I learned one of the most important rules of email etiquette the hard way—by screwing up. That important rule: don’t fire off a snotty email when you’re angry or irritated. Especially when the recipient is a new client.
The situation: The new client, an advertising/marketing agency, asked me to write ongoing blog articles for a healthcare company. I had previously written a few pages of web copy for the company, and the process was smooth all around. The offer for ongoing work was a nice next step.
The marketing manager gave me the concept for article #2, but no deadline. I had a bunch of other projects on my plate, so I moved this one to the backburner. Until the marketing manager asked where the draft was. After some back and forth, I sent the marketing manager a snippy email, pointing out she didn’t give me a deadline, and I would try get to it that week.
Had I just clarified all the terms in the beginning, I might still be working with this client today. Instead, that second article was the last I wrote for that agency. I knew I was wrong to respond the way I did, and I admitted that much in another email. A couple months later, I apologized again. No reply.
The damage was done. I lost a great client because I didn’t think or breathe before I hit “send.”
Now, I practice what I call the 4 Ps. I keep a post-it by my laptop that says “4 Ps” so I remember to think about how I communicate. Now I’m sharing them with you:
The moral of the story above. Even when a project has veered out of scope or someone stands you up for an interview, always be polite.
I’m liberal with the words “thank you.” I love my work, love having my own business again and love all the challenges and opportunities it brings. I’m lucky to work with smart people whom I genuinely like and respect (and hopefully vice versa). To keep it that way, I remain polite.
Snotty emails are not professional. When faced with challenge—an editor kills a story, revisions amount to a major overhaul—I step away. I wait until I’ve calmed down to respond. On the phone, I pause before I respond. I might close my eyes, take a few deep breaths while they’re talking and keep my voice calm.
One time I was working on physician-focused newsletter articles for a hospital system. The client wanted the sources (doctors) to review the articles before I turned them in. One of those doctors went nuts! In his view, the article he contributed to was totally wrong. He had more than a few choice words about what was wrong, but was too busy to tell me how to fix it. I stayed calm, even though he wasn’t. When I interviewed him a few months later for a different article, he was a peach!
I’m generally a pretty happy, good-natured person. When I was a kid, “grown-ups” assumed I never did anything wrong. Ha!
I do my best to let my genuine personality come through during emails and phone calls. Even during discovery calls with prospective new clients, I stay professional (P #2) but not impersonal. Corporate speak isn’t in my nature. I work hard, I know a lot of stuff, I get the job done well, but I’m not stuffy.
Related to P #3, I’m also an optimistic person and hope that comes through in my communication. One of my clients recently overhauled its website. The day it went live, I made sure to write everyone to compliment them on a job well done.
When I see an opportunity to compliment a client or colleague’s work, you bet I do. When a client asks me to clean up a document written in house, I’m more inclined to say, “this is a great start,” than “this thing is an absolute mess.” Look on the bright side! And keep a positive attitude when communicating with your clients.
The one P I’m not:
When you’re in a jam and need something quick, I’ll shuffle things around to help. But I won’t sign a contract with a crazy, overly broad noncompete clause and Net 90 payment terms for the promise of steady work. Sorry!
I do my best to follow the four Ps above, but that doesn’t mean I’m (P)assive or a (P)ushover. If I were, I would have been out of business a long time ago!
Thoughts? Let us know in the comments below! – Heather J