There is a lot to be said about writing formal emails, whether they are professional or personal. However, this article is not about what you should say when writing an email, but rather, it’s about what you should say when you’re responding to an email. Allow me to submit the following, fictional example:
Hello, Mr. Smith. I recently visited your website for rebuilding old cars and I saw that you were looking for an assistant. I had a few questions about the position I was hoping you could answer. The first is; how much does the position pay? The second is; do you go to your client’s houses to repair the cars, or do they bring them to your garage? And the final question is; does your business offer health insurance? If you could answer these questions I would be very grateful. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely, John Doe
Are you looking for a job?
Now, what is wrong with this picture? Our responder, Mr. Smith, did not answer ANY of the questions John Doe asked, nor did he acknowledge ANYTHING that John Doe said. Instead, he asked a question that should have been assumed in the first place. Of course John Doe is looking for a job, but even if he wasn’t, why can’t you just answer the freaking questions he asked?!!?!
Okay, clearly this is a sensitive subject for me. I can’t tell you how many times me, or my wife, has sent an email with every professional courtesy we could extend only to get a short, unrelated response, like the one above (or in some cases, no response at all). Now, I understand that not everyone is a writer, but there are some basic courtesies you should extend to people who send you an email, especially if you’re representing your business/services. I’ve outlined several key areas on which to improve below.
Answer all questions that were asked and several that weren’t
If you received an email that has questions about your business/services, then please make an effort to answer them. If you don’t know the answer, that’s fine, but at least say “I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to this question” so that the emailer doesn’t think you’re completely ignoring them. Why the emailer asked the questions is irrelevant, don’t send them emails asking them why they are asking because then it becomes a game of email tag and nobody wins. Just answer the questions and if you can infer certain things (like that John Doe is looking for a job) feel free to throw in other bits of information that might be helpful. This will cut down on future emails and give a much better impression of you and your business.
Provide contact information
Things like phone and fax numbers, address of the business, and email address are all helpful bits of information for the emailer that will prevent them from contacting you again for something so small. Also keep in mind that if your email provider automatically attaches this information onto each of your emails (if you have set it up to do so) consider how silly it will look with a short email reply:
Are you looking for a job?
Mr. James Smith
Smith’s Used Car Emporium
555 Smithsburg, OO 54545
Your email signature/stamp may look professional but your email response doesn’t, so you still fail.
Use complete sentences and refer to the email
Don’t just send a question back to someone who asked you a question, and certainly don’t send them a sentence fragment! Make yourself sound coherent and refer to what was said in the email that was sent to you. The emailer should know that you actually read their message and didn’t just send out a generic reply. For example, a reply that says “yes” when you asked multiple questions, is no help at all. Neither is saying something unintelligible like “Minimum wage salary for benefits, when you visit the cars.” You might think that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve received many an email with mixed and mashed sentences. If you want an example of a proper email response, I submit to you the following example:
Hello John, thank you for your interest. The position pays minimum wage without any benefits and all auto work is done from my home garage. If you’re interested in applying, please submit your resume by mail to my address below.
See, was that really so hard Mr. Smith? The email is short and to the point and yet it addresses every question John Doe asked and gives him the added bonus of how to submit his resume. It is also complete thoughts and clearly indicates that Mr. Smith read John’s email.
Be prompt, if possible, and don’t leave them hanging
I understand that you’re busy, especially if you are representing a business, so try to be as prompt as you are able. In my experience, getting a response within 24 hours is really fast, within a week is prompt, within a month is acceptable, but anything longer than that and I assume that I have been ignored, forgotten or brushed aside. That’s not to say you shouldn’t reply to an email that is that old, but chances are the emailer has either moved on, or gotten a bad impression of you. Also, try not to leave people hanging. For example, let’s say that you have someone in mind for a job, but that job isn’t available yet. You tell this person that you will be in contact with them about when the job is available. Now let’s say five months pass and the person waiting for the job is ripping their hair out with worry and anticipation. You could relieve a lot of their stress with a simple courtesy email. Nothing big, something like; “We’ve been really busy lately. I just wanted to let you know that we are still interested, and will contact you when we know more.” That’s all you need to say to save someone from a mental breakdown. The economy is bad right now and sometimes those two sentences can be the ray of hope that keeps someone afloat. I understand that it is not your responsibility to baby these people, but it will reflect very highly on you and your business.
Most of these suggestions lean towards the professional side of things, but I believe a lot of it is pertinent to personal emails as well. Scheduling get-togethers, getting gifts and keeping current on family members would all benefit from the methods I described above. And even though I provided multiple areas of improvement, they all boil down to a common sense of decency. Email has distanced us from each other, just as everything else connected to the internet, but it is important to remember that the person on the other end is a human being. It is also important to remember that email is meant to replace mailing letters. You wouldn’t get out a fresh piece of paper, write down “when is party?”, fold it, place it in an envelope, address it to your friend, buy a stamp, then walk it to a mailbox. So why does that make it okay in an email? Is it because email is quicker and faster? If so then you can find the time to send a proper response.