Making E-mail Effective
Do’s and Don’ts for today’s fast and informative business communication

When used correctly, e-mail can be a valuable tool in business communication. But what does it mean to use e-mail correctly?

The technology is still new enough that people don’t often adhere to strict guidelines for what is acceptable. Over the past three years, however, the number of publications dealing with business e-mail etiquette has skyrocketed. Already in 2002, lists at least six new books published with the sole intention of guiding users through the challenges of business e-mail. Just as there are rules for business communication when calling on the telephone (i.e. not keeping customers on hold too long), there seem to be emerging standards for business communication in the arena of the Internet.

E-mail as a form of business communication has become commonplace over the past five years. Distributors now have quicker access to business communication than ever before, so there are higher expectations as well.

When end users have questions about ordering new products, they send e-mail. When manufacturers need to make shipment changes, they send e-mail. When distributors need to get specialized order instructions, they send e-mail. E-mail has radically transformed the way businesses receive and send information, but it doesn’t always improve business.

“E-mail was created to make our lives easier, but it really has done just the opposite — especially in the corporate sector,” says Dave Stamm, president of Stamm Business Technologies (SBT), a technology outsourcing provider for businesses in Milwaukee and Chicago. “People who once received 10 to 15 voicemails each day now respond to probably 30 to 50 e-mails a day. It takes time to give thoughtful responses, and that takes time away from other business operations.”

Massive Communication
One of Stamm’s clients is a company whose employees each receive more than 200 e-mails per day. The daunting total has required them to dedicate eight hours of each work week just to answer e-mails — something they as a small business cannot afford to do. In order to eliminate wasted time, the company has hired SBT to implement a new communication system that is less dependent on the use of e-mail. Other businesses have had similar problems in sorting through unwanted e-mail surveys, inquiries and offers.

Although e-mail has brought some confusion and adjustment, distributors also see the benefits it provides and the new efficiencies it has created. For David Holtzman, president of TEC Products Co., Carteret, N.J., the best thing about e-mail is that it provides a way to communicate with business associates when it’s most convenient for them.

“When we’re trying to contact a customer, e-mail enables us to send a question or bring up an issue without disrupting our customer. With the telephone, you might be interrupting someone who is in the middle of something, but e-mail is not as intrusive,” he says.

Reply Promptly
Distributors know that outstanding customer service is a hallmark of a successful company. Conversely, ignoring the needs of customers is suicide. Smart distributors always make sure to return phone calls as soon as possible — before their customers get tired of waiting. The same should be true for e-mail.

“Without question, the most important thing about e-mail is that you answer each one expeditiously and that you give the correct information,” says Holtzman. “It should be just like when someone leaves a voicemail. A customer expects that if a message is left, then that phone call will be returned.”

For some reason, however, e-mail is sometimes considered less direct and therefore less critical than other communication mediums. But distributors should not make the mistake of taking business e-mail lightly, says Stephen Lehnhoff, sales manager for Reliable Industries, George Town, Grand Cayman.

“When distributors get an e-mail they should have the same reaction as if they talked to the person face-to-face,” he says. “If a customer sends an e-mail and you put off answering it, there’s really no excuse. You can’t say, ‘Sorry, I don’t think I got it,’ because they know that they sent it.”

Likewise, whenever an e-mail with specific instructions is sent or received, that e-mail is on file and customers will likely go back to check if those instructions were carried out correctly.

“If a distributor gets instructions by e-mail, he better be sure that he does it the right way the first time,” says Lehnhoff. “Otherwise, a customer will show you the exact e-mail they sent and say, ‘Why didn’t this get done?’ People may think that when they send an e-mail there’s a chance of it getting lost in cyberspace for a while, but the truth is that it goes right to the customer and it’s the same as any written agreement.”

Include Vital Information
The most common mistake in sending business e-mail is failing to include all vital information, says Stamm. And it’s a mistake upper management is often guilty of making.

“Usually it’s the presidents or CEOs of small businesses who forget to include everything that’s necessary in an e-mail, especially a reply to a previous e-mail,” he says. “They get so busy that they don’t have time to give a thorough response to each e-mail, so they usually end up just shooting back one-sentence answers like, ‘That looks good.’ Or they might just have time for one-word responses that simply says ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The problem is that they often fail to include the original e-mail, so customers or suppliers collect these one-word e-mails with no content and they can’t figure out what the president or CEO is writing about.”

In addition to including previous e-mails in replies, it is also advisable for distributors to include any necessary contact information at the end of all e-mails they send out. This is commonly known as the “signature” in a message and, according to a 1999 issue of The Internet Writing Journal (IWJ), it should be no longer than six lines. It typically includes the full name of the sender, the sender’s title in the company, contact information for fax or phone and the physical address of the company. Business owners may be tempted to list noteworthy credentials or even awards, but it’s unnecessary to include anything more than basic information.

The ability to be concise is also of value to distributors’ business associates. Because e-mails are sent and received constantly throughout the day, the content risks taking on a “stream-of-consciousness” feel. Include only critical information.

“If a user sees a message that contains several paragraphs he’ll be less likely to read everything in it,” says the IWJ. “Keep that in mind when you’re trying to determine how much content you want to include in an e-mail.” For instance, don’t try to send the entire text from a website if it isn’t necessary. All Web pages have URLs — refer the readers to the actual Web page instead.

The Subject At Hand
The subject of a distributor’s e-mail makes a strong first impression on a customer. According to Stamm, it’s a good idea to head an e-mail with a pertinent subject.

Using a subject line gives the recipient an idea about what the content of the e-mail is, and it makes things easier when a person is trying to file e-mails or sort them into different categories, he explains.

But the sender of an e-mail should never put just any word or phrase in the subject line. It’s always best to simply state what the e-mail is about, rather than trying to be clever or humorous and risking a misunderstanding. Many people have been scarred by the abundance of spam and mass e-mails they never wanted in the first place, so an informative subject line can put them at ease. Most likely, a lot of customers have been bothered by junk e-mails in the past.

It’s A Business
At Reliable Industries, Lehnhoff fashions his e-mails the same way he would any business correspondence. Even though most e-mail systems show the date an e-mail is sent automatically, he always includes the date at the top of his message. That way there is a record of when the e-mail was sent on his printed copy. Lehnhoff also makes sure to address first-time customers formally, saying that an e-mail reflects the attitude of the entire company.

“If you’re just starting out with a customer who you’ve never met before, and you write, ‘Hey Bob,’ to introduce your e-mail, then that customer may not take your business seriously.” It’s always important to use proper grammar and correct spelling, even though some people say that it isn’t as important in the world of e-mail, he adds.

Holtzman does not treat each e-mail quite as formally. At times it’s valuable to have a familiarity with customers, and e-mails can reflect that familiarity, he says. “If it’s a new customer, then by all means I would recommend that our salespeople use more formal references,” he says. “But we’re honestly not an industry of high formalities. Most of our sales accounts are on a pretty friendly basis.”

The difficulty of expressing subtleties in an e-mail has been experienced by many users as well. Although it is used as often as the telephone, written communication does not allow for expressing emotion or humor as easily as spoken communication. For this reason, users often resign to using sideways smile or frown symbols, known as emoticons to e-mail experts, in order to make emotions clear. Some customers may find such symbols unprofessional so there is always a risk in using them.

“Basically, it’s a matter of logic and common sense,” says Holtzman. “In general, when a distributor is using e-mail they should try to use it with a professional business attitude and with respect.”

E-mail Etiquette Basics
  • Be concise and to the point

  • Answer all questions, and pre-empt further questions

  • Use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation

  • Don’t be too impersonal

  • Use templates for frequently used responses

  • Answer swiftly

  • Do not attach unnecessary files

  • Use proper structure and layout

  • Don’t overuse high priority option

  • Do not write in all capitals

  • When replying, don't leave out vital content from original messages

  • Add disclaimers to your e-mails

  • Read the e-mail before you send it

  • Do not overuse Reply to All

  • For mass mailings, use the bcc: field or do a mail merge

  • Don’t overuse abbreviations and emoticons

  • Be careful with formatting

  • Limit the use of rich text and HTML messages

  • Get permission before copying a message or attachment

  • Do not use e-mail to discuss confidential information

  • Use a meaningful subject

  • Use active instead of passive voice

  • Avoid using URGENT and IMPORTANT

  • Don't send or forward e-mails containing libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene remarks

  • Don't forward virus hoaxes and chain letters

  • Keep your language gender-neutral

  • Don't reply to spam

  • Use cc: field sparingly

— Adapted from information available at Email

Additional Resources
E-mail Not Forgotten
Why Content Counts

Links to Top Sales Sites

Sales professionals are constantly crunched for time, but with Mentor Associates’ handy compilation of sales-related articles, links and newsletters, there’s barely an excuse not to hop on the Net and do a little free-reading.

Go to Mentor's website and you can link to Mentor’s picks of the Top 300 sales sites, broken down by category, that run the gamut from association links to a list of resources for sales leads, complete with links. For those who are really pinched for time, Mentor ranks the Top 25 sales sites. Included are links to sites like: “Let’s Start Selling,” “Entrepreneurial Edge,” and many more. Don’t forget to visit Mentor’s newsletter archives while you’re there.

Talk Business Basics On Biztalk

Where can distributors go for advice on accounting, business law, insurance, marketing, telecommunications and even printing the best looking business cards? All that and more is at the Biztalk website. The site aims to help business owners with any and all obstacles they may encounter, to thrive rather than just survive.

Registered members may enter topical forums and chat rooms on business as well.

Web Buzz

CFR, Environmental Cleaning Services, Fort Worth, Texas, invites distributors to explore its website. The site will save valuable time by enabling users to reference information quickly. New product launches, current Material Safety Data Sheets, Fabric Hygiene seminar locations and CFR’s distributor locator are just a few features.

Reckitt Benckiser, Wayne, N.J., offers MSDS for its entire North American portfolio on its website. This includes 350 products, such as professional, retail, food, commercial, specialty and Canadian brands.

Kimberly-Clark, Alpharetta, Ga., recently launched a new website for its safety division. The site provides information on the company’s protective garments and accessories as well as information designed to help users make informed purchasing decisions.

The Soap and Detergent Association’s (SDA), website offers useful handwashing and food safety tips as well as guidance for proper usage of laundry detergents and household cleaning products.

Flo-Pac Corp., Minneapolis, now offers another tool to provide distributors with rotary brush information. The Rotary Wizard is currently available on the Flo-Pac website and has all the same information as the company’s printed rotary brush selection guide, but in a format that is easier to use.

WinSpray, Santa Ana, Calif., has introduced a new website to go with its product launch, the WinSpray Gun. The site includes other WinSpray products, as well as testimonials.

Find out what others are saying about this topic, and post your own comments, at our Forums.