The Way We Work

One thing is true about modern communication: One little email can speak a thousand words — whether you mean it to or not. This is why freelance professionals cannot afford to be glib or careless about their email communication habits.

Follow my Top 6 Tips for successful and professional email communication:

1. Set up and maintain your email account as if your career depends on it. (Because it probably does.)

  • Have an appropriate email address. You’re a professional, not “hottie137.” Your email address should be simple and should be derived from your actual name or field of business.
  • Put your name and contact information in your email signature. Your clients will appreciate this when they can’t find the place they wrote it down.
  • Keep format simple in outgoing emails. Nothing’s more irritating than a purple email with gold block letters. (Except an email with botched codes hanging out between every third word.)
  • Respond to emails promptly. As Lifehacker points out, this is important to your career and there are methods you can employ to stay on top of your in box.
  • Utilize the vacation responder if you’ll be offline for more than two days. This sends an automatic message to anyone who emails you, telling them when you’ll be able to respond to their email. (Just remember to turn it off when you are online again.)

2. Build every email around these three important sections: the subject line, a personal greeting and a focused point.

  • email manners laptopPut the actual subject in the subject line. Putting “hi” as the subject might work for your friends, but not for a busy client. Be specific and take Dennis Jerz’s advice.
  • Always give a personal greeting. As Lydia Ramsey points out, a proper greeting should never be omitted. Remember to say “hello” first. You should also add a warm statement or two to avoid coming across as curt. (If all else fails, mention the weather.) Check out this Men With Pens post for the disadvantages of being too blunt.
  • Focus your information and get to the point quickly. Yes a sentence or two on a personal note is fine, but then you need to get on with it and get on with it succinctly. Emails that require scrolling are probably too long. As Freelance Folder points out, you don’t want to overwhelm the recipient. Delete unnecessary information or just pick up the phone.

3. Don’t neglect proper grammar and spelling.

  • Don’t indulge in text lingo or type in caps. Makeshift spelling and punctuation have no place in business emails, and in case you haven’t heard, typing in all caps is shouting. DON’T DO IT.
  • Spellcheck. Spellcheck. Spellcheck. It’s a bigger deal than you think. We all make mistakes, but only some of us are too lazy to click a button to fix them. (Ouch!)

4. Always mind your manners.

  • Keep a respectful tone. As points out, tone is easily miscommunicated in emails. Stay polite and positive and save difficult conversations for the telephone.
  • Be mindful of offensive topics in emails. It can cost you your freelancing gig. Sexually charged comments are inappropriate, racial slurs are offensive and religious or political zeal is often misguided. Keep your emails polite and keep them clean.

5. Approach email conversations the way your would approach a recorded conference call.

  • Don’t assume your email is private. There is a good chance it’s not.
  • Refrain from bashing anyone — either the recipient or a third party. Why? Because your email may not be private. As Life With Confidence points out, email is also permanent. If you need to vent, do it in person or just call up your mother and take it out on her. (She’ll forgive you and it won’t ruin your career.)

6. Think of emails to clients like salt at the dinner table: necessary and beneficial in small manners no spam

  • Do not send forwards to business contacts. Trust us on this one, the cat who wants a “cheezburger” and the scary Zicam warnings are for your college roommate, not your clients. (And read 26, 27 and 28 of Seth Godin’s Email Checklist before sending a forward, period.)
  • Think carefully before sending emails to former clients. There’s a right way and a wrong way to stay in touch. Personal emails and requests for more work are a sticky ballgame you should only play if you know what you are doing. This is especially true of those potential clients who — for whatever reason — interviewed you but did not hire you. If you weren’t hired because of a scheduling conflict, it may be appropriate to reach out just one time later when your schedule clears. However, it is painfully inappropriate to contact them for any other reason, so just delete them from your contact list.

What do you think? What painfully unprofessional email habits have you encountered? Let us know in the comments – just don’t name names!

Tamara Rice

Freelance Writer and Editor

Tamara Rice is one of several freelance writers on the oDesk Blog team. She joined the oDesk marketplace in 2009, after more than six years on staff at an award-winning national magazine.