21 Ways to Avoid Business E-mail Disasters

Business blunders occur every day. None is likely to be a deal-killer by itself, but in combination with other missteps, or the same mistake repeated over time, will hurt you as an individual and your company, as well.

Below is a guide to 21 common ways that business people shoot themselves in the foot with e-mail on a regular basis, with recommendations for better business conduct on the Information Superhighway.

Personal effectiveness

Take a close look at how you use e-mail when communicating with just one other person. These tips are particularly important with your one-on-one correspondence.

1. Be hard to reach via e-mail. This is easy to recognize. Your business cards are missing this important line.

2. Use terrible subject lines. When e-mail arrives, people use two ways of determining its importance: who sent it and the subject line. A message that says, “reminder” as a subject line is treated quite differently than one that says, “Reminder: Meeting on 3/12 at 2:30pm in Conference Room.”

3. Be informal, even jocular, as a rule. This is a subtle one because each of us thinks that our messages will be understood exactly as we intended when we wrote them. To avoid misinterpretations, lean toward straightforward communications with individuals you do not know well. This is twice as important when sending a group message.

4. Who needs to proofread? The loss of credibility due to a mistyped or misspelled word is below the radar screen for most busy professionals. Take the extra minute or two to a) use the spelling checker of your e-mail package, and b) to reread the message to make sure it is coherent and accurate. Typos happen.

5. Use e-mail as PageMaker. As e-mail packages start to get feature-heavy, users sometimes get seduced by the ability to change fonts, text color, and paragraph alignment. It’s remarkable how slick you can make a message look these days. A better approach is to use e-mail for text messages. When you need additional formatting, create a word processing file and send it as an e-mail attachment.

6. Print out every message to review it. That’s a good way to waste your company’s paper and your time! Instead, develop methods of storing your incoming and outgoing messages in relevant mail boxes, such as “staff meeting minutes”, “Q2 transactions”, and “hot leads.” Programs such as Eudora (www.Eudora.com) and Lotus Notes (www.Lotus.com) offer automatic sorting of e-mail based upon keywords in the sender, subject, or body text of messages.

7. Rely on others to keep a copy of messages you send. In the online executive education course I teach, a VP of Sales confessed, “I thought it was like printing — doesn’t the file say on the hard drive when you send it via e-mail?” No, not necessarily. And many e-mail packages install with the default to NOT save copies of outgoing e-mail. To avoid the mess of looking for mail that you sent and not finding it, some people always cc themselves.

8. Check for new messages when the mood strikes you. Come on, you know the drill on this one. E-mail makes it so easy to communicate within a corporation, to your vendors, suppliers, consultants, and customers that professionals expect you to be checking your e-mail regularly. Three times a day, spaced out by a couple of hours, is a good start. In business, replies to messages (even if they’re just acknowledgements) are expected within 1 business day.

Group Communications

This category focuses on messages sent to a group of colleagues. Usually, this involves putting more than one e-mail address in either the “To” line, “Cc” line, or “Bcc” line. An address put in any of the three lines delivers the message to the recipient, so what’s the difference? Here are a few guidelines to help you become a more discriminating e-mailer.

The “To” line in business e-mail is for people who are directly involved in a message. Each has a need to know and possible action items from the communication that you’re sending.

When you want to keep someone in the loop, but this person is not directly affected by the news, information, or instructions in a message, put that person in the “Cc” line.

If you want to include someone on a message, but risks giving the message a tone that might be misinterpreted by some members of the group, then put that person on the “Bcc” line (blind carbon copy).

Below are seven mistakes to avoid when sending e-mail to groups.

9. Only respond to e-mail sent to you. Let’s get this problem out of the way first. E-mail is meant to be interactive. You’re supposed to send mail. Your partners and clients will wonder about you if they never receive messages.

Remember, it’s not like TV — you get to send as much mail as you like.  Overcome any reticence by asking yourself whether what you’re going to send will give direction to your team, share valuable information with your colleagues, inform your customers, or build other valuable relationships.

E-mail often bypasses secretarial gatekeepers. Learn to take advantage of it, because your competition certainly is going to.

10. Let it grow, let it grow. Pop quiz: You and four other managers receive a message requesting your input on ten line item questions. Three of those questions fall under your area of responsibility. How much of the original message do you send back? Answer: Just enough of the message that is pertinent to your reply. Include the questions that you are answering and your replies.

11. Let ’em have a piece of your mind! This is a related problem that quite a few former managers wished they understood prior to sending a heated e-mail message. In short, do not ever send anything via e-mail that you would not mind printed on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.

12. If in doubt, count him out. Have you ever been on a group distribution list to suddenly find yourself out of the loop? This is a classic problem, especially in large organizations. Say that John is part of a To list with 12 other people. He thinks of a clever thing to say to his peers regarding the latest posting, but he doesn’t want to send it to management. So, he simply replies to the group and deletes the manager’s e-mail addresses from the To and Cc lines. The joke is funny and his peers get a kick out of it. However, the problem comes when one of John’s peers uses this abbreviated list to send serious input to what he thinks is the whole group. One solution is to use a descriptive subject line and opening sentence. The new subject line lets the group know that your message is not a continuation of the previous discussion, and the opening line could announce that this message isn’t to the whole group (and probably shouldn’t be circulated!).

13. Pack that cc line. After all, if the software developer thought it would be a bad idea, why would they have left all that room? Well, not exactly. In fact this can be a real pain for many users who have gotten 3 pages of address lines to find a one paragraph message at the bottom of the e-mail. If the group is fewer than 10, leave them in the Cc line. Between 10 and 30, add them to the Bcc line so that they receive the message, but each message doesn’t contain the distribution list. More than 30 participants, or if the group membership changes often, or if the group contains members outside your organization, then you should start asking your IS department about using special software for handling these situation easily, called a listserver.

14. Be a “me too!” in online discussions. This is one of the Seven Deadly Sins of business e-mail that we discuss in StarComm’s executive development seminars. You recognize this type of message by its total lack of contribution to a discussion. You avoid it by thinking of the New Hampshire farmer’s motto: “I’ll speak when I think it will improve upon the silence.”

15. Be generous with spam. Here’s another mistake that many a well-meaning professional commits. You get a message that seems amazing and you either want to share it with your pals or help out someone appealing for you to take some action. Solution: don’t forward get-rich quick schemes, lose weight plans, or anything that seems too good to be true.

Advanced Tips

Below are some additional tips and distinctions that will propel you past the blunders to greater efficiency and effectiveness with e-mail.

16. Never pass up the chance to retype a person’s address. It doesn’t matter how fast you type or how good your memory is, this is a time-wasting habit. Instead, learn to use your address book. It will save you a great deal of time.

17. Have multiple e-mail accounts for business. That’s a sure, fast way to add stress to your life! The solution is to have a single e-mail account for business and one for personal/other communications, and do what it takes to have people use the appropriate account. Reducing your e-mail anxiety will make your life both at work and at home much easier to manage.

18. Keep it all in one pile. OK, just for fun, how many messages are in your In box? More than 5? 15? 25? 50? Really, what in the world for? Unless someone has appointed you the company’s e-mail archivist, you’re putting a drain on your productivity each time you’ve got to scroll down this list because you’ve got to make a decision about each mail item over and over again. The better solution is to create new mailboxes or e-mail folders to be used within the e-mail client. Simply label and sort your mail as it comes in, and you’ll be well on your way to better organized messages and a more manageable In box.

19. Save and forget. This particular problem plagues mobile computer users who write or reply to e-mail while in airports or in hotel rooms. (As PDA devices such as the Pilot become more popular, this will become more important to a greater number of professionals who find being connected invaluable.) What happens is that you’ll write your message, and rather being able to send it when your laptop isn’t connected to either the office network or a phone connection, you simply save it in your out box. The problem is that saved mail doesn’t get sent when you reconnect to the Internet. Queued messages do. Make the distinction, and be sure to make the choice you really intend.

20. Attach files recklessly or not at all. This is one of the most powerful capabilities of e-mail: it elevates a workgroup above the need to exchange files via floppy disk and takes care of any cross-platform issues. Here are tips to encourage file exchange, safely and successfully. 1) Always label the specific application you used to create your file in your e-mail message. For instance, “Enclosed is the latest business plan for our department in Word 99 format.” 2) If a file is larger than 500k, use compression software. WinZip is built into most operating systems, but Aladdin Stuffit is preferred by many Internet users (www.AladdinSys.com).

21. Spend no more than 5 minutes learning your software; your time is too valuable. This is an attitude engendered by that overused phrase from the 80’s: user friendly. Forget it! Today’s applications are sophisticated. If you want to have any hope of tapping the potential of these tools, you’ve got to crack open the manuals. Here’s another acronym for you from the world of support desk help lines: RTFM. It stands for Read the Fine Manual.

 

About the Author Bill Ringle

Bill Ringle is a CEO, former Apple exec, published author, and angel investor. Through Grow Business Now, he offers strategies and tools to elevate growth for executives and entrepreneurs from more than 46 industries. Bill has conducted nearly 200 podcast interviews on My Quest for the Best, where industry and business leaders share their secrets to success.

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