You might not think something as common as a business email – you know the one, you write it in ten seconds flat and shoot it off to a client, prospect or colleague – has anything much to do with marketing.
Sending emails is habitual… forgettable… something we do on autopilot and probably while multitasking. They’re often those little bits of business we need to get out of the way so we can get on with our day; a quick response, a confirmation, a question.
But if you’re in business, everything you do is about marketing.
Every word out of your mouth (or keyboard), every photo, every hair you comb (or don’t) right down to the shine on your shoes matters.
You may be spending hours perfecting those email newsletters but derailing your efforts with one unprofessional business email. Here are a few things you can look out for when composing yours. Some may seem obvious and some a little less so, but they’re all worth brushing up on because even the best of us get too comfortable and lazy sometimes.
Don’t Send While Angry
I know that guy just pissed you off soooo much. And you’re totally right! And he’s a jerk. And really, you have to clear the air and get this whole thing straightened out.
If you want to write the email and vent, go ahead – just don’t do it in your email program and certainly not with the recipient’s email address in the “to” field. It may feel awesome to let it out but it won’t feel so awesome if it burns bridges, loses you money or otherwise damages your reputation.
Vent now if you must, but sleep on it, then go back and rewrite it in a calm and professional manner. The aim of a business email is to communicate; not berate.
Fix Your Third-Grade Spelling
No offense to third-graders… I wonder sometimes if they aren’t more careful than we are.
Your email program may point out some of your egregious errors, and if that’s the case, do take the time to go back and correct them.
But also check for words that escape spell-check. Like when you typed “there” when you really meant “they’re”.
My brain notoriously spells the word “to” whenever I think the word “the”. I can’t tell you how many emails and blog posts and social updates that’s crept into. It just sounds stupid. I (and you) can prevent those types of errors by rereading what we type and acting like it matters. Because it does!
Relearn Common Conventions Of The Written Language
Come on, just one period? A comma? Something?
And how about finding that caps lock key? And the shift key? They’re the big ones and they’re right next to each other!
Just because you’re in a hurry (or it’s “just an email”) doesn’t mean you should string everything together into a mashup of all uppercase/all lowercase/unpunctuated/poorly written drivel.
What does it say about your attention to detail if half of your “i”s are lowercase and you can’t manage a question mark at the end of an actual question?
Can yoU imagine if i wrote THIS BLOG POST LIKE SOME PEOPPLE WRITE A PROFESSIONAL EMAL wouldnt that be embarrassing.
Skip The Emoticons
A business email is not a Facebook status update. Nor is it a note attached to the recipe you’re sending your mother.
If you need an emoticon to express yourself in a business email then you’re choosing the wrong words.
If you’re trying to be funny and think it might be missed unless you add a little smiley face to temper it, then you’re best reconsidering what you’ve said – or not saying it at all.
Emoticons are fun and cute when you use them in tweets or texts to friends. They’re not quite appropriate for business emails. Rethink your language and tone if you want to convey an emotion instead of relying on keyboard shortcuts.
Only Reply If It’s An Actual Reply
I once got an email from a client I hadn’t heard from in a number of months and was not actively working with. The subject line read:
“Re: missing images on website”
And I thought, “Oh crap, what missing images?”
Not even opening the email, I jumped onto his website to see if something was wrong. Alas, if I had only opened his email first I would have saved myself that five minutes of panic because he had apparently dug up an email I’d sent him two years ago.
Instead of looking up my email address he’d simply replied to the first (old) email he stumbled across. The content of the email had nothing whatsoever to do with the website, the images or the original message.
A bad reply doesn’t even have to be that dramatic. You know how you start a message thread and then it goes off onto a tangent and four subjects later, you’re still replying to the original email?
Once you’ve concluded a subject, start a new email. Don’t start on a tangent point and keep replying. That makes it really hard to categorize and find emails, not to mention scan through an inbox of hundreds and find the subject you’re looking for.
Mind Your Subject Lines
While we’re talking subject lines, make them descriptive and representative of what your message is about.
Good subject lines are not just for email newsletters!
Subject lines like “update” or “error” aren’t as helpful as “update to last week’s proposal” or “error on website home page“.
It’s common courtesy to give your recipient a heads up and make it easier to scan for and find your message later.
This is a personal pet peeve of mine: getting an email with a single word or phrase or multiple punctuation marks.
I have no idea what it means when you send me an email that says:
What is this?
Yes, I have literally gotten emails that are nothing but a string of question marks.
Then I can only try to discern from the subject, or a previous thread, what this person means. And more often than not I will shake my head and tell everyone I know for the rest of the day about this really stupid person. And I will name names.
All I can say is, why would you want to represent yourself that way? It’s not professional and it doesn’t exactly leave a good impression, especially if you’re putting someone out by forcing them to figure out what you’re trying to say.
Give your emails context. Speak in full sentences. Make sense.
Stick To One Message
Take it from someone who has learned this the hard way: people don’t pay attention. They pay even less attention to emails.
The best thing you can do for your business relationships is to say one thing at a time and compose a separate email with a separate and distinct subject line for each thing you want to say.
“Here is the proposal you asked for. And by the way, are you coming to the meeting on Friday?” Might seem short and sweet but trust me on this, you want to send that as two emails. If you don’t, chances are that your recipient is either going to ask where the proposal is or not show up at the meeting.
Two things are always one too many.
What’s Your Point?
It helps to have an actionable item in your emails or there’s a very good chance it will sit there in someone’s inbox taking up space.
In your marketing emails, making the title of your blog post clickable might seem like an obvious invitation to click and read it, but that’s not the case. That’s why we all write “read it now” and make that a link.
In your business emails, “Here is the proposal” is nice but “Call me to discuss” is better. It means that you expect a reply and that your email isn’t just “for reference” and can sit indefinitely in someone’s inbox.
Use A Signature
This one is open for debate. Just this week in my office we had a big conversation about it. Ralph decided they’re annoying and got rid of his. I disagreed and kept mine.
Here’s why: when I get emails from people and there is nothing in the signature – no name, no phone number, no web address – it not only looks unprofessional but it thwarts me if I just want to pick up the phone and quickly call that person.
As the project manager around here I do a lot of calling. And constantly looking people up kills me. But if they have a phone number in their email signature I can just start dialing.
So I’ll add a caveat here: use a signature wisely.
I agree with Ralph that they can be annoying, especially when they’re full of logos, tweets, latest blog posts, links, disclaimers and disclosures. Whittle yours down to essential branding or contact information that looks professional and makes you easy to find without taking up 98% of the space on the screen.
And I Have A Name, Too
Another pet peeve: people who start emails with anything other than my name.
Hello/Hey/Good morning Carol Lynn!
Whatever you choose, greet your recipient. Remember, you’re still marketing! If you constantly rush off emails to customers and can’t even be bothered to address them by name, it doesn’t say “I care about you” or “You’re important”.
It’s subtle but it’s all part of the details that go into building a professional relationship.
Stop Telling Me You’re On Mobile
People add the whole “I’m on mobile so forgive my typos” thing to the bottom of their mobile emails and suddenly that’s an excuse for being unprofessional and careless.
I don’t care if you’re on mobile and it takes you ten whole extra seconds to fix that annoyingly autocorrected word. Yeah, typing on a teeny phone is frustrating. You make mistakes. It’s a pain. So either stop and wait until you can answer an email in a professional manner, or take the extra seconds to reread and fix it. You’re not a slave to the phone’s spelling errors.
We’re living in a time of tight budgets and saturated markets. People notice attention to detail or perhaps more often a lack of attention to detail. Sloppy, rushed emails that you don’t bother to fix just say, “Sorry, too busy. Thank God I can cross you off my list now.”
Stop With The Out Of Office Replies
I have to be honest: I couldn’t care less if you’re not in the office. If you don’t get back to me in five minutes I’ll assume you’re busy. If you don’t get back to me in a day I’ll assume you’re really busy. Two days and maybe you’re out. More than that and I’ll either resend or call you.
Unless you’re going on vacation and will be gone for the rest of the month, you don’t need to tell me every time you step out for more than an hour.
I know it seems like a common courtesy but really it’s just annoying. I get bombarded with out-of-office replies constantly. It doesn’t mean you’re attentive, it just means you know how to set up an automated email.
It also makes a lot of people lazy. They turn on “out of office” and anything that comes in during that period gets ignored. “I was out of the office and I told everyone about it. They’ll get back to me.”
Anecdotally speaking, I can count on half a finger how many people ever get back to me on emails I sent during “out of office” periods. Out-of-office is not your cue to go off-grid.
And… plenty of people forget to turn them off. “I’ll be out of the office and returning on January 4th.” Meanwhile, sometime around March…
If you have good email etiquette, which includes getting back to people in a timely fashion, then you don’t need to tell them your whereabouts. You just need to get back to them, whether it’s today, tomorrow or as soon as you’re back in the office.
You may not consider everyday business emails to be marketing emails but they represent you and your company anyway. And if the difference between keeping a customer or losing her to the competition is a matter of taking time to greet her personally in your emails, wouldn’t you take that time?
Can you think of any other ways to improve business emails? Got any of your own pet peeves to share? Let me know!
Join the discussion 17 Comments
Brilliant piece, Carol Lynn. I’m guilty of a couple of them.
Don’t feel bad, Stephan, after I wrote it I had to clean up a few of my own 🙂
Oh Carol Lynn, another great post that I couldn’t help but comment on because I see email etiquette being flushed down the digital toilet every day.
I’ve personally relaxed some of my writing style by not sounding so business-like, but I’ve managed to retain a couple of “big deals” in my book like using a person’s name and including a clear and concise call to action (usually in a bigger font and bolded.) I do, however, utilize a text only signature block with my contact information, but remove the majority it when I’m emailing back and forth with a client. I think it gives the email a little more conversational tone.
And like Stephan, I’m guilty of overuse of emoticons, but will do my best to just limited them to comments 😀
I guess emoticons don’t bother me too much, I just think they are so overused that if we make up our minds to NOT use them, we’ll be forced to think about what we’re writing. And ok, if they sneak in sometimes, that’s not terrible!
But I do like an introduction. Getting emails that are just one sentence, bad punctuation and probably bad spelling don’t look professional and it makes me feel like the sender didn’t care – I’m not high on their priority list!
I know language changes and I’m not saying we have to be so formal and stuffy, but professional can be done in a casual way without losing all sense of etiquette.
Amen, amen and amen.
I love this post! I believe that our written words are important … they say a lot about who we are. Your advice is spot-on! I’ve found it helpful to read an email out loud before sending … I often hear grammatical errors. Another tip I would add is to NOT use profanity … ever. It’s amazing to me that people will use it in emails … even professional emails. Someone once told me that people use profanity because they don’t have the intelligence to come up with a more appropriate word. Sure makes me see it’s use differently. Thank you, as always, for such wonderful advice.
I agree with you on profanity. I never use it in an email to someone in a business context! I know some people do because that’s just part of how they talk, but I tend to agree with you on your point about using profanity for lack of anything else to say. I think you can make a point in a much more interesting way if you remove the crutch of “the shock factor”.
Great piece. Everyone should read and follow your advice! I will attest to the fact that you are absolutely correct about keeping one topic per email. It is so true — people just don’t pay attention once they’ve got what they want. I only put one topic per email now.
I used to be very “thorough” and give people as much info and I could think of… and then realized I was talking to a wall! After about 2 sentences people stop reading. If I have to cover a bunch of stuff its easier to call!
Carol Lynn thank you for this wonderful post. You made a lot of great points, especially about the spelling. That is one of my biggest pet peeves. Unfortunately I realized that I am guilty of using the occasional emoticon.
Hi Jennifer, glad you enjoyed it! There’s been much debate about emoticons… I admit, I use them sometimes, if it’s a client I have a long-term (and good) relationship with. But a lot of times they’re overused and we get lazy in what we’re saying because we can sort of explain it away with a smiley face. I would have said “limit the use of emoticons” but then people automatically think “hey, I don’t use them…. too much!” and they’re probably wrong!
I am glad you didn’t say to limit them, because I am sure I would have been one of those people. 🙂 I couldn’t resist.
lol, good thing this isn’t an email 🙂
Great article Carol Lynn. Always good to be reminded, and adjust. (holding back on smiley face)
🙂 There I did it for you!
Carol Lynn, I loved reading this article. I can’t think of any other pet peeves, off the top of my head, as you seem to have included all of mine. As I was reading, I kept nodding my head all the way through, so I am very keen to read everything else you have written. Thank you. Barbara
Hi Barbara, glad you enjoyed this! It’s good to remind ourselves occasionally that being professional and using common sense matters. I have a follow up coming based on someone else’s pet peeve…. stay tuned!