8 Ways to Avoid Email Embarrassment

email embarrassment

The reply-to-all that should have been reply-to-one. The misspelled name. The customer inquiry that got contradictory responses from multiple people instead of one point person.

It’s happened to everyone. Yet even in today’s fast-paced business world, embarrassing email faux pas are preventable—and you can maintain, even improve, your email productivity. Here are eight ways you can avoid embarrassing online missteps on the job.

1. Professional tone, accurate spelling

The key to avoiding email embarrassment is a combination of individual professionalism and defined organizational expectations, says Judith Kallos. Since 1995, the business email etiquette expert known as “Miss eManners” has helped organizations and professionals refine how they use email for work.

While many brands have a more informal or casual feel, an even, respectful, professional tone is still the right approach for email. This is all the more essential the first time you exchange messages with someone, when you and the receiver don’t yet know each other well or at all.

“Especially in business, you do not want to get too informal too soon,” says Kallos. “Formalities are in place for a reason, as they reflect courtesy and respect for the other side.”

Kallos recommends an initial communication use a last name with the appropriate salutation (Dr., Mr., Ms., Mrs.), and checking—and double-checking—that you’ve spelled the recipient’s name correctly.

Formal doesn’t mean cold, however. Emails can maintain a professional tone while also showing some warmth and personality To walk that fine line, use active verbs, making it clear that you are willing to help, and restate the original concern in your reply.

From the subject line to the salutation, keeping the email focused and professional in tone is also key to a good first impression. A tight focus shows you are prepared and know why you’re reaching out, and it demonstrates that you respect the recipient’s time by not sending a bloated email.

Here’s a simple structure you can try:

  • Salutation: “Ms./Mr. Lastname:”
  • First paragraph: Thank you for reaching out, I’d be happy to help.
  • Second paragraph: It sounds like your question is… [then, work in the customer’s own words as appropriate]
  • Third paragraph: Here are 2 suggestions that could help: [go to a new line and do a numbered list]
  • Final paragraph: Did this answer your question? Let me know how else we can help.
  • Closing: Thanks in advance [then your email signature]

Once you’re done writing your email, run a spell-check and read through it again. For especially important emails, consider having a manager or trusted colleague read through it too.

Also read your email out loud: when we read silently, sometimes our minds can fill in words that aren’t actually in the text. By reading out loud, or having someone else read your email, you’re more likely to have the final draft be polished, approachable, and professional. Not only will these checks help you make sure you’re getting your points across clearly and accurately, but they can also help you catch other issues, such as autocorrect “fixing” spelling to something weird.

2. Delegate and assign

Email management tools, policies, and clear team roles can also help you delegate and assign emails to specific team members. This also can prevent multiple people from replying to the same inquiry—an embarrassing situation all around.

Delegation doesn’t mean the rest of the team is cut off from helping, just that one person is in charge of replying and managing that particular chain of email communication. If a team member isn’t sure about the appropriate response, make it clear that it’s fine to double check with others, and for managers to train their team well so that no matter who responds to common questions, everyone is conveying the same message.

3. Know the situation

When dealing with a situation that’s come in via email, gather all the context clues you can before you start to respond. Search your email for the sender’s address to see what other emails they’ve sent. Does your CRM or other company contact system show the full history of that email, in one place? If so, take advantage and put that information to work in your response.

If needed, do some online searching to learn more about the sender, their organization, and their situation. Not only will it inform your reply, but when you write back, you will be able to show that you cared enough about the sender’s issue to do your homework and reply back as thoroughly as needed.

4. Throw bouquets in writing, and spears in person

One of the best ways to avoid email embarrassment can be to avoid using email. While some matters can be best broached or managed via email, sometimes it’s best to call a meeting or pick up a phone.

“One of the email best practices we follow is to ‘throw bouquets in writing, and spears in person,’” says Ally Rubini, marketing manager at Gorilla Capital, a real estate investment firm based in Eugene, Oregon.

In practice, what that means is that compliments or congratulations should always be in writing. “Write it down and cc as many other people as you want to share the kudos with, especially their manager, and direct team members,” says Rubini.

However, frustrations and criticisms are prime examples of when to close email and try a different tactic. “If you have a frustration or criticism of someone’s work, work ethic, output, etc., pick up the phone, or better yet, go walk into their office and have a face-to-face conversation with them,” says Rubini. “Criticism and tone is so difficult to interpret over email.”

Email exchanges about conflicts or customer complaints can easily become defensive and angry, and can waste productive time. Instead, more honest, direct conversation—with other team members as needed for support and calm—can help diffuse difficult situations.

Above all, there’s a very simple solution: Wait.

“Do not respond until cooler heads prevail,” says Kallos, then evaluate the best course of action. “There may be times where an email will not suffice. We all know when a phone call or in-person meeting will be a better approach.”

Note: When a harsh email crash-lands in your inbox, it can be tempting to forward it to colleagues—along with your snarky comebacks, of course. Don’t.

For starters, your snark could get back to the original sender. You might also wind up looking unprofessional to your colleagues. If you need to vent or get another perspective, use your email provider’s internal notes (as long as they are never seen by email recipients), have a chat in person or on the phone, or fire up Slack or a similar messaging tool. You’ll come off as more professional, and the situation is far more likely to get resolved with an email flame war.

5. Down-edit for context and clarity

How many times has someone’s reply to your email made you wonder if they actually read an important point? How many times have your own replies caused confusion or additional clarifying email exchanges, because someone didn’t know if you had fully read and understood their email?

The cause, says, Kallos, can often be top-posting instead of down-editing. Top-posting is when you hit “reply” and start typing at the top of an email. Down-editing is where you reply point-by-point.

Kallos recommends clearing out email text you aren’t directly replying to (and suggests typing “<snip>” to show that you read passages but aren’t responding about them, as well as removing any headers, other text, or prior emails in the chain). Then, leave an empty line and add your response to that specific point. Do this throughout the text of the email.

Down-editing shows you are being thorough and thoughtful in your reply. By responding to individual points, you speak directly to the sender’s ideas, concerns, or observations, making it easier to settle an issue or move a project forward.

6. Reply as soon as possible—even if it’s to say you’ll reply soon

In today’s fast-paced business world, there is no time like the present.

When you receive an email, Kallos recommends that you reply back “as soon as possible.”

Does that mean reply right away to every email? No.

For starters, that’s not always possible. If you need to figure out the right reply, or need to check something before getting back to someone in-depth, it’s also okay to reply back with a fast, simple note that explains you know how important the sender’s email is, you’re checking into things, and will reply back later in more detail. (If possible, give a timeframe for your reply, but if you do, make sure it’s a realistic one.)

Whether external or internal communications, emails are coming to you for a reason, and the senders expect to be taken seriously. Replying back in as timely a manner as possible shows you respect their time and concerns, and it instills confidence that you are on the job.

“Customers and partners have expectations of immediate or speedy responses,” explains Kallos. “Prompt service is a huge competitive edge. In-house, prompt communications help to keep everyone moving forward and efficient.”

7. Own and apologize for an embarrassing situation

No matter what, though, there are times where an email just winds up being a big embarrassment. With so many emails to deal with on a day-to-day basis, we all make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes aren’t a big deal, but some might have you trying to decide whether it’s better to update your resume or make an entirely new identity.

When this happens, there’s only one thing to do.

“Deal with it honestly,” says Kallos. “Own your mistake and immediately offer your humble apologies—without excuses.”

We all make mistakes, but what we do with the mistake can often matter more than the mistake itself. By owning up straightaway, you show that you are willing to take responsibility for your actions—even the embarrassing ones. Apologizing and asking how you can make things right also helps moves the situation beyond the mistake, and back into productive territory.

8. Set clear policies, guidelines, and expectations

Sure, you can raise your email game—but what about the people you work with? Email expectations are also the responsibility of the broader organization. Clear email policy guidelines can cut down many email problems, such as customer/prospect emails going unanswered, queries being addressed by multiple team members, and, of course, the dreaded reply-all.

“Having a policy in place spells out exactly what is expected of employees,” says Kallos. “They sign it, a copy is put in their personnel file and they are provided a copy for reference. This ensures everyone is on the same page.”

Email policies can cover:

  • When to use internal notes instead of email forwards to colleagues
  • How to assign/delegate emails and tasks to team members
  • Response protocols for queries from customers and prospects
  • What is appropriate and inappropriate for sending through organization emails
  • Security protocols

When the broader organization sets the right tone and clear expectations for email use, it can be much easier for everyone to use email more effectively.

Bonus tip: How to reply-all

Don’t. It just might start the allpocalypse.

Seriously, though, don’t reply-all. Reply to emails individually instead. Or just do nothing. After all, there’s (unfortunately) still a decent chance that someone else is going to reply-all. Do the smart thing, and let that reply-all come from someone else, not you.

With great email comes great responsibility

Email can have a major influence on how clients, prospects, and colleagues perceive us. How embarrassing email mistakes can be is a good reminder of how much we rely on email.

“Many underestimate the power of email in their business communications,” says Kallos. “It would behoove many to improve upon their writing skills, developing a more professional style and improving their vocabulary to become better communicators. These newfound skills can enhance the potential that they are perceived as the professionals that customers and partners can rely on to trust with their business.”

Posted in: Email

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair is a business copywriter, author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series, and a craft beer writer specializing in Oregon. Learn more at anthonystclair.com.

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