Business Email Etiquette: A Definitive Guide

At some point in school we were taught how to compose a letter. Even though email is now easily one of the most popular communication methods, we’ve spent little or no time training our students or professionals generally accepted etiquette. As a result, we seem to be left with a bit of confusion: is it an informal or formal communication method? What are the common sense rules to professional email? This confusion has led to a lot of “professional emails” looking something like this:

Bad Email Etiquette

We’re going to finally address these issues: big and small, obvious and subtle. We’ll start with the big errors like the hilarious ones I’ve shown you above, but also drill into more nuanced etiquette tips to help even the most experienced professional become a better email communicator, and allow you to gain true value from email. Let’s get right to it:

The Basics

Use a Professional Email Address

HotStuff1212@aol.com isn’t going to cut it anymore. If your name is John Doe, then get some reasonable derivative of that name ASAP on a respectable email site or your company’s domain name. You wouldn’t walk up to a new client and say “My name’s Tina, but my husband calls me SweetiePeas, so you can call me that, too.” Don’t do it on email.

Never Use Crazy Fonts or Colors

Only use standard email font – that means Arial or Helvetica in black. Why? Most people spend over 2 hours a day reading email. Next time you curl up with a book for 2 hours, just imagine the entire book is in fuchsia Comic Sans font – it’ll give you a migraine. Writing emails in non-traditional font is head-splitting eye torture for your recipient.

DON’T WRITE IN ALL UPPER CASE

Did it look like I was just yelling at you? That’s what an all-caps email reads like: one big scream-fest. Only use upper case if you absolutely MUST add emphasis, and use sparingly at best.

Do Not Use Emoticons:(

If you’re trying to express emotion to a client or colleague, find a way to use your words…not an emoticon. Emoticons are very simply a way to express emotion in lieu of polished writing – they are best left to personal emails, and generally look unprofessional.


Communication Skills

Write a Descriptive Subject Line

“Hello”, or “Sup” won’t cut it. It might even put your important sales pitch in the Spam folder. Writing about Monday’s meeting? Then write “Monday’s Meeting” in the subject line.

Use a Proper Salutation

Blasting right into your body without a salutation (“Dear Mike”, “Hi Sally”, etc.) can come across a bit cold – so make it a habit to just say hello first. There’s one exception to this rule: if an email chain has been going back and forth all day between you and another person, you can eventually drop the salutation – you’re now basically conversing. But when you send that first email, don’t forget to say hello.

Always Use Proper Grammar and Spelling

Poor grammar and spelling look unprofessional, no matter where they appear. Get in the habit of correctly capitalizing, punctuating, and fully spelling out words (“You are” does not = “ur”), and it’ll quickly become second nature.

Say The Most Important Thing First

You’re not writing a mystery novel – get your point across in the first 2 sentences. Elaborate from there if you need to.


Advanced Business Etiquette

When Setting Appointments, Be Specific, Take The Lead, and Confirm

Setting up meetings can turn into a “you go first” contest – make it easy by firing off calendar dates and times you’re available right away. Don’t forget about time zones – email is multi-timezone! (“Should we meet next week? I’m available Tuesday August 27th at 1pm EST – please confirm.”) Once a time and date is decided, send a confirmation email.

These Things SHOULD Be In Your Signature

Your signature should consist of a closing statement (“Regards,”), your name, company, and phone number. Optionally, you can include your title, physical address, website, and online presence (Twitter handle, LinkedIn account, etc).

These Things Should NOT Be In Your Signature

Do not add graphics, your email address, or a quote to your signature. Graphics of any kind (a logo for example) are embedded attachments, and generally annoying. Your email address is redundant, and a personal quote is simply unprofessional and unsolicited.

Instead of Telling, Show Something Using a Link

If you want someone to check out a website, file, product page, or anything else online, don’t just say “You should go check out XYZ”…send the exact link! It saves your recipient time, and avoids confusion.

Be Judicious With Your Use of Attachments

Attachments aren’t necessarily bad – however, your first email to someone (a prospective client?) could easily be flagged for Spam if it has an attachment – best to avoid it for your first email to someone. Once you’ve established rapport, attachments are less likely to cause a problem. Still, a file-sharing service like Dropbox enables you to share large files via a simple link, removing all possibilities of confusion and server-side email blocking.

Understand How CC and BCC Work So You Can Use Them Correctly

CC means “Carbon Copy”. BCC means “Blind Carbon Copy”. Everyone who is CC’d on an email can see everyone else who is CC’d on an email, and Reply All to everyone. If you send out an email to your 100 top clients by putting their email addresses in the CC field, everyone can see all 100 email addresses – it’s a privacy issue. If any one of them hits “Reply All”, they can now email the whole group – it’s a huge risk. Instead, put all 100 in the “BCC” field: now no one can see who the email was sent to, and they aren’t able to Reply All.

Be Courteous With Reply All

If you add someone to a Reply All chain, let everyone know – it’s nice to know when there’s someone new in a conversation. Keep the conversation on topic, and the number of people to a minimum. If you don’t have anything important to say, don’t say anything at all.

Remember That All Emails Are Public

When you’re discussing business via email, someone’s privacy is in your hands. Emails are easily dragged out of archive for lawsuits, and even more relevant, people will often absent-mindedly forward an email chain without thinking of what you said 14 replies ago. With this in mind, don’t write angry, nasty, or inappropriate emails – they could very easily end up in front of the wrong eyes. When forwarding an email, read back through the entire email chain for private information before sending – this is a very common and costly mistake.

These concepts are the foundation of excellent email communication – they’ll enable you to get actionable results via email from your clients and colleagues, or at the very least, prevent your emails from becoming an unprofessional annoyance in someone’s inbox, and marring your reputation.

Want the inside track on my latest ultra-efficient business hacks and tips? Follow me on Twitter @DenODonnell – I share my favorite business content on Twitter, usually before I get to writing an article about it on Starterist!

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