Unbusinesslike discourtesy leaves bad taste . . .

E-Mail Etiquette Badly Lacking
by Noah Vail, March, 2000

© 2000, Information Disciplines, Inc., Chicago. This article may be circulated freely as long as this copyright notice is included.
                                                      February 29, 2000
      Mr. Noah Vail     
      Noah Vail Associates 
      15 Kurdzen Way      
      Sycaview, California

      Dear Mr. Vail:

      We have reviewed your proposal and consider it absolutely
      atrocious.  Never before have we seen such blithering
      incompetence.

      Under no circumstances will we consider using your services
      now or in the future.

                            Sincerely,

Y. Nader

                              Yuri Nader
                              Vice President

Of course, no one enjoys getting such a letter, but most business people agree that it beats getting no reply at all. What's more frustrating than endless uncertainty?

In the days of written business correspondence sent through the mail, we rarely worried about getting no reply at all to a letter. People in responsible positions considered it routine to send some reply to every letter individually addressed to their firm. For some reason, that common courtesy has been lost with E-mail, even though the time it takes to send a reply is tiny in comparison with the time to draft a letter.

I'm not talking, of course, about mass mailings to lists of recipients. Those are no more deserving of the recipient's attention than traditional junk mail or telemarketing calls. I'm talking about correspondence individually addressed to a specific person, often even in response to that individual's specific invitation.

I may get a phone call from a company potentially interested in my firm's services. "Send me an E-mail with information about . . ." the caller will ask. I do so within a couple of hours. A week passes. Two weeks.

Did they get my E-mail or did I get their address wrong? Are they so busy that they couldn't spare the 15 seconds it would take to acknowledge getting it? Did they think so little of our material that ignoring it is their way of letting me know? Or perhaps they're just now discussing it at the highest levels and are about to give us a huge contract. I have no way of discriminating among those possibilities.

I send a follow up: "Did you get the E-mail I sent at your request two weeks ago?" Again, no reply. I phone the original caller and get a voice mail. "Just checking to see if you got the E-mail I sent you two weeks ago," I announce in as friendly a tone as I can summon. Again no reply.

I give up.

More and more recent articles have been condemning the 1990's collapse of business courtesy and office etiquette, noting everything from sloppy attire to rude telephone answerers. Failing to respond to E-mail has now become so common that we're sometimes surprised when we do get a reply.

In the 1960's I worked for a large corporation that sometimes placed help wanted ad's in Sunday newspapers. I recall a discussion about whether one particular ad should identify our company or be a "blind" box-number ad. One of the arguments in favor of the blind ad was that otherwise we'd have to acknowledge résumés sent to our company. It was simply unheard of for a respectable organization to ignore its incoming correspondence.

Although it shouldn't be necessary, I've recently announced a policy in my own firm and have persuaded two clients to follow suit:

Policy

This policy applies to letters, voice-mail messages, FAXes, and E-mail. It does not apply to unsolicited junk mail, telemarketing, or other mass commucations, or to simple replies and informative messages that obviously don't expect a reply.

  • All communications specifically directed to people in our organization will receive a timely and courteous reply.

  • You should reply to E-mail during the session when you read it; to other forms of communication within a week (two days if our firm solicited the communication).

  • If you can't send a definitive reply, then at least send an acknowledgment letting the sender know that his or her communication was received and, if appropriate, when to expect a further reply.

The cost of such a policy is hardly measurable, especially with respect to E-mail.

The cost of not having it is growing resentment and ill will from vendors, customers, colleagues, and the general public. (Should we launch a web site for posting offenders' identities?)

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