It is not just what you say in emails that matters. How you say it can say a lot about you, argues Monica Seeley.
Within five seconds of opening your email, the recipient has formed an impression of you and your organisation - and made a judgement about your level of professionalism.
When you read an email, do you get annoyed by how people greet you, the spelling and grammar - or lack of it - and the way the sender signs off? If any of these traits annoy you, what are the implications for your clients and prospects?
This is one of those areas of customer relations where you don't know how much it costs you until either you ask or someone tells you, by which time it might be too late because they have taken their business elsewhere.
Sloppy emails can be the tipping point in a business relationship. Even if the other person's email is unprofessional and slipshod, that does not mean yours should be. As a senior executive commented to me, "What does it say about how we, the contractor, are managing you, our supplier?". Your email etiquette is your electronic dress code.
A recent survey we conducted revealed that, unsurprisingly, spelling mistakes and poor grammar are regarded by everyone as either sloppy or unprofessional. However, what if the email is well structured and grammatically correct - that is to say the sender has put on his or her best suit - but the greeting or sign-off is tacky and inappropriate? These are like the accessories you choose to go with your outfit.
Our survey found that 63 per cent feel having no greeting is either unprofessional or sloppy. 'Dear', 'Hi' and the person's name are regarded as the most professional. For signs-offs, smiley icons, 'Cheers' and no sign-off are out and deemed unacceptable by over 65 per cent of business users. The most favoured is 'Kind regards' or 'Best wishes', with 67 per cent approval.
Given our dependence on email as the major communications channel, good email etiquette is a critical part of business relationships and needs perfecting and adapting to circumstances - just like any other part of your customer-relations protocols. Yet, surprisingly few organisations have an email etiquette handbook.
Here are five ways you can help people improve their email etiquette to ensure it conveys a professional image that woos rather than annoys clients.
- Provide email etiquette guidelines that cover how to open and close emails, structure an email, and words that are acceptable and unacceptable. Include these guidelines in the induction programme.
- If you have employees who do not write good-quality emails, do something about it. For example, make sure their emails are reviewed by someone before being sent. This procedure is common practice for solicitors and accountants. Provide training for them.
- Make sure people have their spell-checker switched on and are alert to what it is doing. I have received emails apologising for the incontinence rather than inconvenience.
- Ensure everyone understands and adopts the business protocol for using the To, Cc and Bcc address lines.
- Provide a simple checklist for people to use to benchmark the quality of their emails. I have prepared an email etiquette checklist for download.
Good email etiquette costs you nothing. Sloppy emails may cost you business.
Dr Monica Seeley is an international expert on email management and runs the Mesmo Consultancy. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University, London, and has just written her third book, Brilliant Email, published by Pearson.