Making Rain: Use these tips to improve email etiquette

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MakingRain.jpgMaybe you are thinking, “What does email etiquette have to with business development?” Generally, quite a lot. People will judge your ability to communicate, your responsiveness, your diplomacy and your organizational skills by how you handle your email. Here are a few guidelines that may help you identify where you might improve your personal brand and your client service. Disclaimer: This author is guilty of violating most, if not all, of these guidelines at some point in time. It’s not easy to get it right all the time, but it is definitely worth a try.

Subject lines

Make subject lines clear and concise and reflective of the message. Often when searching for messages or after moving them into folders, the subject line becomes very important. If you have another topic to address with a person, start a new email. Don’t reply to one that has a subject line that is not at all related to the subject of your new email. This keeps everything neat and tidy from a search standpoint and prevents having multiple topics mixed together.

Use punctuation wisely

Have you ever received one of those emails with exclamation points lined up behind most of the sentences? “Hello!!! Just following up to see what you thought of changes I made to the contract??!!” It makes me wonder if the person sending it has had a little too much caffeine. Punctuation is important, but use it in moderation.

Humor is hard

Humor sometimes gets lost in translation with emails. So, unless you know a person fairly well and are sure that when you make a joke, he or she will know it is a joke, it is probably best to not do it in an email message.

Add email addresses last

Don’t put the recipients into the message until you are sure you have said what you want to say and you have proofread it several times. Nothing is more embarrassing than an email being sent before you are ready. This is a good practice with replies as well. Just delete the people while you type the reply, or open a blank email and type your reply there, then cut and paste it into the original email after you choose “Reply.”

Perhaps most important, make sure you have the right recipient. Some email addresses are very similar, and with the self-populating feature offered by most services, you could be sending the email to the wrong person.

Understand what “To:”, “Cc:” and “Bcc:” mean

If you are in the Cc: box, the message is not directed to you. You are getting a copy of it as an FYI. The sender does not mean for you to participate in the conversation or reply. If you are in the Bcc: box, be very careful. If you “Reply To All,” the others will know you were in the Bcc: box. While I am personally not a fan of the Bcc: option, it can come in handy under the right circumstances. But, if you hit “Reply To All,” you will be “outed” and may not want to be. I would suggest that instead of using the Bcc: option, you should forward the message confidentially to others you want to make aware of the information.

Know when to end email discussions

If your email conversation has moved into the double-digits, it may be time to pick up the phone, schedule a conference call or set up a meeting. It will save everyone a great deal of time if they all stop typing and start talking. Plus, it is sometimes nice to just have a conversation. You may have a few other things you need to discuss, and you can do it at the same time.

Keep emails short

No one wants to read an email that goes on for pages. If you have that much to say, or document, it might be best to pick up your phone. Or, if you want to stick with email, use an attachment. If you go this route, it’s a good idea to put a brief summary or some of the key points in the email so the recipient is interested enough to open the attachment. Empty emails with attachments – or emails that say “see attachment” – often go unopened, especially if they don’t contain information that was requested.

Respond and acknowledge

This is probably the most annoying one for me, so I saved it for last.

Everyone is busy. We all get lots of email. But please, please, please reply. It says a lot about you and your organization’s culture if you either ignore someone completely, or let days go by and don’t respond. You can send a quick note saying, “I want to take the time to carefully read your email. I may not get to it today, but I will reply as soon as I can.” Then drag it into a folder and set aside time to go through the folder at the end of the day. Or have your assistant go through that folder for you and take care of some of the emails with your pre-scripted “I’ll get to this later” response.

Keeping up with all the communication we get today isn’t easy. But, a timely reply is critical. A salesperson once told me after I replied to his unsolicited email asking to schedule a meeting, “Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. Your parents must have raised you right.” I guess what he was saying is that there is good etiquette for everything, including email. Etiquette is nothing more than a set of rules that are followed for a particular situation that represent accepted behavior. Email is no different.•


Dona Stohler of S2 Law Firm Strategies provides consulting services on business development and marketing for law firms. Stohler has more than a decade of experience in the legal services industry and is the past chair of the U.S. Law Firm Group marketing committee. She can be reached at [email protected] or through The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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