Effective e-mail etiquette in business

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A lot of us in business spend hours on end communicating by e-mail almost on a daily basis. According to a study by the Leadership Institute of Research and Development, people spend 28% of their working week reading and replying to e-mails. However, despite the risk of becoming overwhelmed with messages, it remains one of the most powerful and efficient communication tools.

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Using e-mail is a quick and easy way to stay connected with your team members, customers and stakeholders, particularly those who are geographically dispersed. However, it can be very easy to send ineffective emails, create the wrong impression, or even damage your reputation with sloppy practices. Worse it is downright inappropriate not to reply a business letter even if the reply is in the negative.

In this instalment, I will explore some common mistakes that people make when they send e-mails, and proffer what you can do to avoid these.

Using the wrong tone

Many a time we are tempted to send e-mails quickly when we are in a rush, without thinking carefully about our audience, what we are saying, or how our message might come across. So, it is important to consider who we are “talking” to and what action we want them to take, before we start writing.

For example, an e-mail to a senior manager should be more formal than a quick update to a team member, and a message to a customer will likely be more enthusiastic and polite than an exchange with a close colleague.

Although your email’s subject matter may be clear to you, its recipient might not share your knowledge or understanding. So, avoid using abbreviations jargon or “text speak”, and consider whether your message is appropriate before you hit the send button. Will your reader understand what you are saying? And is your information clearly structured and presented?

A good rule to follow is to address people in an e-mail as you would in person. For example, making a quick request or providing instructions without a “hello” or “thank you” will likely come across as rude, regardless of how busy you are. So, make sure that all of your e-mails are courteous and respectful, and avoid typing in capitals, which implies anger or aggression.

Hitting ‘reply all’

How often have you been copied into an e-mail exchange that is not relevant to you, and does not require you to take any action? Chances are, it happens regularly, and you know how frustrating it can be.

“Reply all” is a useful tool for keeping multiple team members in the loop, or for documenting group decisions, but many people use it without considering who should actually receive their e-mail.

Receiving numerous irrelevant emails throughout the day can be distracting and time consuming; and becoming known as the person who always hits “reply all” can potentially damage your reputation as it can appear thoughtless, rushed and unprofessional. It might also suggest that you are not confident making decisions without input from senior managers.

So, consider whether you should “reply all” or respond only to the e-mail’s sender. And, think about whether using “cc” (carbon copy) or “bcc” (blind carbon copy) to include selected team members is more appropriate.
Writing too much

Brief and succinct e-mails that contain only the important details are much more effective than long or wordy ones.
If you are struggling to keep your message short, consider whether the subject matter is too complex. Would another way of communicating it be more effective? Would a face-to-face meeting or telephone call make it clearer? Should you put your information in a procedure document instead?

Forgetting something?

How many times have you sent an e-mail without attaching the relevant document? Perhaps you included a link that did not work? Or even attached the wrong file?

These mistakes can often be fixed quickly with a follow-up e-mail, but this adds to the large volume of messages that people receive, and it can appear unprofessional or forgetful. Consider attaching files as soon as you start drafting your message, and always check all of your links carefully.

Attaching the wrong document can be much more serious, particularly if it is sensitive or restricted.

Being too emotional

One of the main benefits of e-mail is that you do not need to respond immediately. It is particularly important to delay your response when you are stressed, angry or upset — if you send a message in the heat of the moment, you cannot get it back (although some e-mail clients do have a limited “undo” or “retrieve” option). These e-mails could damage your working relationships, or even be used as evidence against you.

So, avoid sending any messages when you feel this way. Wait until you have calmed down and can think clearly and rationally.

Using vague subject lines

As we have said, e-mail is most effective when your message is concise and to the point (but not abrupt). So, it is important to start with a clear subject line, so that people know what to expect when they open it.
What is your e-mail about? Is there an important deadline? Do you want people to take action before a certain time? Is it urgent or non-urgent? Tailor your subject line accordingly, so your recipient can give the email the right level of priority and attention.

Mandeya is an executive coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Leadership Institute for Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw, info@lird.co.zw or +263 772 466 925.

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