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Does Your Business Have an E-mail Protocol?

By Dr Julie Miller

The blessing and the curse of the digital revolution! Between e-mail, instant and text messaging, cell phones, Blackberries and the Internet, we are drowning in data overload. Moreover, the constant interruptions are costing the U. S. economy an estimated $558 billion annually. This staggering number does not add in the cost of poorly written e-mails that land companies and employees in hot legal trouble, destroy long-term client relationships, and ruin reputations—just review Mike Brown’s e-mails (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.

What to do? For starters, treat e-mail writing as writing not as casual conversation. Whether words are written in the sky, sent by carrier pigeon or via the Web, 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 a free-for-all with everybody shooting from the hip and no sheriff in sight.”

Therefore, I would like to establish some law and order by recommending that all companies—from multi-nationals to sole proprietors—develop e-mail protocol. Simply stated it’s “the way we do business around here” in terms of communicating via e-mail 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, even extend your brand.

Below is a short list of questions to visit at your next meeting. Your answers are the beginning of a company-wide document.

1. 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 without greeting someone. Why would you not in your e-mails?

2. What does your e-mail signature say about your company? It should be an extension of your company’s brand. Professional with no cutesy sayings, it should contain all contact information. Establish a standard for font style and size.

3. What is the company policy around blind copies? Some companies only use them for e-blasts; others say they are strictly verboten. Discuss why, when and how you use them.

4. Do you have a message for your out of office auto-responder? How long away from the office before you turn the responder on? Four hours? One day?

5. How often do you check e-mails? Some companies set their programs so e-mails are only called up hourly, thus reducing down time.

6. How soon do you return e-mails? Within four hours? By end of business day?

7. Do you use emoticons? Buzzing bees, dancing bears, smiley faces. I heartily rule against it.

8. How many e-mails 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.

E-mail has become the biggest productivity drain in businesses today. Getting a handle on this daily data dump by establishing procedures—etiquette if you will— will make you and your company stand above the crowd. And, possibly bring law and order to the untamed world of Internet communication.

Excerpt from Dr. Julie Miller’s upcoming Fourth Edition, Business Writing That Counts!

Dr. Julie Miller is a business writing expert, consultant, author, speaker, trainer, and coach. Dr. Miller, founder of Business Writing That Counts!, works with corporations, organizations, educational institutions, and professionals to improve the quality of their writing. Visit her website at to sign up for her FREE e-newsletter and you’ll also receive her FREE E-mail Proofreading Checklist: 16 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Hitting "Send".

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