Business Email Etiquette

Business Email Etiquette

Dos and dont's of business email etiquette

More business is conducted electronically today than ever before: you might meet, communicate and sign contracts with clients entirely over the internet, and emailing and VOIP mean that you can work and communicate with colleagues who aren't even in the same city as you. With an estimated 25% of every American's working hours spent reading and writing emails, it's crucial that you understand how to use email in a way that is professional and courteous, and that reflects well on both you and your business. Here's how:

Do use a business email address

If you work for a company, you've probably been assigned a business email address with your company's domain. If that's the case, you should use it for all of your business correspondence, even if you prefer your personal email address or mail client. Using your business email doesn't just look more professional, it also makes you appear more trustworthy, as every email you send and receive is accountable to the company you represent.

If you're a freelancer or your company has not assigned you a business email, you should still try to keep your personal and business emails separate, and the easiest way to do so is by setting up a business email address with your preferred email provider. Choose a username that is professional and reflects the nature of your work, and make sure that all of your professional emails are sent from this address so you don't get your personal and professional correspondence mixed up.

Don't use your business email for personal communication (and vice versa)

It might seem easier in the moment to send personal emails with whatever email client is closest, but in the long run it's a very bad idea to use your business email for personal correspondence. First and foremost, the second your business contacts and personal contacts intermingle, you increase the risk of accidentally CC'ing your boss or a client on something meant for a close friend, which can be embarrassing or even professionally damaging. Keeping the two emails separate also helps protect client confidentiality and keeps business documents more secure, which is best both for your business and for your clients' peace of mind.

Do reply as quickly as possible

email has sped up the pace of modern business, and you're expected to keep up. Even if an email is not time sensitive, do your best to reply as quickly as you can, especially if you have been asked to perform a task or supply information. If you know it will take some time to be able to respond properly, send a quick response to let your client or colleague know that you received the email and are working on a full reply. It is definitely considered rude to keep someone waiting for a response, but it does not take very long to make it clear that you received the message.

Don't send without proof-reading

Sloppy spelling and grammar make you look like you don't pay attention to detail, and if you aren't aware of mistakes in your emails, you might not be aware of mistakes in your work. Don't let messy email writing be a reason for your colleagues and clients to question how well you do your job; a quick proof-read is all it takes to send an email that looks polished and professional. Proof-reading before you send will also let you catch potentially embarrassing mistakes before everyone in the company hears about them - after all, it only takes a few misplaced letters to write the exact opposite of what you meant to say.

Do use formal language

emailing isn't texting, and your colleagues and clients are not your roommates. When sending a business email, always use full sentences, avoid colloquialisms like "yo" and "hey" in the greeting line, and use the recipient's full name unless they have already told you that they prefer a nickname. Even if you know a client extremely well - even if you're friends outside of business hours - using full sentences and formal language is good practice; you never know what information is going into business files or being passed on to a lawyer or accountant. Formal language is clear and comprehensible language, which means that you and your client are less likely to misunderstand each other in your emails.

Don't be stuffy

While it's good practice to keep your emails relatively formal, you don't have to write like a 17th century academic in your emails. In fact, being too formal can make you look like you're in over your head and trying to sound more accomplished than you are, which is a bad impression to leave. Contractions, like "can't" and "don't", are absolutely fine, and it's also perfectly acceptable to use more conversational language than you might find in a brief or contract. Unlike formal documents, emails give an impression of who you are as a person, which means that you should try to inject a little personality into them before you hit "send".

Do have a clear subject line

The subject line of an email is the first indication to the recipient of how important that email is to read. That makes it pretty crucial to craft a subject line that actually reflects the content of the email. Be as specific as you can in a short space, because if someone is checking their email on a smartphone, the subject line might be all they have to decide whether to read that email now or later. So, instead of writing "Information for meeting", try "Contracts for pre-read before tomorrow's investor meeting"; the former could be about any meeting this month, but the latter clearly tells the recipient what documents are included, and how much time they have to read them.

Don't fake an email's importance

If you put "Important: please respond" in the subject line of every email you send, before long your recipients will realize that most of your emails aren't really that important after all. As much as you may want an immediate response every time, learn to be selective in which emails you mark as "important" in the subject line, otherwise the word ceases to mean anything. If you trust that a well-crafted subject line will get the job done most of the time, then when you include the word "important" or "urgent", the recipient will actually take note. If you try to trump up an email's importance just to cut through whatever else is being received that day, your email will just end up being ignored.

Do be concise

The place for small talk is in person, not via email. When you're sending a business email, don't waste space talking around the subject; get to the point of what you need to say or ask quickly and without creating large blocks of text. People send and receive tens - sometimes hundreds - of business emails per day, so the longer you take to get your point across in an email, the more likely it is that the point will get lost in all the other text that your recipient has read that morning. Use short sentences and clear language wherever possible, and don't let the point of your message get lost in creative ways of writing it; the more time someone has to spend reading your email, the less time they have to respond to it.

Don't be abrupt or negative

Of course, it is possible to be much too concise. It is notoriously difficult to gauge tone in an email, which means that you may be coming across much harsher than you intend. Avoid negative-sounding words like "failure" or "mistake", and if you're giving feedback, make sure you offer some encouragement along with whatever criticism you're sending. If in doubt, read your email aloud to yourself before sending; you might find it worth writing a few extra words to make sure you aren't coming across unnecessarily harsh in writing.

Do warn about large attachments

If you have to send an attachment with your email, be aware of size. Image files, videos and even lengthy PDFs can all really add up in size, and depending on your recipient's internet connection, trying to download a large attachment could seriously slow down anything else they are trying to do. If your email attachment is particularly large, include a warning in the body of your email so that your recipient knows to make allowances before trying to download - and, if your attachment is large enough to justify a warning, be prepared not to get a reply as quickly as usual, since you have to factor download time into your expectations.

Don't forget to attach the attachments

Some email clients will automatically warn you if you mention an attachment in the email body but don't actually attach a file - but not all. If you're sending an email that needs an attachment, make sure the file in question is actually included before you hit "send", otherwise you're creating inconvenience both for yourself and for your recipient. If you're lucky and catch the mistake quickly, you're still adding an extra email to the chain that separates the file from the information that is relevant to it. If you're unlucky and don't re-send with the attachment, you waste a lot of time while you wait for a response your recipient can't send without the attachment you don't realize you forgot in the first place.

Do use CC and BCC

The CC and BCC fields exist to streamline sending out an email to multiple recipients. Generally speaking, the "to" field should only include the recipients you actually want to reply to the email, while "CC" and "BCC" include the people you want to be aware of the email but not necessarily to reply. CC'ed recipients can see each other's email addresses, while BCC'ed recipients cannot. Using the CC and BCC fields helps keep your emails streamlined by reducing clutter in the "to" field. In addition, BCC protects the privacy of the email recipients, which is something of which you should be mindful when emailing multiple people who do not already know each other.

Don't "reply all" all the time

"Reply all" is a quick and powerful tool for ensuring everyone in an email chain is kept up to date, but it's also a great way to annoy everyone in the office. If not everyone in an email thread needs to know your response, it's much better to hand-pick your recipients than to hit "reply all" every time. If you use "reply all" as your default, you waste the time of anyone who was included in the original email but who really does not need to be part of the ongoing discussion, and you make it very difficult for everyone else to keep track of the original email if they need to reply at a later date.

Do keep things light

Not every business email has to be serious all the time - in fact, it's actually good practice to make the occasional joke or otherwise try to keep things light-hearted. Not only does having a sense of humor make a business environment more fun and interesting; it can also make your email more memorable among all the other emails being sent and received that day. Do not ever make jokes at your colleagues' or clients' expense, but if you can inject a little humor without offending anyone, you should.

Don't assume everything will translate

Tone is, again, notoriously difficult to judge via email, and that problem is exacerbated with email's ability to let you communicate with people in different states, countries and continents than yourself. No matter how clear you think you're being, something will get lost in translation every now and again, and it's up to you to keep a cool head, figure out where the wires got crossed and try again to explain yourself. This is especially true with jokes: just because you think something is funny when you write it, there's no guarantee it will translate well to whoever is reading it. Make sure the content of your email is not dependent on a particular phrase being read just so, or your recipient finding a particular pun funny.

Do practice, and ask for feedback

Writing business emails is like any business skill: you improve by doing it. If you're mindful of your email etiquette with every email you send, and you ask for honest feedback from colleagues and clients you trust, then over time, writing clear and professional business emails will become second nature to you. Just like any other part of proper business etiquette, the more experience you have, the more naturally writing business emails will come to you.