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Email Protocol

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Ah, the blessings and curses of the digital revolution! Between email, instant and text messaging, cell phones, BlackBerry devices, 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 include 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 the emails sent by Mike Brown (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 email writing as writing—not as casual conversation. Whether words are written in the sky, sent by carrier pigeon, or transmitted via the web, they 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 multinational or single-shingle firm. Simply stated, it's "the way we do business around here" in terms of communicating via email with coworkers 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 consider at your next meeting. Your answers could be the beginning of a company-wide document.

How do you greet and close messages?

Companies are putting together series of key phrases used solely for openings and closings. Remember, you would never call without greeting someone. Why would you fail to greet the recipient of an email?

What does your email 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. Also, because you have limited real estate, consider placing your signature block horizontally rather than vertically.

What is the company policy regarding blind copies?

Some companies only use them for e-blasts; others say they are strictly verboten. Discuss why, when, and how you use them. Caution: Some computer programs allow all those you do not want to see your email to view it if the recipient hits "reply all."

Do you have a message for the "out-of-office" auto-responder? If so, when do you turn it on?

Four hours? One day? A large bank requires employees immersed in important projects to turn it on if they will be gone from the office for more than one hour.

How often do you check emails?

Some companies set up their programs so that emails are only called up hourly, thus reducing downtime and increasing productivity.

How soon do you return emails?

Within four hours? 24 hours? Some companies' policies state all emails need answering within the same business day.

Do you use emoticons?

Buzzing bees, dancing bears, smiley faces—I would suggest heartily ruling against them.

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, or handling racial or sexual harassment?

Your email policy should be compatible with these documents.

How will you ensure employees understand your protocol?

For example, who is the contact person when questions arise? How will updates be handled? Will you schedule trainings?

Email 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. What are your "best practices"?

About the Author:

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. Some of her clients are Microsoft, Washington Mutual Bank, Verizon Wireless, and Cisco Systems. For more information, please call 425-485-3221 or visit
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 United States  costs  emails  Hurricane Katrina  U.S. economy  Internet  data  customers

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