By: Larry Ryan, Senior Market Executive/Senior Vice President
Despite the proliferation of communication tools like Skype and Slack, as well as social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter, email remains the dominant form of business communication. The average worker receives around of 120 emails per day and sends up to 40. Such volume can make it hard for businesses and their employees to maintain professionalism in their email communications, but doing so remains vital to building a successful business and maintaining a trusted brand identity. This is true for large and small businesses alike. And while some business communication norms are changing, the basic rules for email etiquette—be clear, be concise, be considerate and be accurate—still apply. Ensuring that your company adheres to these rules means dedicating time and effort to building an email-savvy culture.
Email, Your Business, and Your Brand
Given the importance of email to brand building—for businesses and individuals—it’s not surprising to see the career advice landscape full of articles, books, infographics, and other publications stressing the importance of email etiquette. The consensus is clear: lack of proper email etiquette can negatively impact one’s brand and business. Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette and communications speaker and author of The Essentials of Business Etiquette, states, “When email is sloppy—rife with mistakes and missing information—it makes people ask ‘Do I really want to do business with this person?’”
Conversely, good email etiquette can help a business make a strong first impression. For small businesses in particular, email can be an inexpensive vehicle for building a clear brand identity. Small business marketing manager Miriam Neel says, “Especially for service-based or solely-online businesses, an email is often one of the first ways of communicating with clients, and you need to make a good impression by presenting yourself professionally.” She adds that small businesses can make a good first impression by observing some basic tenets of email etiquette. “Something as small as a well-formatted signature with your title, company name, and website URL can make a big impression, as well as provide a reference on how to engage with your business,” Neel says. She also notes that for small businesses, email signatures are a great place to promote new products and social media links, or to highlight any company changes and important news.
For larger companies, proper email etiquette is particularly important for sales staff who often represent a client’s main interaction with the business. David Portnowitz, CMO of Star2Star Communications, a cloud communications solutions provider, says That makes developing good email etiquette critical to the success of a business. By adopting certain email best practices like crafting clear and concise subject lines and providing the proper context for recipients, salespeople can cultivate a professional email persona and, in the process, build lasting business relationships.
Employees should also be mindful of maintaining professionalism in their communications with peers and managers. Depending on relationships among colleagues, an employee may be able to be less formal in certain email. However, a different approach needs to be taken when emailing managers or other higher-ups. The team at SaneBox, an email management software company, advises, “If your boss needs to take a specific action on the contents of the email, mention it in the subject line, [and] keep your sentences short and clear—make your email as easy to read, process and respond to as possible.”
It’s also important to review emails thoroughly before sending; don’t merely rely on spell-check and other automated email features. While we’ve all been saved by the “did you forget to attach a document” feature available in most email software, there is no substitute for proofreading to spot and correct the mistakes automated features might miss.
Creating an Email-Savvy Culture
Ensuring that your company projects a professional, trusted brand identify via email means building a culture that not only maintains professionalism in email communication, but also shields the business from possible liability. Having a comprehensive email policy is one aspect of this process, but building a culture where employees are email-savvy also helps.
“Companies need to train their employees in email etiquette and business writing, so that all employees are applying the principles of good email etiquette,” says Pachter, adding that if training isn’t feasible, companies can also educate employees about proper email etiquette via newsletters or other communication vehicles.
Businesses and employees can also follow certain rules of thumb when it comes to email. In a 2017 blog for AboveTheLaw.com, attorney Stefan Savic, of the firm Balestriere Fariello, wrote about adhering to the so-called New York Times rule. “We have a rule at our firm to never send an email that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the New York Times or as a court exhibit. I am not talking about not sharing privileged information…but about the language being presented in a professional, well-worded manner that would not cause the author any embarrassment, no matter who reads it.”
Email Etiquette is Not Always a Priority
In spite of its importance, email etiquette is not always prioritized by businesses or employees. Neel says there are several reasons for this. “Email etiquette is not often taught to people before they enter the workforce; and with educational institutions using platforms like Blackboard for students to communicate with professors, check on assignments, and converse with classmates, people aren’t necessarily exposed to writing formal emails on a regular basis.”
Additionally, business communication has undergone significant changes over the past 20 years, with the increased use of instant messaging tools like Skype for Business, corporate social platforms like Yammer, and collaboration tools like Basecamp, which contain communications functionality. Moreover, as companies have increasingly used social media platforms for marketing and customer service, businesspeople have become more comfortable communicating via pithy sentences and phrases, causing some casualness to filter into email communications.
Pachter says she has noticed that “Some of the more informal aspects of these tools—like text shortcuts or even emojis—have seeped into email communication.” Neel concurs, noting that “Communication expectations have changed nearly as much as communication resources have changed. If your team is largely communicating via non-formal avenues, you can expect a similar casual tone in ‘traditional’ forms of communications like email.” Indeed, in a 2016 survey by Adobe Digital Insights, 69 percent of respondents said that texting has influenced how they email.
While some communication norms have loosened, experts say it’s still important to maintain a certain level of formality in emails in order to project competence and professionalism. Communications consultancy Polished advises businesspeople to treat emails like letters being sent on company letterhead: limit or avoid the use of business jargon, abbreviations, and emoticons like smiley faces.
Striking the Right Balance
While professional email etiquette is vital, it's also important to make your email communications accessible and human. Says Pachter, “I encourage people to write conversationally in emails, since an email is less formal than a letter. But informal doesn’t mean sloppy. You should still observe certain norms for email communication.”
Danny Rubin, vice president of PR firm Rubin Communications Group, writes on his company’s blog that when thinking about whether to use a formal vs. informal tone in an email, “You don’t have to say ‘all the right things’—or in the context of email, ‘type all the right things.’ Instead, you need to monitor the conversation and look for cues to remain serious or go casual. Other people will always tell you what they prefer.”
Email etiquette remains an often neglected skill, despite its importance in brand building for companies and individuals. Businesses can remedy this situation by making email etiquette a priority and educating their employees—either via training or knowledge sharing—to build an email-savvy culture. Certain norms of business communication may be loosening, but the ability to craft effective professional emails is still vital for a business’ success.