Email etiquette for business communication

Email have become the foremost method of communicating with colleagues and clients alike. But what are the rules for this now-ubiquitous method of communication?

This has been on my ‘to write’ list for a long time. 

What are the do’s and don’ts of emailing. For instance, someone recently informed me that ‘Dear...’ is out. Apparently, it is too formal and old hat. I am told that ‘Hi’ is more suited for email. Someone else told me that there is no need for any formalities whatsoever and that even ‘Hi’ is unnecessary; just get straight to the point almost like one would with a text (SMS) message. It seems like there is a bit of a free for all and anything goes when it comes to emailing.  

I disagree. I still find ‘Dear…’ as the only way to address a person unless of course there exists that familiarity (a team member or a good client) and/or you tend to email each other very frequently hence informality is understandable. This having been said, I am not much of a fan of ‘Dear Mr Fenech’ and prefer to address the recipient of my email in a much more personal tone. So I prefer ‘Dear Kevin’. This is so, because I consider email as a much less formal means of communication to, say, a letter. 

I also think that an email should always have a subject matter (you’d be surprised how many people ignore this), which allows the recipient to understand from the header alone the nature of the email without having to read it. Come on we all do it: we scan through our morning emails in between meetings reading just the header. The idea here is to try and get the gist of what is coming in and mentally prioritise what you have to do, the minute you are back at your desk. 

You should also always acknowledge receipt of an email even if you can’t reply there and then or if you need to check or verify something before you reply. I consider this as plain good manners. What I hate with a passion is when people receive, read and archive an email without replying to it.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes my inbox overwhelms me and it takes a couple of days to catch up but more often than not I will reply with something like ‘Thanks for your email. I’ll get back to you in the coming days’ or something similar. My point is that it is only polite to acknowledge that you’ve received the email and will reply in due course. I agree you can’t (and shouldn’t) respond to every email instantly but we can all acknowledge receipt and then take our time to reply. This doesn’t apply to unsolicited emails or junk emails of course and when ‘delete’ or ‘add to junk mail list’ is perhaps the better option. 

Whilst an email is not as formal as a letter you should make the effort to write complete sentences that make grammatical sense; there is a big difference between an email and a text message. This is important because email is devoid of physical contact i.e. if I call someone or meet him/her, I can by means of my body language, the tone of my voice, pauses in my spoken sentences, laughter / smiles, etc, convey a message very effectively.

With email you lose all of this hence extra care must be taken in your choice of words. It sometimes takes me 20 minutes to write a two sentence email and several attempts to get it right. Weigh your words carefully since email can get you in trouble with a client or colleague unnecessarily.  

Conversely, try to keep emails short and to the point. Ask yourself, what do I really want to get out of this email, and try to remain focussed throughout with (ideally) one core message being expressed. A wordy / verbose email is frustrating to read, loses the attention of the reader and can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. Don’t forget, if the email is proving to be long and complicated, maybe it’s better to do things the old fashioned way: meet the person. 

When it comes to signing-off: nothing beats ‘Regards’. Sure, sometimes you opt for ‘Kind Regards’ or ‘Best Regards’ but you shouldn’t sign-off in any other way unless you know the person very well. I’ve done this mistake in the past (trying to be creative) and I’ve regretted it. 

Finally, if you’ve literally just sent the email, don’t call the person and ask him/her if they’ve read the email. They obviously haven’t and by asking you are, in my opinion, being very silly. Give them sufficient time to read it. Also if you’ve sent them a large attachment like a 20 page contract or a longish memo have the decency to give the person at the very least two days to ‘digest’ before you call. 

Email is great. I love it. I can’t imagine what it was like working in the pre-email era but there is an etiquette to follow, especially in the business world. Try to appreciate that work emails are an extension of the company’s brand. There is no point spending hundreds of thousands of euros on brand building and marketing, if your employees have poor emailing etiquette.

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