6 golden rules for responding to emails

Clients will appreciate it when you keep it short, avoid cluttering up their inboxes, and keep away from the “reply all” button.

Email still rules all as a business communications tool. It’s the gold standard.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be rules regarding how to better use email, especially when it comes to communicating with our most important audience, clients.

So, what are these golden rules for using email with clients? I came up with six, in no particular order:

1. Use “reply all” sparingly.

In a business setting, you should be very careful about using that “reply all.” In fact, I would argue you should very rarely use it. Instead, only send to those who actually have to know what it is you’re discussing.

2. Resist sending the “thanks” email.

Communicators often over-communicate. We want to dot every “i” and cross every “t.” But by sending all those “thanks” emails, you’re just cluttering up your colleagues’ and clients’ inboxes. You’re accomplishing nothing. They sent you the note. They assume you read it. Leave it at that, if you have nothing substantive to add.

3. Unless it’s an emergency, don’t reply after hours.

You want balance? Here’s your chance, but you have to set the ground rules early. Resist the urge to respond to emails after hours and on weekends. Most of it can wait until tomorrow or Monday anyway. In crisis or emergency-type situations by all means, respond. But set a high standard. Once you start responding to emails after the bewitching hour, colleagues and clients will expect you to always respond to emails after hours. Don’t do it if you can help it.

4. If you’ve traded more than three emails, call.

Classic case: You email a colleague about a project he’s responsible for. He responds clarifying your question. You respond with more information. He responds that he still has a few questions before he can get to work. That’s when you pick up a telephone and call your colleague to hash it out. Some things are just meant to be managed voice-to-voice. Not everything can or should be done electronically, believe it or not.

5. Use subject lines wisely.

If you have an urgent need, and you have to communicate it via email, use “Urgent: Immediate action required” in the subject line. I know this probably seems offensive to some, but I’ve found this to be very useful in spots. Another case: You know your client is mobile, but she’s checking her phone. Why not try to use the subject line as your chance to get her attention and immediate action? Ask, “Got 5 minutes for quick call to discuss an urgent item?” She’ll see this in as she scans subject lines on her phone and if she has the time, I’d be willing to bet she’ll respond.

6. Keep it short.

A former boss of mine sent very short emails to clients. I remember thinking it was odd. Years later, I understand it. Clients have limited time. Most are stuck in meetings most of the day, or they’re, you know, doing work and stuff. Much like us, they don’t have time for 150 emails over the course of a day. So, the shorter and more succinct you can keep your message, the better. Bonus points for using bullets and one-line sentences when possible.

What about you? What’s worked well over the years when it comes to responding to client emails?

A version of this article originally appeared on Arik Hanson’s blog.

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