November 8, 1999
We're in what could be called an e-mail explosion. Everybody is using e-mail. It's convenient, and it's hard to beat for speed of communication. But something is missing. Namely good manners, proper English usage and appropriateness of content. I would guess that the majority of us get a flood of e-mail daily, most of which we then discard as fast as we can click the mouse. Something needs to be done about that. A good place to start is with that next e-mail you're about to send. Is it necessary? Would it just contribute to the stream of "junk" e-mail? Would a phone call be a better way to handle it?
Another part of this craze is that with just about any e-mail we receive that is truly important, we make a "hard copy." That's usually because we want to study the communication before we act on it or want to file a copy for safekeeping. My question, then, is why not start with a hard copy? Is it really that urgent that you can't send a written memo or even a letter?
I was reminded about all these issues when I recently received some promotional materials for a book titled Customer Service for Dummies. One of the press releases carried the headline "Ten most common e-mail etiquette mistakes-Lack of e-mail etiquette could be ruining your image." Apparently this and a lot of other advice can be found in what the publishers boast is "the much awaited, expanded second edition containing all new content on e-mail and the Internet." The authors are Karen Leland and Keith Bailey, who founded the Sterling Consulting Group in 1986. According to their profiles, Sterling was the first American consulting company to win a major contract for customer service training within the British government. Both have also worked with large companies like American Express, AT&T, Marriott Hotels and Sun Microsystems. Because of their customer-service expertise, IDG Books Worldwide contacted them to write a book on the topic. The result was Customer Service for Dummies.
So what are the most common e-mail mistakes according to the authors?
* Unclear subject line. The "title" for your e-mail should be clear, concise and neutral.
* Poor greeting or no greeting. The authors say none of us would write a letter or leave a voicemail message without at least a simple greeting. The same applies for e-mail.
* Using abbreviations not commonly used or understood. The authors say ASAP or FYI are OK, but others can be confusing. When in doubt, spell it out.
* Unnecessary "carbon copies" of the posting. In other words, don't CC people who don't need to get involved. There are plenty of stories of people who were CC'd on memos that cast them in an unfavorable light.
* Sloppy grammar, spelling and punctuation. Use spellcheckers and proofread all e-mail. Don't make readers wince.
* Using all CAPITAL letters to make a point. According to the authors, when you use all capital letters in a message you are throwing a "HISSY FIT." It's the written equivalent of shouting. Anger isn't very productive.
* No closing or sign-off. The person who receives your e-mail will probably think you are rude. Always end your e-mail on a positive note-no matter what the content of the message, the authors say.
* E-mail that's difficult to read. Use paragraph marks and proper spacing. Make the format reader-friendly.
* Messages have an unfriendly tone. Don't be hostile or accusatory in your writing. You're likely to get a hostile response. Remember, sometimes sarcasm or humor doesn't come across in an e-mail. In short, watch your manners.
* Lack of a clear request. What is it you're trying to accomplish with your message? Include a specific question or a request. And make sure it's clear and concise.
We all make these kinds of mistakes. Effective communication involves good old-fashioned common sense and courtesy. So I applaud Leland and Bailey for their excellent timing. Their advice is just what a lot us need right now to do a better job of communicating with our customers, colleagues and friends. E-mail can be risky business.
Politeness is the key,
Charles S. Lauer