responding to questions is frustrating as your client then has to email again to prompt your reply. If you catch them on a bad day, this could affect their decision to do business with you.

Beware the email chain and avoid falling for gossip

Sensitive information can fall into the wrong hands if you forward an email to a third party that contains messages designed for your eyes only. For example, you have been emailing about a valuable new client with one of your staff who, when sending you some business data the client has requested, includes a frankly negative opinion about said client. You forward the data – and the comment – to the client, and become another victim of an ERC.

It is also highly inadvisable to put gossip into an email, since you have no idea of where that email may end up. Today’s colleague could be tomorrow’s rival and it’s not a good idea to give them ammunition. Remember that taken out of context, a joke between two friends about someone being fat or lazy is hurtful if it becomes public. Workplace harassment claims could be made in such circumstances.

Using your email to fax online                  

These days, faxes have joined emails online, and there’s a similar kind of etiquette required. Online faxing with a service such as eFax works by sending a fax by email. You attach the documents to an email and address it to the recipient’s fax number. Along the way, the attachment is converted to a regular hard copy fax, but without the need for a fax machine at your end. Etiquette still applies – you can include a virtual fax cover sheet and address a greeting to the recipient just as you would with a regular email.

Email is a relatively new form of communication, but it still has the basic structure of a letter – a salutation, a body and a signing off. Using capitals and including office gossip may be fine if you are emailing a friend from your own PC, but it’s not the way to present a professional image.

One final point – try not to use emoticons when you are dealing with clients. Fun as they are between friends, they convey a sense that you are unsure of how your message will be received, and even that you are apologising for something you’ve said, or are anticipating a negative response. Think about why you were tempted to use an emoticon and then alter your message so you can communicate what you intended without one.

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