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Commentary

What your poor e-mail etiquette says about your business Add to ...

How you and your team present yourselves when communicating by e-mail says a lot about the quality of business you’re running. Based on the variety of e-mail approaches I’ve seen, many small business owners are not paying enough attention to this detail. Some of it is awful, and it's not just employees who are getting lazy. It's the owners too.

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Take, for example, a recent experience I had hiring a local arborist to help clean the trees and branches from my yard after the Christmas ice storm in Ontario. I've got an over-sized lot, and had an above-average amount of damage. The trimming, chipping and disposal was going to be a job for a professional.

Within a couple of days of the storm, a local arborist had a hand delivered brochure in my mailbox, offering to solve my problem. Nice: An opportunistic arborist sees a need in the middle of what would normally be his/her slow season.

The brochure was professionally designed and printed and the website was equally well done -- if not a little plain and to the point. But that's OK. I didn’t need a whack of social media options, a blog, and embedded video to understand that this company was capable and qualified to trim and dispose of trees.

So I e-mailed the company for a quote and, within 48 hours, I got a response. While it was a tad longer than I would have expected to wait, I assumed it was because the responder (likely the business owner) was no doubt making hay while the sun shined.

The real problem I had, however, was with the format of the e-mail reply: It was short, contained no greeting, listed pricing that wasn't entirely clear, had no capital letters, was incorrectly punctuated, had no closing and no e-mail signature.

What a waste of an opportunity. You know, sometimes the devil really is in the details, and this entrepreneur had an opportunity to go the extra mile with this communication. If this is all the effort you put into communicating on a potential sale, how is the rest of your customer service going to be? I couldn’t help but wonder: if a business owner can't be bothered to write a complete sentence, is her work really going to be fantastic?

I replied with some questions and an invitation to give a formal quote. The response I got was no better. In fact, it was just as bad as the first and lacked critical details like total price and when the work would be completed. After a few more rounds of e-mails, we finally reached a deal.

The good news is that the work was super professional, completed ahead of schedule and under budget and our face to face meeting was courteous and pleasant.

In my opinion, this small business owner got the difficult part of his job right (performing the technical work) and the easy part wrong (communicating effectively). If you’re willing to pay a graphic designer to do a professional brochure and you follow it up with lacklustre communications and customer service, you’re leaving your reputation, customer loyalty and future referrals on the table.

Your e-mails speak volumes about your business and often leave both a first and lasting impression. Crafting well-written and thoughtful e-mails can make a big difference in getting a cold call returned and a business relationship started.

I appreciate that the small business in my example was started by someone with a specific trade, not a literary degree. But I’m not asking for much. This applies to internal e-mails, between employees, as well.

The effort you put into an e-mail is a reflection on how much you care about the message you are sending as well as the recipient themselves.

Some basic rules I try to live by include:

  1. Be sure the subject line of your message is clear and relative, especially when you’re replying to a long string of e-mails where the subject matter might have changed.
  2. Invest a sentence or two into a pleasant greeting.
  3. Watch your capitalization, punctuation and grammar.
  4. Be objective and detailed. You probably know the details of your subject matter intimately, but is it going to be clear to someone reading it for the first time?
  5. Sign your name at the bottom. I know this seems redundant, as it is often clear who the sender is before you even open an e-mail, but this keeps it professional.
  6. Include an e-mail signature with your phone number and website address. Even if the recipient already knows you well, it saves having to look up this info if the content in the e-mail inspires the reader to reach out directly.
  7. Maintain a standardized e-mail format in your business, right down to the font specs and background and signature format. It's nice when employees want to express their personal creativity, but this is a business communication and your brand will benefit from consistency in this regard.

Nobody’s perfect. But the least you can do is put some effort into this. A sloppy e-mail sends an unprofessional signal to you customers, present and future, and calls into question the attention to detail you will invest in the other things you do.

Step it up. A polished e-mail will help your business appear more professional and the best part is, it's free!

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.

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