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Professionalism & Etiquette – Phone and Email

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Professionalism & Etiquette – Phone and Email," in The Business Professor, updated December 13, 2019, last accessed April 8, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/professionalism-etiquette-phone-and-email/.

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Phone Etiquette

The ability to communicate effectively in a professional manner over the telephone is far more difficult that it seems. The primary issue is that the speakers cannot use body language or facial expressions to communicate. Instead, the other party is left trying to discern the attitude and objectives of the other party simply from the audio characteristics used. Of course, this hinders the communication process, but it also opens up the conversation to misinterpretation. Despite the drawbacks of telephone communication, it is unavoidable and essential to business practice. As such, you should practice having conversations in which focus on making yourself understood. This means working on:

  • Opening Formalities – How you begin a phone conversation is often your first impression with the recipient. Even conversations with familiar parties are heavily affected by the first few moments of interaction. As such, you should practice how you introduce or announce yourself to the other person.
  • Speaking clearly – Many of us tend to speak far less clearly over the telephone. In reality, our speaking method is similar – we simply cannot rely on our other communication methods (facial expression and body language) to assist. Intentionally speaking more clearly can make us focus more on the other party’s comprehension.
  • Other Communication Tactics – Some tactics that can make you a more effective telephone communicator include: using precise words and changing volume, inflections, and speed to achieve emphasis on a communication objective.
  • Exiting the Conversation – As in a face-to-face conversation, how you exit the telephone conversation will affect how other parties perceive you. As such, you should develop and rehearse a professional manner of letting the other person know that you need to conclude the call. For example, simply explaining that you have an appointment to attend can seem harsh (and is often not believed). If, however, you announce at the beginning of the call that you can speak for a specific period of time because of a scheduled conflict, it can set the stage for an efficient conversation and give you a good segway to end the conversation at a given point.

Telephone professionalism or etiquette is broader than your communication abilities. There are numerous practices you can employ to make yourself appear more professional, as follows:

  • Voice Messages – Make certain that you record a professional-sounding voice message. In the message, you should state your full name, occupation, and that you will return the call promptly. Never include music as a substitute for ringing.
  • Returning Calls – If you are unavailable to take a call or inadvertently miss the call, make certain to return the call promptly. This generally means contacting the caller within 24 hours. If you will not be available to return the call in that amount of time, you should perhaps send a short email message acknowledging receipt of the call and explaining that you will return the call within a specified time range.
  • Putting People on Speaker Phone – If you are going to put a speaker on speakerphone, make certain you give them notice first. It is not uncommon for someone to make statements in a private conversation that they would not make over speakerphone (with the chance or ability for other people to hear). If you are calling someone as a group with the purpose of putting them on speakerphone, make certain to call them, establish a connection, and inform them of the situation before putting them on speaker. You never know what someone will say immediately upon answering a call. You do not want to put them in an embarrassing situation.
  • Giving Out Someone Else’s Number – You should never give out someone else’s cell phone number without permission. A person’s cell phone can be a more intimate form of communication than their office line. As such, make certain that you have someone’s permission before doing so.
  • Send a Follow-Up Email – After having an important conversation, it is highly advisable to send a follow-up email. This will serve to memorialize the conversation and make certain that both parties are on the same page. This is particularly true for conversations that will result in one party taking action. As a licensed attorney, I cannot tell you how many times sending a follow-up email has saved a party from potential liability resulting from a misunderstanding.

Email Etiquette

Email is the most commonly used method of business communication. For most of us, it is an essential tool for carrying on our professional responsibilities. How you use email affects how those with whom you communicate perceive you. Demonstrating positive etiquette when emailing can go along way in supporting your professional brand. Below are some recommendations for ways in which you can demonstrate positive etiquette and professionalism when emailing:

  • Grammatically Correct – No single aspect of sending an email is more important than avoiding misspellings and constructing grammatically correct sentences. Grammatical errors make a person look careless at best and generally ignorant. If you do not have the ability to use perfect grammar when writing, you should make certain to have someone proofread your emails or use a service like Grammarly (which has a plugin that integrates into the Chrome browser).
  • Subject Line – The subject line of your email is extremely important. It should clearly state the subject of the email and indicate its relevance. This is often called a “talking subject line”. For example, an email about grades might read, “MGMT 101 – Assignment 3 – Due Date Changed”. This subject line is clear about the subject and the relevance of the email content to that subject.
  • Email Body – The email begins with a pleasantry (ex. Hi Mary,). Begin the body of the email by restating the subject. Then continue to write the email in paragraph format. Make certain to break up long paragraphs. Generally, more than 5-7 lines per paragraph is too long for an email. If you are including a list of items, use the bullet or numbered function (not pre-formatted from a word document).
  • Active Voice and Simple Sentences – Use simple direct (active voice) sentences. Avoid complex sentences and passive voice unless absolutely necessary. If paragraphs change topics, make certain to begin each with a new heading (in bold).
  • Attachments and Links – If you include an attachment, summarize any relevant portions in the email. If you reference portions of the attachment, make certain the reader has references to the specific part of the attachment being cited. You should never expect the recipient to have to open the attachment to understand the email message. If you are going to include an internal link, make certain that the link is necessary to the message and functions appropriately (goes to the correct location) when clicked.
  • Reply All – Be careful to only reply directly to the send of a group email, unless you are certain that it appropriate to reply to the entire group. More people than you would believe have lost their job for accidentally using the “Reply All” function when responding to an email. Generally, this is when they make a snarky or offensive comment that is accidentally forwarded to the entire group. Even if you have not replied with a comment that could get you fired, it still appears very unprofessional to misuse the Reply All. One of the worse cases is when you receive a massive group email. This can result in everyone in the group receiving many, many emails. I have seen this practice invoke rage in those receiving dozens of unwanted reply-all emails.
  • CC and Bcc Functions – The CC function should be used when copying people on the email who do not need to take action or respond to the email. The purpose of the CC, is to make the person aware of what is going on in the communication. You should evaluate the message closely to determine whether anyone should be CC’d on the email. Do not CC individuals haphazardly. Including people on emails unnecessarily can be highly annoying to the recipient. It becomes a real problem with the primary recipients begin to reply all to the message. The Bcc function is used to CC individuals without alerting the primary recipients of CC’d recipients. This is particularly useful when you want to keep third parties informed of the conversation without the primary recipients having knowledge. It can also be useful when you want to protect the email addresses of those receiving the message. In this case, there may not be any primary recipients – as the entire email list is in the Bcc line.
  • Voice – You must be conscious of the voice that you use in an email. The general rule is that you never say something in an email that you would not say in person. Also, be careful of how your writing could be perceived by the reader. Without the aid of vocal inflections, volume, emotions, facial expressions, and body language, it is very easy for an email to be misinterpreted. The best way to avoid this is to make certain to use a calm tone with plenty of explanation. If there is any room for misinterpretation of a statement, make certain to restate it in another manner to clear up any potential ambiguities in how it is received.
  • All Caps, Bold, Underline, and Exclamation Points – Be very careful using All Cap, Bold, Underlined, and Exclamation points in an email. All Caps indicates that you are yelling at someone. It can be considered highly offensive. Exclamation points are used to add force to the statement. Make certain not to use these with a negative or accusatory sentence. It should generally only be used in statements of surprise or happy emotion. Bold and underline should only be used in headings or statements where you wish to draw attention.
  • Sender’s Information – Make certain to include a thorough signature block at the bottom of your emails. This should include your name, professional title, company name, email address, phone number, and fax number. Avoid putting HTML images, as they are difficult to download on slow Internet connections and can be filtered as SPAM. Also, do no include cheesy quotations at the bottom of the email. This, as well, can come across as juvenile.

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