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Email: Do It Right

By Bob McElwain
Posted Friday, August 6, 2004

Judging from what I receive, lots of people have not thought much about email. Yet dealing with it effectively is vitally
important to the success of your business. This may be the most overlooked and under-valued aspect of doing business on the Web. Here is what is needed.

> Answer it!
> Answer it promptly!
> Answer it completely!
> Answer it with grace and style!

These all seem obvious, I'm sure. They reflect plain good old common sense. Yet I find one or more of them ignored in
much of the email I receive.

Answer It!

Apparently many are selective as to what they will reply to. Big mistake. If I visit your site, ask a question and do not
receive a reply, I promise you won't hear from me again.

You say you're just too busy to deal with dumb fool questions or stuff of no interest to you? If that is really true, then you can afford to hire someone to do it for you. If a person felt it was worth the time and trouble to write to you, they deserve a reply.

Not so? Try this. Pick three sites you feel are successful and ask them a question. Let it be something way off the mark. Maybe: I was given this URL as a source of information about Dobermans, but the address must be wrong. Do you by chance know of such a source? You will get a reply. Brief, most likely, but courteous.

Spam is probably part of the problem. Much too much of what I receive is pure junk. Even so, I take the trouble to read at least the first line or two before hitting the delete key, for serious email does occasionally come in looking like junk.

A Tale: A newsletter I follow asked for articles in a way that sounded as if material was needed. So I wrote what I
thought was a neat piece, and worked it over carefully. I put about four hours into it, then submitted it. No reply. Well, things get lost, so I resubmitted. No reply. Out of curiosity, I sent a brief positive comment about the newsletter, and asked a question easy to answer. No reply. Rejection slips? I deal with them. No reply? Nuts.

Think about what a person risks in asking a question. Ridicule, rejection, and such, and the possible misuse of the
email address that brings more spam. A reply is mandatory. Besides, it's good business.

Answer Your Email Promptly!

This can be difficult if you are working a full time job. Still, it must be done. I often get replies so late, I've forgotten why I sent the message! If mail is answered every evening, in most cases you provide a same-day response, which is
sufficient. You might also consider a morning session before going to work. Since not many messages come in during the night, a short session may work well. You can leave a tough question or issue until evening.

I personally check my email four to six times each work day. It really pays off. I see it in a reply that begins with: Wow,
that was quick! I see it even more clearly when a sale comes through an hour later.

Again judging from my email, some apparently wait until the weekend to answer. This may mark you as a part-timer in your Web business, a negative to be avoided if possible. For the same reason, I do not reply to business email on Sundays or holidays.

Answer Your Email Completely!

Next to waiting too long for a reply, my pet peeve is a reply that fails to answer the question I asked, or an important part of it. Often this is just carelessness, but consider what it does to a company image. Do you want to deal with careless people?

One of the problems with email is the lack of eye contact and body language available in face-to-face conversation. Even the phone gives something of this, as in a hesitant response, the opportunity to quickly repeat something that may have been misunderstood, correct a blunder, etc.

This slack is just not available in email. All you have are the words in front of you. To complicate matters, not everyone is a good writer. This sets things up so that it is easy to overlook the real question buried in the one apparently asked. If I have the slightest doubt about what the question means, I say so. Maybe: I'm not sure I understand the question. If you meant ... blah, then ... blah. Then I wrap with: If that is not\ what you were looking for or I missed something, please get right back to me.

Not stated, but implied in the above, is the need to be correct. Never try to fake it; people will quickly peg you as a
phoney, con artist, or worse. Sometimes the best answer is: Sorry, I don't know. Maybe continue with: It seems to me ... Also provide a source if possible. Worst case, suggest a search engine. But in whatever you say, be correct.

Complete does not mean it is necessary to write a manual. In fact brevity is king in all business correspondence. If the
question is too broad, the best choice is to try a one sentence reply that offers something of the answer, followed by a
reference as suggested above. A few do try to take advantage, and in such cases, this is the only reasonable approach.

Answer Your Email With Grace And Style!

Few webmasters are professional writers, so how is the above possible? Substitute courteous for grace, and the first part may make more sense. The idea is to treat the writer as you would a valued client or customer.

Your first contact with a future prospect is quite likely to be email. Since you are not meeting face to face, you can not
offer a hearty handshake, a warm smile of welcome, or show your intense interest with your eyes or posture. While it is not easy, I try very hard to get something of this in every message I send, particularly to someone new to me.

Style is not as tough as it sounds, for we all have one, whether or not we recognize it. I tend to be informal. Some tend to be formal. Most are somewhere in between. What your style is matters little. The important thing is to be true to whatever it is. To do otherwise quickly destroys credibility. That is, cute and clever doesn't make it, unless you truly are. And grand formality doesn't fly unless it is who you are. Write as you would speak to a visitor to your office or shop.

All of the above has to do with trust. Any relationship between yourself and a client or customer begins with trust. A
question gives you the opportunity to build on the trust inherent in the act of sending the message. Do otherwise, and you will blow it.

The structure of your web site, search engine position, and so forth are essential elements to the success of your online business. But of all vital elements, email seems to be the one most often overlooked. This seems odd, for it is the easiest part to get right.

About the Author
Bob McElwain
Web marketing and consulting since 1993 For Newbie-Friendly Site Stuff, subscribe to "STAT News." Send any email to Need a few extra bucks? Or a lot? It's easy to do! (>) Learn HTML in 3.5 hours! FREE! Download your Kit now. (>)


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