Business Email Etiquette: Putting Your Best Key Forward!

I would imagine that if an Email Police existed, they would be inundated with calls!  I often receive complaints about offensive mails and upon investigation, discovered that the sender did not intend it to be malicious.  While there are hoards of email guidelines, I have compiled a select list of the most frequent errors in my environment.

  • Greeting: An email to a new associate or client should always begin as such:  ‘Dear Paul’A ‘Good Day’ will suffice for all other business mails.  I always use the receiver’s name in my greeting.  People are inclined to warm up to you if their name makes an appearance at greeting stage.  Although, be wary about beginning a mail with a name as it infantilizes a person:  John please send me those reports as soon as possible.  It might as well read, John finish those veggies or you can forget dessert. If you have built a friendly relationship with someone, you may use Hi, although any other forms of colloquial greetings like Hey, Yo, etcshould be avoided.
  • Overuse of Punctuation!!!!  Additional exclamation marks will almost always be viewed as shouting.  Several question marks reflects a condescending tone, and dot dot dot should not feature in a business mail.  It is not a guessing game and your recipient is not meant to presume anything.   How about commending someone on a job well done?  Should that scenario be an exception?

Congratulations Tracy!  You have doubled your previous month’s sales figures!!!  The over-excitement here has the potential to come across as disbelief that Tracy was capable of this achievement in the first place.  Respect the many degrees of sensitivity out there.

  • The Emotionally-Charged Mail:  Many communicators will encourage you to sleep on it and hit send if you feel the same way the day after.  I am against any over-emotional email whether it is today or tomorrow.  If you are disappointed by the service rendered, you can convey that message without sending an enraged mail.  In my opinion, a calmer disposition holds more weight. Consider these 2 approaches:
  1. You have taken 10 days to respond to my request and yet you still do not have a solution!!! I am done dealing with incompetent people!!  I will take my business elsewhere!!!! 
  2. I feel that a 10 day response time is unacceptable for this type of query and am extremely dissatisfied with the service you provided. I will unfortunately have to consider moving my business elsewhere as I have lost trust in your ability to satisfy my business needs.

Which option hits home for you?  The first case is clearly drenched with anger.  However, as we all know, anger is a temporary emotion.  When the individual calms down, he may no longer wish to break ties.  The second example has a more permanent feel.  In his rational mind, he states his wish to discontinue his support.

  • Language: In my multi-cultural South Africa, we boast 11 official languages.  While this is one of our prides, it can become a business challenge.  People tend to instinctively switch to their native language when sending a mail to someone who understands that language or from the same language background.  However, if your recipient needs to forward that mail, they would have to first translate your mail before re-directing.  This creates unnecessary effort and causes time delays.  Moreover, it is sometimes incorrectly assumed that the language would be understood (based on a surname).  Alleviate embarrassment by sticking to the appropriate business language.
  • Refrain from Questions: As far as possible, attempt to convert questions into statements:

When can you send me the quotes?……….Please advise when I can expect the quotes.

Can you help me with this enquiry?……..If I have reached the incorrect person, kindly direct me to the person who deals with this.

One cannot hear the tone of a question in a written message so it can appear to be impatience or aggressiveness even though this was not the intention.

  • Response time: You may use your discretion here but any mail that requires little or no investigation should be responded to within 2/3 days.  If you are travelling or out of the office, activate the automatic response to manage expectations.  I recently listened to a radio interview with an internationally renowned businessman.  He believes that because electronic mail is merely a replacement of the traditional postage system, it is acceptable to use the same time frame to reply.  Strange view, I suppose that international contacts can expect a longer response time than local contacts despite the content of the mail.  The message is this:  Even great leaders get it wrong from time to time and that leaves the rest of us feeling a little relieved.

I have the utmost respect for the CEO of my company.  My personal rule of thumb is to imagine him copied in on every mail that leaves my desk.

Hope this gives you a new ‘outlook’ on email constructing.



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