"Electronic mail"—or "e-mail," as it is commonly called—is the process of sending or receiving a computer file or message by computer modem over telephone wires to a preselected "mail box" or "address" on another computer. E-mail can also be sent automatically to a large number of electronic addresses via mailing lists. E-mail messages can range from the simplest correspondence to business presentations, engineering blueprints, book chapters, or detailed contracts. Graphics, files of artwork or photography, can be transmitted via this technology as well, though text messages comprise the vast majority of e-mail transmissions. Today, e-mail stands as a central component of business communication, both within businesses and between business enterprises, because of the many advantages that it offers over regular mail in terms of efficiency, speed, and 24-hour availability. These characteristics have made electronic mail a truly ubiquitous presence in the United States. Indeed, in terms of sheer volume, more than 536 billion pieces of e-mail were delivered in the United States in 1999, according to the eMarketer Internet research firm. Moreover, eMarketer estimates that in 2000, the number of active e-mail users in America reached 111 million.
Since e-mail has emerged as such an important method of business communication in recent years, it is important for small business owners to know how to use this technology effectively. Toward that end, consultants generally recommend that small business owners and entrepreneurs select and shape e-mail packages that emphasize convenience and ease of use. "Look for an e-mail package that lets you select specific settings and preferences that affect all your e-mail activity," wrote Calvin Sun in Entrepreneur.
Today's companies are able to customize their e-mail services to meet their own unique communication needs. E-mail management tools on the market can help entrepreneurs and managers address a wide array of issues, from excessive volumes of e-mail and/or excessively large file attachments—both of which can clog e-mail gateways or create network storage burdens—to virus detection, spam blocking, and searchability of e-mail data stores. E-mail services can also be augmented with offerings that address content management, which Computerworld 's David Essex noted, can help to ensure "that e-mail isn't used in a way that could subject a company to sexual harassment suits and other legal challenges. Homegrown software and policies and the e-mail systems' built-in features are also typically part of the management mix."
Many small companies choose to incorporate these various e-mail management tools into their communications grid themselves. But business owners also have the option of utilizing the services of one or more of the dozens of performance-monitoring companies that have emerged in recent years to meet the demand for e-mail management services and software.
Experts in the fields of business and electronic communication agree that managers and small business owners can take several steps to maximize the efficiency of their company's e-mail systems. These tips extend from patterns of personal e-mail use to guidelines for companywide e-mail policies.
Professional appearance and content are paramount. Many members of the business community have commented on the fact that many e-mail messages reflect a casual attitude toward grammar, spelling, and tone that would never be tolerated in regular business correspondence. Users of electronic mail are encouraged to adopt the same standards of professionalism that dictate the tone and appearance of postal correspondence. Indeed, proper spelling and grammar, coupled with the ability to frame correspondence in suitably diplomatic language, are essential components of electronic mail. Consultants also caution small business owners to be circumspect in their use of "emoticons," a set of symbols that have been developed by e-mail users to denote various non-verbal reactions, such as smiles, winks, and laughs, to supplement the included text. While use of these symbols is fine in some settings, inclusion of a flurry of such symbols is apt to confuse e-mail recipients who are unfamiliar with the meaning behind them, and they are, again, inappropriate for most business correspondence.
Separate the personal from the professional. Many entrepreneurs maintain separate electronic mail addresses, one for personal correspondence, the other for use at the office. "Everybody needs time to decompress at work, but mixing personal correspondence with professional correspondence can diminish one's focus," wrote Bob Mook in Denver Business Journal. "At the very least, a personal e-mail account gives you a way to delineate between the work-related stuff and the extracurricular stuff."
Monitor size of distribution lists to keep them manageable. Huge distribution lists can slow down e-mail systems. One way to address this problem is to continually cull your list. Another is to limit the size of attachments that are sent to large numbers of employees, clients, or vendors.
Establish policies for receiving attachments (and know the preferences of your clients in this regard). Many businesspeople dislike receiving attachments except when absolutely necessary, due to system slowdowns and vulnerability to viruses.
Augment your e-mail address to ensure accurate identification. E-mail users can ensure that recipients of their e-mail can easily determine their identity by including their real name in their e-mail addresses and including telephone number and mailing address information as a standard part of any e-mail. This information can be incorporated through "signature files" that are standard on most e-mail packages.
Promptly respond to e-mail messages of any significance. Small businesses and employees that do not promptly reply to electronic mail send the signal that they are either disinterested, incompetent, or disorganized. The business world is an often hectic one, and most people who participate in it recognize that delays in response do occur for a variety of legitimate reasons. But people who let e-mail messages go unacknowledged for several days or more are in essence informing the sender that delivering a response is not a priority for them.
Establish efficient daily e-mail practices. Recent studies indicate that many executives spend almost two hours a day attending to their overflowing electronic mail, and that some business owners and managers spend even more time on such activities. In most instances, this is not time well-spent; instead, it keeps the owner or manager from addressing other, ultimately more important, business issues. To minimize this particular time drain, experts urge owners/managers/executives to 1) delete old messages that can clutter e-mail inboxes; 2) review incoming e-mails only at two or three set times a day, rather than peeking at each one as it comes in; and 3) purchase supplementary tools that can block e-mail spam that clogs many systems.
Pay attention. "The process of sending and replying to message is rife with opportunities for error," wrote Sun, but most pitfalls can be avoided if you take the time to learn the nuances of electronic mail. For instance, said Sun, "if you wish to avoid embarrassment (or worse), pay attention when sending a reply. Do you disagree with a message that was sent to you and dozens of others? Then be sure to 'reply to sender' rather than 'reply all.' Otherwise, your reply will go to all the original recipients, making your private disagreement public."
"The E-Mail Rules: Manage the Medium." PC World. April 2001.
Essex, David. "Managing E-Mail for Maximum Uptime." Computerworld. March 26, 2001.
Fisher, Jerry. "E-Mail Feedback." Entrepreneur. October 1997.
Kirkpatrick, Keith. "E-Mail Not Slated to Stamp Out Postal Service." Home Office Computing. April 2001.
McCreary, Lew. "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control." CIO. May 15, 1999.
Mook, Bob. "Tips for Dealing with E-Mail Overload." Denver Business Journal. January 12, 2001.
Nickson, Stephen. "Spy Mail." Risk Management. February 2001.
Sun, Calvin. "E-Mail Etiquette: Minding Your Manners When Using E-Mail Pays Off." Entrepreneur. September 1997.
SEE ALSO: Spam