There are lots of articles out there on standard email etiquette. By this point in human civilization's adoption of email technology, most people know the basics: don't use all caps, be careful with reply all, check your spelling, etc. This is pretty obvious stuff, and while there are still many, many perpetrators out there against these basic rules, most professionals have got them down.
There are, however, more subtle issues that so many real professionals still get "wrong" that I want to flesh out here. All of the issues below I have personally experienced countless times with medium- and high-level professionals from major organizations around the world. I have also heard so many of my friends and colleagues vent about the same frustrations, so these problems seem pretty universal.
Before I go into the actual problems or issues themselves, I will acknowledge that there are obviously reasons why people fall into these traps.Yes, they're extremely busy. Yes, they get 500 emails per day. Yes, messing up or not acknowledging a small part of your email request is not a big deal. However, I would argue that it's better to respond to emails a bit more slowly (while giving notice/setting appropriate expectations) and in a more respectful, professional manner than to answer emails in 10 seconds from a BlackBerry and completely miss a point in a client's request.
My grandfather has a Russian expression he loves to use for this type of behavior. It's transliterated as, "Tapi Lapi." I don't know of an equivalent expression in English, but it basically means doing things haphazardly and quickly just to get them out of the way without taking care to do them correctly and thoughtfully.
OK, enough background. Here are the main categories of issues and corresponding tips that I want to flesh out.
- Give notice: I spoke a bit about this in my post on punctuality, but a lot of the problem of responding late to email (or arriving late to a meeting) can be assuaged with proper and advance notice and setting the right expectations. If you get tons of email every day or you will be out of town at a conference for a few days, give people a heads up about it so they don't wonder what's taking you so long to respond to their email.
- Provide status updates: Along the lines of the first point, if something is taking longer than you expected, it's a lot better to drop an email saying, "Hey, I'm working on it, but I ran into these issues that delayed me, and it should be done within the next 3 days." I hate following up on people when I ask them a question by email and get no response. I'm sure they're busy or working on it (or maybe they are in fact ignoring my message), but if the other side can just respond and give me an update and ETA, I'll feel a lot happier.
- Check email daily: Checking one's email every single day probably is part of those "universal" email etiquette lists I mentioned before, but I mention it here again. If you're traveling or there's an emergency, yes, you can be excused (for a bit), but it might be easier to set up an auto-responder or reply with a quick note saying something came up and you'll get back to people soon. People generally expect emails to be answered within a day, so this practice will help you do that better.
- Empty your inbox: If you check your email every single day, you should attempt to get your inbox to be empty by the end of the day. This is something I always do naturally but which the GTD method encourages as well. Here's how it works and why it well help you be more prompt with email.
Quick/one minute messages: Messages that are very quick to answer should be answered upon receipt and archived/categorized/put away.
Messages that involve research/thought: These should create tasks on your to-do list that include three important parts: 1) What to research/think about, 2) Who to respond to, and 3) When to respond. The third part is key because it will give you a deadline to respond. Make this deadline reasonably soon, such as in the next day or so. The key is to send some response by that time, no matter what. It can be the final answer, an intermediate answer, or just a status update with a new promised date of next response.
By the way, the to-do list software I use is Toodledo. I used to use Outlook, but Toodledo syncs nicely with my phone, is accessible anywhere, and has all the crazy recurring task features I need.
Also, by emptying your inbox, you will force yourself to really deal with those emails you sort of have been putting off. Examine yourself and your feelings: Why are you avoiding this email? If you can understand that better, you can do a better job in the future with that person or with that type of email.
By managing your own emails with corresponding tasks and due dates for yourself, you won't miss or forget to answer an email, and your psyche will feel clearer and calmer because it won't keep thinking about the long stack of emails that are sitting in your inbox.
- Answer every point of an email: This happens to me all the time, and I'm sure I'm guilty of doing it unintentionally as well. But when I'm on the receiving end, it's really frustrating.
Here's the situation: You send a polite, organized email asking three important questions. You even put them in a numbered list to emphasize to the recipient that you have multiple questions. The response you receive? A one-line email in all lowercase with an answer to one or maybe two of the points, and that's it. Awesome.
When this happens, just take a deep breath and send them a link to this blog post.
In all seriousness, it's important to respond to every part of someone's multi-question email, even if it's just acknowledging the question and telling them the process by which you'll eventually answer it (if you can't answer it immediately).
I always assume that people fail at this when they are lazy, rushed, or just not being careful. However, I am also aware that some people use this "technique" to not address important points in an email that are somehow sensitive or contentious items, or items where discussing them would reveal some disadvantageous information. For example, let's say someone emailed you and asked you five questions about your new business, one of which was where your office is located. You could draft a nice response answering all the questions except for the office question if you don't want to reveal that your office is not yet set up or in existence. Or you could answer it tangentially by speaking of plans for future offices without describing the current state of affairs.
This technique of not communicating with completeness will avoid the issue in the short term and may tilt the odds of a negotiation in your favor in the present moment, but it is unlikely to go unnoticed by the other side and will create more questions and doubt than just answering honestly in the first place (or maybe just saying that some sub-topic is a sensitive one that you'd prefer to discuss in person or at a later date or something).
- Answer every email: By following some of the tips previously mentioned, your life should get a lot easier with respect to email, and you are much less likely to accidentally miss or forget an email. If you set up to-do items to respond to specific messages or if you group several messages into one response email, you'll be much more likely to be complete in your email communications.
Some people use the "technique" of ignoring entire messages or delaying responding to them when responding doesn't seem to be to their advantage. All of the points made above apply to this case as well; just respond to the message and be honest. That'll be a lot better for your relationship than avoidance.
- Write clearly and unambiguously: A lot of people think that email, because it doesn't involve a leaf of parchment and a quill pen, is a much faster, shorter form of communication that does not need as much care and attention to detail. Yes, email can be more informal and is a lot easier to produce quickly than physical writing, but that doesn't mean you can slack off.
I get many emails every week where I need to clarify various points of people's responses or just email them again to be sure that they meant what they said. Almost always this is unintentional ambiguity. If you can make any effort whatsoever to just choose your words carefully and also repeat the same main points in different ways to be sure the other person can understand, that would make your communication a lot more clear. I'm sure some attorneys would balk at the idea of being redundant because if you happen to contradict yourself in your intended redundancy, then you create even more ambiguity (this happens in many contracts and laws). This is a fine line to walk, but in everyday communications, I think it's better to be a bit more redundant (with care) just to make sure you get your point across.
A great way to be redundant with care is by using examples and numbers. For example, if you're negotiating a volume discount, you can specify how it works formulaically with words but then also include a table or chart (visual representation) and a few example calculations.
- Restate your understanding: This is a common technique in "active listening" but is applicable to email as well. If you receive a message asking you for help with a few items, it can never hurt to respond and state that you will do X,Y, and Z (in your own words and with maybe a bit more detail). This will show the other person that you understand and are paying attention to the details, and it will also give them the chance to correct you or give you more guidance in case you're not 100% right.
By being more prompt, complete, and clear with your emails, you'll show a high level of respect to the people you work with and will deal with your email and resulting work in a much more efficient and effective manner.