E-Mail Etiquette in Business Makes a Difference

The Internet revolution has had the unintended effect of decreasing the use of oral communication and increasing the importance of text — particularly e-mails — as the primary means of business communications. Why has e-mail become so popular? Why use e-mails instead of phone calls?

It is harder to control the conduct of phone calls than e-mail, their length, subject matter, depth of content, and the availability of other participants. Phone calls leave scant records, are impractical for reaching large numbers of people instantly, and often consume more time and mental effort than is needed to send an e-mail.

Certainty, Convenience

In the fast moving global economy, e-mail offers the certainty and convenience of being able to communicate effectively at any hour of the day or night. However, it is this ease and accessibility that allows e-mail to be used in odd or unprofessional ways.

Our discussion proceeds as follows:

  1. Why good e-mail practices are needed.
  2. Good e-mail practices.
  3. Writing effective content.
  4. Organizing e-mails.

There are three reasons why we need e-mail etiquette: efficiency, professionalism, and protection from liability.

  • Efficiency. E-mails that get to the point produce better results.
  • Professionalism. Proper language conveys a professional image.
  • Protection from liability. Employee awareness of e-mail risks can protect your firm from costly lawsuits.

Good E-Mail Practices

Tara Bradford, an outsourcing client liaison manager at an contract facility in South India, provides the following tips on how to use e-mail effectively.

  • Use informative subject lines.
  • Personalize messages.
  • Be clear and concise.
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation.
  • Know when to send an e-mail.
  • Use signatures.
  • Spell check and review your e-mails before sending.

Bradford said that liability control should drive organizations to train all staff in proper e-mail etiquette. In addition, liability can also be controlled by the use of pre-approved responses to frequently asked questions (FAQs) and by the use of quality assurance measures.

It is possible to provide quality assurance checks on all outgoing e-mails, particularly in customer service and support centers. On the other hand, you could try a lesser approach, say with new staff having all their e-mails checked before they are sent out, and more experienced staff having reduced percentages reviewed.

Writing Effective Content

Chris Mitchell of Microsoft (no relation to this author) said that many people do not scroll down in the e-mails they receive. To communicate effectively with non-scrollers, put essential info at the beginning. In long, complex e-mails, he often provides summaries at the beginning. If readers need additional details, they can scroll down into the body of the text.

E-mail is thought based. E-mails sometimes do not contain the entire thought, which might be spread out over several e-mails. When an e-mail has been passed back and forth, readers might have to scroll down to the bottom to catch the original exchange or question that prompted subsequent replies.

To be effective, Chris says that it helps to restate the central idea or original query at the beginning of an e-mail that has gone back and forth. This is particularly important when communicating with people who use free e-mail services that truncate replies, making it impossible to consult the original exchange.

In e-mails that have questions in multiple locations, Microsoft’s Mitchell will highlight those questions with a colored font in his reply, with his responses given beneath each question. For the 15 percent of American men who (like this author) are colorblind, alternate approaches should be used such as uppercase letters, bold font, or italics. Since bold or italic fonts might not be transmitted or preserved in some e-mail systems, uppercase letters might be the best option for highlighting questions.

For internal communications, Mitchell says it is not necessary to always produce highly organized and precisely worded e-mails. However, etiquette is not totally abandoned in internal communications, particularly when it comes to professional courtesy.

The subject line of e-mails might often be the only part of an e-mail that many people will read. You can summarize the action item of your e-mail in the subject line, e.g., “Tues. meeting canceled.”

To avoid having your e-mail blocked by spam filters, refrain from using words in your subject line that are common in the subject lines of spam. Words such as “free” or “Viagra” in your subject line invites trouble.

Organizing E-Mails

Mitchell receives between 50 and 100 e-mails per day, plus another 300 from list services. Some are automatically routed to folders within his Outlook e-mail client program, where they might remain unread unless needed. He budgets time every morning for e-mails and prioritizes e-mails to read and respond to, thereby preventing his entire day from being consumed by e-mail.

Chris uses Conversation View in Outlook to group related e-mails together and create threaded discussions. Threading techniques borrowed from online bulletin boards can be used to organize e-mails and allow complex discussions to be tracked and managed efficiently.

The organization of information is called syndetics, with structures for organizing information called syndetic structures. An index or catalog is a syndetic structure.

In the future, we can expect to see more user-friendly capabilities for constructing and modifying syndetic structures in e-mail client programs and Web-based e-mail services. Syndetic structures can imitate the threading features used by online bulletin boards where discussion threads and subthreads determine the order in which postings are arranged and discussions branch out. This will enable us to make better use of the information contained in e-mails.

In a follow-up column, we will discuss what to avoid in business e-mail practices.

Anthony Mitchell , an E-Commerce Times columnist, has beeninvolved with the Indian IT industry since 1987, specializing through in offshore process migration, call center program management, turnkey software development and help desk management.

1 Comment

  • I would be interested in hearing the author’s opinion regarding the proper way to decide on who the recipients of e-mails should be, especially those related to urgent problems or action items.
    My boss has a habit of addressing e-mails that report problems that need to be fixed or action that needs to be taken to several department heads.
    The question then becomes who is going to fix the problem or take the action.
    There have been numerous instances where I and several of my co-managers start working on the project at the same time, duplicating efforts and sometimes working at cross purposes.
    I know enough to promptly "reply all" when it is clear that I can handle the issue at hand, but sometimes it takes further investigation to find out exactly what the problem is, and who in the company can fix it.
    Sometimes the oppositie happens. All of us read the e-mail, and all assume someone else will handle the problem, and nothing gets done.
    I have always felt that the e-mail should be sent to one person, and copied to others who might be affected, so that the chain of responsibility is made clear from the beginning.
    Even more frustrating is when someone who got one of these group e-mails fixes or discovers the cause of the problem, and does not promptly inform the rest of the group what was done.
    For urgent problems I prefer trouble ticket systems to e-mails, and for ideas and directives from upper management, I prefer project management software. For trouble ticket systems, you need to make sure there are scheduled and assigned "officers of the day or shift" that are immediately notified of a new trouble ticket report, and back up communications so that the ticket continues to be disseminated until the system receives feedback that someone has taken responsibility for following through on the problem.

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