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Writing the Perfect Email: Professional or Casual?

By Michelle Collins |

[updated Nov. 2014]
As more and more people rely on e-mail for both business and personal communications the lines between formal and friendly can become blurred. While the body of your letter may be Pulitzer Prize material don't neglect the little details such as your opening and closing salutations.

It's like you're wearing a good suit and your [briefcase] was a little raggedy at the edges. Is it going to make or break the sale? Maybe not, but it might knock you down one tiny notch. Maybe somebody else was on the same level as you and now you're one notch lower than them. It's an element that I don't think should be ignored," explains Keith Thirgood, creative director for Capstone Communications.

Subject matters

Thirgood feels that before you quibble over whether or not to use "Dear Mrs. Smith" or "Hi Jane" you should first spend some time considering your subject line. The advent of spam has led to flooded inboxes and only so much time to wade through it all.

Let's say that your client or supplier is getting as many as 700 emails in a day. With so much correspondence they must pick and choose which mail they are going to open in a matter of seconds. If your email address isn't familiar or your subject line is too generic it may land straight in the trash before it is even opened.

"As a business owner when you're communicating with your clients you've got to do more than say "Bob, it's me". You have to find a subject line that will connect with your clients and they will realize that it's not from a spammer. Sometimes you have to state clearly that it's from your business," says Thirgood.

Ice breakers

Once you have developed a subject line that you're confident will get noticed how you address your reader is the next step in creating the perfect email. Should your opening greeting be formal or casual? If you are responding to an email that you have received, the solution is simple, respond in kind.

"If they address me by first name, I will reply in kind. If the content of the correspondence over time turns more informal but they still use an honorific to address me, I may address them by first name to break the ice, but with permission. For example, "Ms. Smith - Jane (if I may) - regarding the..." says Bil Gladstone, vice-president of Lagniappe Entrepreneurial Solutions in Kelowna, BC.

Thirgood feels that the faster you can overcome formalities the better off you will be.

As a small business owner, you are in a better position to do this, as Thirgood feels that people expect you to be less formal. However, you also need to consider what you want from the relationship. For a prospective client, you might want to continue to be formal as long as they are; if they are buying from you, you may want to communicate on a first name basis and hope that they catch on.

What you definitely want to avoid is making an overly obvious attempt at personalizing your communications.

"I've gotten mail where the sender has written Dear Mr. Thirgood and they've stroked that out and written Keith. Maybe it works a little, but it's a little cloying. Why not just write the first name?"

Parting words

After you've carefully considered each element of your email you're almost in the clear. Your closing signature is the last important consideration. Some business owners prefer to use a formal sign off such as Regards, or Sincerely, along with full contact information for initial communication, which they then drop, as they become more familiar with clients or suppliers.

Others prefer to keep the business letter format no matter how many times they have exchanged email with clients.

"For most clients, I stay with the business letter format. I can still be friendly and on a first name basis, but I always end my letter with who I am and my company," says Lynda Morris, president of NicLyn Computer Consultants.

Thirgood is a big believer in keeping contact information, or sig files, in each and every email. If you don't, you're now leaving it up to the reader to go to their contact database and look you up, which can cause a delay and possibly come off as an irritant.

You are also missing the opportunity for subtle self-promotion.

"People need to see things over and over, and after a while they will decide to contact you or check out your website. Too many people think it's only for special occasions, it should be on every email that goes out," says Thirgood.

While it is a good idea to make your contact information available in each email, you also need to be careful about overdoing things. In this case it is enough to include your name and contact information within the email and leave it at that.

Anti-Spam compliance [update Nov. 2014]

The introduction of Canada's anti-spam legislation, CASL, has certainly complicated things for Canadian companies using email to develop sales with new customers.

While receiving a business card can warrant the initiaion of email communication with someone who is not a customer, there are instances where doing so may violate CASL. With fines of up to $1 million for individuals and $10 million for corporations, that is serious business.

Be sure to get the facts from our 3-part CASL compliance article series, starting with CASL: What is Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation?

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