By Dr. Julie Miller
Information is the blessing and the curse of the digital revolution. Between email, instant messaging, text messaging, cell phones, Blackberries, and the Internet, we are drowning in data overload. Moreover, the constant interruptions cost the U.S. economy an estimated $558 billion annually. This staggering number does not add in the cost of poorly written emails that land companies and employees in hot legal trouble, destroy long-term client relationships, and ruin reputations – just review Mike Brown’s emails (former FEMA chief) as Hurricane Katrina raged and you will understand. Add to this mix a lack of civility and common sense and you have an explosive brew.
How can the problem be addressed? For starters, begin treating email writing not as casual conversation. Whether words are written in the sky, sent by carrier pigeon, or via the email, words must connect with the reader. Good writing allows this to happen; poor writing does not. Currently, writing online is still, as author Patricia O’Conner writes, “…in its Wild West stage…with everybody shooting from the hip and no sheriff in sight.”
Therefore, establish some law and order by developing an email protocol, whether you are a multi-national operation or a single station call center. Simply stated, it’s “the way we do business around here” in terms of communicating via email with co-workers and customers. It is a code of behavior, a set of standards as to how you will frame your words, manage your inbox, and even extend your brand.
Below is a short list of questions to address at your next staff meeting. Your answers could be the beginning of a company-wide document.
- How do you greet and close messages? Companies are putting together a series of key phrases used solely for openings and closings. Remember, you would never call on the telephone without greeting someone. Why would you not greet people in your emails?
- What does your email signature say about your company? It should be an extension of your company’s brand. It should be professional, with no cutesy sayings, but it should also contain all contact information. Establish a standard for font style and size. Also, because you have limited real estate, consider placing your signature block horizontal rather than vertical.
- What is the company policy about blind copies? Some companies only use them for email blasts; others say they are strictly verboten. Discuss why, when, and how you use them.
- Do you have a message for the “out of office” auto-responder, and when do you turn it on? After four hours? For one day or longer? One company requires that if an employee is immersed in an important project, it must be turned on if he or she is gone from the office for more than one hour.
- How often do you check emails? Some companies set their programs so emails are only called up hourly, thus reducing down time and increasing productivity.
- How soon do you return emails? Within four hours? Inside of 24 hours? Some companies’ policy state all emails need to be answered within the same business day.
- Do you use emoticons? Buzzing bees, dancing bears, smiley faces, and the like may be cute, but they have no place in business communications. Heartily rule against it.
- How many emails do you send before you pick up the phone? The rule of thumb seems to be three. If the issues are not resolved, pick up the phone or walk down the hall.
- What are your company’s policies about writing business letters, accessing confidential information, and handling racial or sexual harassment? Your email policy should be compatible with these policies.
- How will you insure employees understand your protocol? For example, who is the contact person when questions arise? How will updates be handled? Will you schedule training meetings?
Email has become the biggest productivity drain in businesses today. Getting a handle on this daily data dump by establishing procedures – email etiquette, if you will – will make you and your call center stand above the crowd. This will possibly bring law and order to the untamed world of Internet communication.
Dr. Julie Miller, founder of Business Writing That Counts, is a national consultant and trainer who helps professionals reduce their writing time while still producing powerful documents. She and her team work with executives who want to hone their writing skills and professionals who want to advance their careers. For more information, call 425-485-3221.
[From the October/November 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]