Business email etiquette
Email etiquette rules dictate what’s appropriate and what’s not when you’re sending a message to a prospect, business partner, coworker, manager, or acquaintance. They help you avoid miscommunications and mistakes.
Why do we need email etiquette?
Research shows making errors seriously impacts how people see you. In one study, participants who read an email with grammatical errors thought the writer was less conscientious, intelligent, and trustworthy than those who read the same email without errors.
In a separate experiment, people who applied for funding were less likely to be funded and received less favorable terms when their loan requests had spelling mistakes.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. If you read an email riddled with typos, you probably think one of two things:
- The sender doesn’t know basic spelling and grammar
- The sender didn’t care enough about this message to review it before sending
Neither bodes well for your relationship. So to avoid prospects coming to these conclusions about you, here are the 56 email etiquette tips every professional (especially client-facing ones) should know and follow.
Punctuation is subtle when you use it correctly and obvious when you don’t. Don’t make your recipients cringe — memorize these rules and follow them religiously.
1) Terminal punctuation
Every line should end with a terminal punctuation mark, i.e. a period, question mark, or exclamation mark. If you skip terminal punctuation, it’ll look like you never completed your thought.
Here’s an example:
I talked to Finance, and they approved the agreement
I talked to Finance, and they approved the agreement.
Use question and exclamation marks sparingly. If you use too many question marks in one email, you’ll sound like you’re interrogating the recipient.
“What’s your status? Have you talked to your team yet? Are you free for a call tomorrow at noon so we can discuss any potential changes?”
And if you go overboard with exclamation marks, you’ll come across as hyper and overexcited.
“Thanks again for a productive conversation yesterday! Good news, I talked to Finance and we’re good to go! Can’t wait to work together!”
2) Semicolons (;)
A semicolon can also connect two unique, but related sentences. It cannot act as a comma.
She can call me tomorrow, she can give me an answer then.
She can call me tomorrow; she can give me an answer then.
3) Comma (,)
One of the most common bloopers is adding commas where they don’t belong. While I could devote an entire post to proper comma usage (English major talking), here are the most important rules:
Use before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) that’s connecting two independent clauses.
“I worked with a similar client last year, and their open rates went up 20% in one month.”
Use after a dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence.
“After improving their subject lines, open rates improved dramatically.”
Use to separate items in a list.
“I focused on email length, readability, and content.”
4) Salutation punctuation
There are a few different ways to punctuate your salutation (the first line of your email where you address the recipient by name).
If it’s a formal email, use a colon.
Dear Ms. Frost:
If it’s a relatively casual email, use a comma.
And if you’re on close terms with someone, you can use a dash.
Hi Aja —
Unless you devote your full attention to studying grammar (which is much less lucrative than sales), you’re bound to make the occasional mistake. But no one will care if they’ve never heard of that esoteric rule, either. Just steer clear of basic mix-ups that your prospect will definitely catch, and you’ll be golden.
Know the difference between:
Pro tip: Do you ever wish you could have an editor reading over your shoulder? You can — kind of. Grammarly is a free tool that scans everything you write for grammar and spelling mistakes. Not only will it catch issues in real time, it’ll also send you a weekly report highlighting common trends.
Emojis in email
I understand the urge to add a smiley face to a potentially harsh sentence or cap off a joke with a laughing emoji.
However, unless your recipient has already used one, resist temptation. Research reveals including emojis in work emails is bad for your reputation: They make you look less competent (and they don’t have any effect on how friendly you seem).
Email subject lines
Your subject line should be descriptive and relatively short. Ideally, it should give the recipient a good idea whether they want to open your message.
Bad subject line:
What are you emailing them about? It’s completely unclear.
Good subject line:
“Summary of 12/2 call”
This line leaves no doubt about the contents of the email.
Above, we covered which punctuation to use in the salutation. You also need to pick a greeting — which can be formal or informal, depending on whom you’re emailing and what your relationship is like.
Most of the time, a casual salutation is appropriate. You’ll set a friendly, easygoing tone and communicate confidence.
Casual email greetings include:
- Hey/hi there
- Good [morning, afternoon]
If you’re reaching out to someone for the first time — or they work in a conservative industry — skew more formal.
Formal email greetings include:
- Dear [first name]
- Dear Mr./Ms. [last name]
And which ones should you never use (not even as a joke)?
- Yo: Too informal
- Hey!: Too intimate and eager
- [Name]!: Too off-putting
- To whom it may concern: Too impersonal
- Dear sir or madam: Too stiff
- Hi friend: Too creepy
- Gentlemen: Too old-fashioned
- All: Too cold
The right sign-off will complement the tone and content of your email. Since it’s the last thing your recipient reads, this line influences their lasting impression.
If your tone is lighthearted, end with a warm sign-off.
- Thanks again
- Happy [day of the week]
- Enjoy the weekend
- Talk soon
- Talk to you [tomorrow, on Wednesday, when you get back]
- Looking forward to working together
- Looking forward to our next conversation
- Excited to hear your thoughts
If your tone is more reserved, your sign-off should be as well.
- Thank you
- Thank you for your time
- Have a wonderful [day, weekend]
And here are the closing lines you shouldn’t be using:
- Sincerely: Too outdated
- Regards: Too unfriendly
- Kind regards: Too unnatural
- Warmly: Too relaxed
- Respectfully: Too random
- Xoxo: Too intimate
- Cordially: Too stilted
- – [Your name]: Too abrupt
Triple-check you’ve spelled your recipient’s name correctly. It takes two seconds: Just pull up their LinkedIn profile and compare their headline to the name you’ve used. (If you have HubSpot Sales, this step is even quicker. Their social profiles will show up in your inbox.)
And don’t shorten their name unless they’ve signed their email accordingly. You might assume “Michael” becomes “Mike,” but he could prefer going by the latter. Check his signature. If it reads “Mike,” you can use the nickname; if it’s “Michael,” that’s what you should address him by.
When you’re texting or on Slack, you probably don’t capitalize much — if anything. But when you’re writing a professional email, use sentence case. In other words, capitalize the first letter of the first word in a sentence and proper nouns.
Dogs are welcome at HubSpot.
It’s incredibly hard to get the right tone across over email. Research shows people dramatically overestimate how often their recipients would correctly identify if their tone was sarcastic or serious.
While they believed recipients would get it right 80% of the time, the reality was closer to 56%.
Does that mean half of your emails will be misinterpreted? No. But it does mean you should think carefully about the words you’re using and how someone else would read them.
First, avoid negative phrases. They can make you seem more anxious, irritated, or worried than you truly are.
Examples: Mistakes, issues, failure, delay, problem, crisis, trouble, unfortunate, consequence
Second, don’t be sarcastic. There’s a good chance your recipient won’t get the joke — and you’ll seem like a jerk.
Example:“I’d ask my team to review it tomorrow, but as you probably know, no one actually gets work done on Friday.”
Third, cut out adjectives. They can make you sound overly emotional — you’re shooting for calm and professional.
Examples: Very, really, extremely, highly, grave, serious, deeply
Fourth, copy your recipient. Following their lead ensures you won’t accidentally offend them. If they write short, straightforward messages, make yours concise too. If they usually include a rapport-building line (like “I saw you were in Bermuda; hope you had a great time”), do the same.
Fifth, when in doubt, pick up the phone. Whenever you’re having a potentially fraught conversation, it’s always a good idea to call, Skype, or meet face-to-face with the person.
Fonts and formatting
Want to make your recipient’s eyes hurt? Use wacky fonts, fun colors, and offbeat formatting.
Yes, your email might be more memorable, but you’ll look like you’re completely out-of-touch with communication norms.
Always use the standard font. Never use a color besides black. Stick to the standard font size. Don’t bold or italicize more than one word (or string of words) in a single email.
And if you’re copying and pasting text, make sure you highlight it and clear the formatting. (Command + \ on a Mac, Cntrl + Shift + N on a PC.) If you don’t, the snippet will appear differently than the rest of your email.
Pasting entire URLs into your email takes up valuable space and looks messy. Instead, create hyperlinks or insert a shortened URL.
Check this out: http://getsidekick.com/blog/vacation-emails-inbox-zero
Check out this article.
Check this out: http://bitly.com/1Gn6pN0
Indicate somewhere in your email you’ve included an attachment so your recipient doesn’t overlook it.
A simple “I’ve attached a [document, spreadsheet] for X” will do the trick.
And make sure you’re reattaching files when you add someone to an email chain, or they won’t be able to see them. (An alternative? Simply forward them the thread.)
A bad email signature can really do a number on your relationships. Even if you write the most eloquent, persuasive message in the world, a poorly designed signature will make you seem like an amateur.
Keeping in mind less is definitely more, yours should be relatively small, simple, and restrained. Now isn’t the time to include your favorite inspirational quote, headshot, or every possible way to reach you. Stick to your name, job title, LinkedIn URL and/or company website, and phone number.
To: This field is simple. Add the email address of the person you’re trying to contact.
CC: If you’d like to include someone else on the message CC them. You’re essentially saying, “Hey, read this, but don’t feel obligated to respond.”
CCing someone is necessary when there’s relevant information in the email or you’re connecting them with the actual recipient.
BCC: BCCing also copies your contact to the email, but no one besides them will see they received it. In other words, if you send an email to Michael Scott and BCC Jim Halpert, Michael won’t know Jim got it as well.
Why use BCC?
To hide email addresses. BCC can be used to protect someone’s email from being exposed to others. For example, if you’re emailing a group of people about an upcoming event, you may opt to BCC all emails so you’re not exposing emails without permission.
General FYI: BCC can let someone see a message without actually including them on all the threads to follow.
Common Courtesy: BCC allows you to politely remove people from inbox threads. For example, if your boss is introducing you to someone, it’s common courtesy to BCC your boss in the response (usually by saying, “Moving [name] to BCC to save their inbox.”) This shows you answered without flooding their inbox with the following back and forth.
Reply vs. Reply All
Reply: When you click reply, you respond directly to the last person who emailed you last. If you respond directly to the initial message, your reply will go to the original sender of the email. But if you respond to someone else’s email in the thread that follows, you will end up replying just to that person.
Reply All: When you select Reply All, you email back everyone who is either in the “To” or “CC” fields. The benefit of Reply All is letting those in the thread know a certain issue has been addressed. It’s also helpful when you have information everyone cares about.
When in doubt, default to “Reply.” You don’t want to be the annoying person everyone is secretly rolling their eyes at.
There are a few key pointers to keep in mind for proper email forwarding etiquette:
Some emails are not intended to be forwarded. If a contact is sending you private or sensitive information, use high caution before forwarding it along.
When forwarding a long email thread, a common courtesy is to summarize what’s being discussed below so the recipient knows exactly what you want from them. There’s nothing worse than getting forwarded a 50-chain thread with a note that just says, “see below.”
If you’d like your forwarded email to start a new email chain (rather than being a part of your current thread) simply include your own commentary in the subject line.
Same Thread Subject Line: FW: notes from Tuesday
New Thread Subject Line: Check this out! FW: notes from Tuesday
Email Response Time
We all have overwhelming inboxes and busy schedules, so it’s not always possible to respond to emails right away. The appropriate response window depends on the person:
Respond within 12 hours. Your team relies on you to work quickly and efficiently; plus, most emails are about timely matters.
For everyone else you work with, respond with 24 hours. Can’t address their request in that time period? Respond letting them know you’ve read their email and will follow up by X time.
Unless marked as an urgent email or one that needs an ASAP response, responding to external contacts by the end of the week in which it was sent is perfectly appropriate — so if you received the email Tuesday, respond by Friday of that week. For high-value contacts, it may be worth responding within a 24-hour time frame.
If you’re going to be unavailable for an extended period of time, an automated “OOO” reply — or out of office reply — can let whoever is contacting you know that you won’t be able to respond to their message until the date you’ll be in the office again.
Some do’s and don’ts for OOO replies:
- DO: Include how long you’ll be unavailable.
- DON’T: Create an OOO response for one day.
- DO: Include another person to contact for more urgent matters.
- DON’T: Include a colleague to contact without letting that colleague know they’re in your OOO reply.
- DO: Include “OOO” in your subject line so people can easily identify the automated response.
- DON’T: Include more detail than needed — such as the exact location of your vacation.
If you’re taking a vacation for an extended period of time, it may be helpful to have a way of earning your attention for truly urgent, require your attention, situations. Here’s an email HubSpotter Beth Dunn sent before her month-long sabbatical:
Emergency Hippo — on sabbatical during February
This is just a friendly reminder that I’ll be on sabbatical for the whole month of February. If you have any pressing microcopy needs while I’m gone, the designers on each of your teams stand ready and willing to serve in my stead.
If there’s something you still want me to review when I return, rested and refreshed on March 2, please email me the details and put the word “hippo” (or if it’s super urgent, “emergency hippo”) in the subject line and I’ll take a look at it just as soon as I get back. Yes, seriously.
And remind me to tell you the story of how I learned once and for all why you should always have an emergency hippo on hand at all times.
See you in March,
Beth makes it clear she won’t be responding to email, but since she’s out for an extended period of time, she shared a clever and easy way to grab her attention when needed.
Rather than sending passive-aggressive “Did you see my email?” messages, use an email tracking tool like HubSpot Sales. You’ll know the exact moment your recipient opened it — and if they don’t reply reasonably quickly, you can find a non-irritating reason to follow up, such as, “I read an article on X that reminded me of you; here’s the link if you want to check it out.”
Sent from your phone
Should you include “Sent from my iPhone” or “Sent via phone — please forgive any typos”? I wouldn’t. Many people take this as an excuse to be lazy and forgo a glance-over before you press “Send.”