Despite all of the exponential technological advances in our methods of communicating in the last decade, I still like the personal touch, where I can pick-up the phone to connect or have tea with a colleague or client. Nonetheless, e-mail is perhaps the most preferred method of business communication, so how can we properly manage e-mail as entrepreneurs? Following are ten guidelines I've learned along the way personally, professionally, and entrepreneurially.
1) Keep it short, sweet, simple and appropriately title your e-mails
Time is of the essence for all of us. Save yourself some time and keep the e-mails short, sweet, and simple. Here is an example: "Sarah, I truly enjoyed making your acquaintance yesterday afternoon. Please feel free to contact me should you have any further questions." Remember to appropriately title your e-mail in the subject line so that the title matches its contents. For instance, the minutes of Friday's staff meeting as the primary content should not be titled "Monday's tele-conference".
2) Maintain a cordial, professional tone at all times
Use professional language and proper grammar especially with those with whom you correspond regularly: associates, staff, subcontractors, vendors, and so forth. To that end, before sending your documents, set your computer to conduct a spell-check automatically. I've had to overcome my awkward feelings and use "hotel/hospitality language" as my litmus test, as if I am a hotel front desk agent checking in a guest: "How may I be of assistance to you?" Further, make sure your e-mails look professional. 12 point black Arial font is typical. Here's an example: "Attached please find the document we discussed. Kindly review it and let me know your thoughts. Best regards."
3) Create an auto signature
My attorney advised me to sign all of my e-mails with my name, company, as well as my phone, fax, e-mail, and web address so that there is no mistake that the nature of the correspondence is business and not personal. You may also need a confidential transmission disclaimer (at a minimum). Consult with your attorney for instructions regarding your specific situation.
4) Decide on the utilization of multiple e-mail addresses
My husband prefers one e-mail address for all correspondence and that's it. I have a personal, work and several business e-mail addresses and get irritated if anyone crosses those boundaries (e.g., a personal friend sending me an e-mail at work). If you choose to use purpose-specific addresses, you will first need to set up the accounts and direct the public so that they correspond with you through whichever account you designate for a given purpose, but then you must also check all of those separate accounts regularly. You may also blind carbon copy (BCC) or forward e-mails to the one account you're viewing frequently. The most important thing to remember is not to allow important correspondences to go unchecked or unattended.
5) Regularly check incoming and outgoing correspondence
You may consider entering into your address book the contact info of regular correspondents. This way, you decrease the possibility of re-entering the wrong e-mail address. Consider making a courtesy call to the recipient following initial correspondence to let him/her know that you've sent an e-mail so that your correspondence does not go into their Spam box. Likewise, you may add incoming addresses to your preferred contact list if you so desire. Avoid instances where your critical correspondence was never received. Check e-mail regularly and reply quickly.
Unless there's a bona fide reason for the hold-up, make every attempt to respond to your e-mails expeditiously. Only you can determine how, in the midst of your hectic schedule and a gazillion things on your "to do" list, this is going to be accomplished. Set a benchmark for yourself that e-mails will be answered within a certain amount of time. I once missed out on an interview with a magazine of national repute because the editor-in-chief's assistant e-mailed my "info" account, and the inquiry went straight into my Spam box. By the time I retrieved it, it was too late. The issue had already gone to press, and I missed out on major publicity. Don't let this happen to you.
6) Thread your e-mails
Deciding whether or not to thread e-mails is a matter of preference. Personally, I like conducting a search for a particular topic and yielding one-not five-separate e-mails relating to a given conversation. Unwieldy discussion threads are the result when you and the recipient simply reply to an initial e-mail rather than create a brand new e-mail as the conversation evolves.
7) Unless necessary, don't reply to the entire ListServ. Use discretion.
Have you ever received an e-mail from someone you don't know RSVPing for John's party? Before you hit the "Reply to all" key, think about whether or not it is truly necessary for the entire listserv to have your reply; although as with anything else, I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule. E-mail the listserv only on a need-to-know basis.
8) Purge, organize and archive e-mails
Semi-annually, I take the time to purge and organize/archive my business, personal and work-related correspondences into electronic file folders. Old e-mails that you will never look at again in your Inbox, Sent Mail, or Junk Mail folders take up hard drive and/or server space unnecessarily. And remember, once you purge those folders, the purged mail is simply transferred into your Deleted mail folder; you will then have to go in and purge your Deleted mail folder before the emails are truly gone.
9) Avoid e-spats and watch the tone of your e-mails
Misunderstandings do happen, and clarifications do need to be made from time to time. Even so, make it a rule of thumb to avoid "getting into it" over the e-mail and opt instead to pick up the phone or meet in person to resolve complex or delicate issues. Regardless of how much one may try to construct a sentence or phrase to convey his/her true meaning or intent, this sometimes causes more harm than good and has the potential to spiral out of control. I'm aware of a case where a two friends who were also in a consultant/client relationship agreed to salvage both their friendship and business relationship by making the time to converse person-to-person because there was too much overly sensitive content in their e-mail correspondences. I know of another case where a situation was "messy" behind closed doors, and yet no e-mail of a negative connotation could be found anywhere because all parties involved kept the content cordial and to-the-point. Keep in mind that with the touch of a button, e-mails can be BCC'd, forwarded to third parties, or saved as a permanent record. The occasional lapse in judgment concerning what to put in writing notwithstanding, there are some matters you may very well wish, purposely, to put in writing. Again establish "rules of thumb" for yourself, clients, staff, etc. in order to "keep it clean".
10) Read your e-mails carefully when responding before you press "Send"
There are times when I occasionally receive a reply from someone who's typing so fast that his/her e-mail appears fragmented and scattered, as if s/he was multi-tasking and unfocused at the moment s/he was typing the e-mail. Moreover, s/he may ask me a question whose answer was already embedded in my original correspondence. Don't be that guy or gal. Slow down, take a deep breath, and take the time to read the content of your e-mails before responding.