Email Etiquette -- Time to Review Yours?

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One of the most common forms of communication is the good 'old-fashioned' email, and I'm not talking about email newsletters, but the everyday business ones. They've been around for many years and although technology gives us other ways to communicate, email will be around for a while yet.

If like most folks you have been using it for some time, you've probably never thought about changing anything you do, it's just email, right? Wrong. It's part of your extended brand - your own and the company's ¬- so it's probably time for a quick review of what you can do to get better results. Quite a bit of discussion took place putting this list together, with some very opposing views of what is right and what is wrong; I'll let you decide for yourself.

Starting at the top:

'From' column
When you first set your email preferences, you were asked what you wanted people to see in the 'from' column. Check what you currently have by sending yourself an email. Is your name spelt correctly? Is it professional? Does your company name need to be in there too?

Subject line
Keep it clear and simple. Steer away from fluffy subject lines because if someone is searching for a topic you sent previously, it needs to be obvious. Also, if you are working on building a relationship with the recipient, you want them to open it in the first place, so be clear what the content is about.

Don't miss the greeting
An important part! Don't go wading in without at least saying hello and using their name. You wouldn't start a conversation off like that if you met them in person so why do it in an email? The only exception to this rule is if you are mid email conversation with them and there is some 'back and forth' going on. I like to add 'good morning' to my first ones of the day because chances are they will be read early on too.

Length is important
The emails still in your inbox awaiting action are probably the longer ones. It's the same for all of us so if you want your email actioned, keep it short, around 5 sentences if possible, and get to the point quickly. It also shows you respect their time. You are much more likely to get a response with a short succinct email.

Tone it up or down?
Just because it's short, it doesn't mean it has to be abrupt. Yes, get to your point early on, but watch the tone. If you read it back and feel it could be taken as being too brusque, add a more personal sentence or even an emoji (I know some folks will hate doing that, but I think in lieu of body language, a smiley face allows the reader to understand and feel the tone as it was intended). If the content really could be deemed on the harsh side, then just pick up the phone and talk.

While we are on the subject, never send an email while you are angry. Save it to your drafts and revisit it when you have calmed down. You may also want to get someone else to review it before you send it.

Sarcasm never comes across well unless you really know the person well so stay clear.

And be yourself. If it is a sales email, don't simply cut and paste what you always send, make it sound like it's coming from you, a person, and not a corporate generic 'wannabe'.

Address it last
Ever received a half-finished email from someone or one full of spelling mistakes? Add the email address after you've finished writing the content, so the email doesn't get accidentally sent before it should. Check and double-check you are happy with the content, tone and any action required before clicking send. And turn spell check on if it isn't already.

Any Action required?
This always helps the recipient see exactly what is needed (if anything), which is particularly good if you are prone to writing long-winded emails - which I hope you will stop doing now. ☺

Separate the action item out at the bottom and highlight it like so:
Action required: Sales data for March to me by Tuesday 1pm please.

The 'Important' flags
Use the flags sparingly. My designer sends a red flag on every email so now I just ignore them, which defeats the purpose. Use them appropriately.

To cc or not to cc?
Who really needs to be copied in on this email? If someone doesn't need to be copied, leave them off. If you wouldn't include them in a telephone conversation, don't fill their inbox with items they don't really need to be privy to. We didn't do it with memos way back when either. They will welcome your thoughtfulness at sparing their time. The same with reply all: who really needs to know?

Sign off goodbye
Consider a last one-liner before sending, something along the lines of 'kind regards' or 'have a great weekend' if it's Friday. It's just a friendly thing to do, and again, if you were saying goodbye in person, you would add something.

Signatures are personal
Do the links still work in your signature? Is your mobile number on there as well as your email address? Why put your email address? Because when someone else asks for it, say a referral, where do you find it if it's not on the signature? Also, think about whether your signature should be on replies: if it isn't it could be a long way back down a thread to find the details needed. You probably don't need your fax number on there anymore.

When to send?
If you are working outside of normal business hours, plan to send your emails on timer so they are received during normal working hours. If you are sending them at 9.30pm the perception is that you have no life, are a workaholic or your work is out of control. Notice I say perception. Similarly, when a team member sees an email from you at 5.30am, they may think they need to do the same to keep up, causing unnecessary stress.

When to reply?
If it's a new enquiry, maybe from your website, then studies have shown the best time to respond is within 5 minutes of the enquiry landing in order to have the best shot at landing the sale. Hard to do, but not impossible if you put a system in place. But when should you reply to a client's or team member's email? My answer to that is between certain 'email' times and generally the same day. One train of thought during discussion was around managing a client's expectations: you have other clients to work with too and you can't drop what you are doing to respond. The same goes for team members. As long as you reply later that day or first thing the following morning, that is enough. I guess everyone's schedule is different but the system Kevin uses below is a good one.

Out of office experience

An acquaintance, Kevin, sets his out of office message to say when he will be dealing with his emails throughout the day, usually between 10am and 11am then between 4pm and 5pm, depending on when your email lands. This manages people's expectations of when he will get back to them, because he also has clients to attend to, just like you. Talking of expectations, use an out of office message to keep people informed if you are away for the day or longer, to save them thinking you're simply ignoring them. A past client uses this facility to point people to events and useful articles as well as their website - a great use of the function.

There are probably other areas to review about making general business email work for you, but I think I have covered the most important ones, including some you may not have really thought about. If you have more to add to the list, share your wisdom and add them in the comments below.

So what is the verdict? Do you need to make some changes?