The blessing and the curse of the digital revolution! Between email, instant and text messaging, cell phones, Blackberries, and the Internet, we are drowning in data overload. Moreover, the constant interruptions cost the U.S. economy an estimated $558 billion annually. This staggering number does not account for the cost of poorly written emails that land companies and employees in legal trouble, destroy long-term client relationships, and ruin reputations – just review Mike Brown’s (former FEMA chief) emails as Hurricane Katrina raged and you will understand. Add to this mix a lack of civility and common sense, and you have an explosive brew. Writing online is still, as author Patricia O’Conner writes, “in its Wild West stage . . . with everybody shooting from the hip and no sheriff in sight.”
What to do? For starters, treat email writing as writing, not as casual conversation. Whether written in the sky, sent by carrier pigeon, or transmitted via the Web, words must connect with the reader. Good writing allows this to happen; poor writing does not.
Therefore, establish some law and order by developing an email protocol, whether you are a multinational or a single-shingle firm. Simply stated, it’s “the way we do business around here” in terms of communicating via email with coworkers and customers. It is a code of behavior, a set of standards as to how you will frame your words, manage your inbox, even extend your brand.
Consider this story. Within a software company’s accounting department, an employee received a query from one of its international clients regarding an invoice. The client asked how she was handling the invoice, as the company was anxious to receive the product. The employee’s response? “handling it.” Note that the response was in lower case, with no greeting or closing. The client’s response? Not pleasant. The client pulled his account, citing irreconcilable differences. And the result? Loss of revenue, loss of client, loss of reputation. Though we cannot account for the human factor, if a protocol had been in effect, the calamitous outcome might have been avoided because standards would have been in place as to how to respond to the client.
Below is a short list of questions to visit at your next meeting. Your answers could be the beginning of a company-wide document.
How do you greet and close messages?
Companies are crafting a series of key phrases used solely for openings and closings. Remember, you would never call without greeting someone. Why would you not in your emails?
What does your email signature say about your company?
It is an extension of your company’s brand. Professional, with no cutesy sayings, it should contain all contact information. Establish a standard for font style and size – Verdana and Arial remain the ones most commonly used. Also, because you have limited real estate, consider placing your signature block horizontally rather than vertically.
What is the company policy around blind copies?
Some companies use them only for e-blasts; others state that they are strictly verboten. Discuss why, when, and how you will use them. Caution: Some computer programs allow all those who you do not want to see your email to view it if the recipient hits “reply all.”
Do you have a message for the out-of-office auto-responder, and when do you turn it on?
Four hours? One day? A large bank requires that if an employee is immersed in an important project, it must be turned on if he/she is gone from the office for more than one hour. Other companies insist they are available 24/7 for their clients, thus no auto-responder.
How often do you check emails?
Some companies set their programs so emails are called up only hourly, thus reducing downtime and increasing productivity. Others require employees to check their emails a minimum of four times a day.
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How soon do you return emails?
Within four hours? 24 hours? Some company policies state all that emails need answering within the same business day.
Do you use emoticons?
Buzzing bees, dancing bears, smiley faces. Suggestion: Heartily rule against it.
How many emails before you pick up the phone?
The rule of thumb seems to be three. If the issues are not resolved, pick up the phone or walk down the hall.
What are your company’s policies about writing business letters, accessing confidential information, or handling racial or sexual harassment? Your email policy should be compatible with these documents.
How will you ensure that employees understand your protocol? For example, who is the contact person when questions arise? How will updates be handled? Will you schedule trainings?
Email has become the biggest productivity drain in businesses today. Getting a handle on this daily data dump by establishing procedures – etiquette, if you will – will make you and your company stand above the crowd. And possibly bring law and order to the untamed world of Internet communication. What are your “best practices”?
Dr. Julie Miller, founder of Business Writing That Counts, is a national consultant and trainer who helps professionals reduce their writing time while still producing powerful documents. She and her team work with executives who want to hone their writing skills and professionals who want to advance their careers. Some of her clients are Microsoft, Washington Mutual Bank, Verizon Wireless, and Cisco Systems. For more information, please call (425) 485-3221, or visit http://www.bus inesswritingthatcounts.com.