During the last 10 years, the widespread use of e-mail has literally transformed business communication, so much that the business letter has reached near extinction. Even those who clung dearly to fax machines as their most efficient means of communicating can’t imagine corresponding today without e-mail. And for good reason — electronic mail is fast, inexpensive and ultra-efficient. And perhaps because of its speed and efficiency, e-mail has become a casual, and often too informal, means of communicating in today’s competitive marketplace.

Whether you’re communicating via letter printed on engraved letterhead or electronic message that will travel the Information Superhighway, the same rules of etiquette apply. And all rules of etiquette have one goal in common: to make things easier and more understandable for another person. When any situation is carried out with good manners, the other person feels valued, important and special. More important, good manners in the business world create a professional image, which is one key component of marketing your company.

Caps, Smalls, Etc.
A former coworker of mine had no idea she committed one of the most offensive of all formatting errors with each e-mail that zoomed from her outbox. I’ll call her Sherry. Sherry perpetually kept her “caps lock” function engaged, and every letter was in capital form. My colleague didn’t realize that in e-mail language, writing in all caps is the equivalent of shouting. I think she just liked the way her words looked in capitals. Maybe she thought it looked important. Maybe she thought it was easier to read. It wasn’t. It was, in fact, very impolite.

In certain situations, all caps may be appropriate when you need to add special emphasis to certain words. But in these rare instances, check your e-mail program first to see if the bold, underline or italics option is present. If so, always choose one of these functions before all caps.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the e-mails that contain no capital letters whatsoever. In an attempt to save time or perhaps to look cool, some senders neglect the caps function. The result is another difficult-to-read e-mail that looks unprofessional. While it’s true that e-mails can drop some of the formality of a business letter, always adhere to standard rules of writing and grammar.

Know Your Functions
Not too long ago I sent an e-mail to a former colleague, requesting information I needed for a deadline. I waited an appropriate amount of time – at least 24 hours or more – before trying again. I even followed up with a phone call. Still no response came. So I decided to move on and track down my information elsewhere. When I later found out my associate had been on vacation, I was furious. Why didn’t he set up an auto reply message that would respond to every incoming message while he was out or include a comment on his voicemail message that he would be out of the office for a few days? The message would have immediately told me that he was out of the office for a few days, and I quickly would have known to find what I needed elsewhere. Since this colleague of mine is no technophile, I have a feeling he didn’t mean to be rude. He probably didn’t know how to set up the automatic response. In fact, he most likely didn’t realize such a function exists.

There are two lessons here. First, if you’re unable to respond to e-mail for a significant amount of time, set up an auto response message to notify senders of your absence, and — if possible — direct them to another person who can provide assistance. If you don’t have the capability to send an auto response, make sure that your key contacts know that you will be gone and provide them with a secondary contact or commit to checking your e-mail once a day while gone.

The second lesson goes much deeper: Ignorance is no excuse for being rude. If you’re using e-mail, you need to understand as much as you can about your e-mail software. You need to know how to perform such basic tasks as setting up an auto response and creating a signature that will include contact information. Your e-mail program probably has a tab containing information about how to use the program. Spend an hour or two thoroughly familiarizing yourself with your e-mail’s functions and capabilities. The time spent will be well worth it in creating a professional, respectful image.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
E-mail can save vast amounts of time, but there are occasions when pen put to paper or a phone call is the better option. For instance, when you want to thank an associate, employee or client, a handwritten note on personal stationery is the most appropriate and gracious way to respond. If someone has taken the time to do something that warrants a thank-you, then you should take the extra time to write a note. Your colleague will feel valued, and you will demonstrate your sincere appreciation.

Other circumstances for shunning e-mail include more delicate matters. A good friend of mine recently told me that she’s swearing off e-mail for good. “Please just call me if you need me,” she requested. I was a little shocked by her comment. My friend, who teaches ballet to young children, rarely uses e-mail for her work needs. Still, she filled me in that she received an e-mail containing some very bad news. She couldn’t believe someone would have the nerve to send such an unfortunate report through e-mail. It was cold, impersonal and very rude. I doubt my friend will stick to her conviction, for it’s impossible in today’s world that requires technology usage from nearly every profession and trade. But the lesson holds true to those of us who rely on e-mail every day. If you have unfortunate news to report, pick up the phone and deliver it in person. The same rule should be applied when you have very good news to deliver. The few extra minutes you spend in person will be well worth it in the long run.

In the modern business world, e-mail is perhaps one of the biggest time savers. It allows us to send and receive information quickly and for a nominal expense. Yet amidst the hubbub of keypads clicking, be sure to remember common rules of courtesy. Your polite and gracious manner will demonstrate your professionalism, your clients and colleagues will feel appreciated, and your business will reap the benefits.