The 10 Commandments of Modern Communication Etiquette

email tiquette

Over the years, I have developed effective communication practices, although to be honest, much of it was learned through trial and error.  Ask any of my clients today, however, and they’ll tell you how easy it was for them to communicate with my office.  So today I will share the secrets to successful communication for your personal or professional practices.

While expanding my law practice has provided me with more clients and increased revenue, this privilege also comes with a higher volume of communications. 

I have found that providing clients with an array of communication options makes it easier for people to communicate.  On the other hand, when clients know they can reach me by email, text or phone anytime can easily lead to overwhelm.

Most people send a message knowing it will be instantly delivered, and expect (or at least hope for), an immediate response.  Particularly in my line of work, clients often feel a sense of urgency about their matters, even if it’s not the proverbial “life or death” situation.  But I can’t do two or three things at once (at least not well) and therefore we all need to find balance.

That said, what should we expect when it comes to modern communication?  And how should we communicate to give our clients and customers a sense that we take their matters seriously, but without having to be at their beck and call?

Commandment # 1:  Set Expectations (and Boundaries) Right Away

At the initial meeting with a new client, I make sure to cover three (3) guidelines for communication with my office.  First, I let them know all the various (and best) ways they can reach me; Second,  I explain my 48-hour courtesy rule (discussed below); And finally, I confirm their preferred method of communication (don’t check your emails too often? No problem, we can text you).  I take this time to emphasize the importance of good communication, and the dangers of poor communication, driving home the purpose of my policies.

As mentioned above, I prefer a ‘48-hour courtesy rule‘.  Clients can reach out by text or e-mail 24/7 and are guaranteed a response within 48 hours.  While I probably won’t text you back at 3 o’clock in the morning, I will always check my text messages and e-mails just as soon as I’ve had my morning coffee.  And, most times, I (or my assistant) respond within the same day.   I make this policy clear to my clients from the beginning, and let them know I expect the same courtesy in return.  

This conversation takes only a few minutes and ensures that every client knows what to expect from me and what is expected of them.  In 95% of cases, everyone follows the guidelines and things move along smoothly.

Even when communicating with a prospective client (i.e., following up on leads), I set expectations from the very beginning.  For some legal matters, I will do an initial intake over the phone.  It let’s me weed out the callers that are not “serious” but perhaps just looking for a little bit of free advice.  It also ensures I am not scheduling consultations for matters I won’t be able to handle.

However, if it seems the lead is interested, just not ready to hire me, I will tell them that I will follow up, and let them know when they can expect to hear from me.  I also confirm their preferred method of communication, e.g., e-mail or phone call.  This has has the effect of increasing my conversion ratio because people are more likely to answer the call if they know it’s coming.

And since I do offer to e-mail or text with clients and prospective clients, it makes it less harrowing for those who do not like to answer their phone, and never check their voicemail.

Commandment # 2: Provide a Response, ANY Response

Sometimes you receive a message that requires a lengthy or detailed response.  Or perhaps you need some time to investigate or think about the issue before replying. Maybe you’re just having the week from hell and this customer’s issue is not urgent.

However, the person sending the message does not know what’s going on in your world.  All they see is an empty inbox and all they hear is silence.  This can be quite upsetting, especially after a few days have passed without a response.

When I receive a message that requires me to take some time to prepare a response, I will usually reply (right away) with something like, “I’ve received your message and will need a few days to get back to you.”

This allows me to hold true to my 48-hour rule and simultaneously eliminates any concerns or stresses caused by what could otherwise be perceived as me ignoring them.

It all boils down to being available, even when you’re not.  This has the added benefit of increasing trust with your customers, which can go a long way in a professional relationship.

Commandment # 3: Under promise, Over deliver

There are few things worse than telling a client you will get back to them on Monday, and then you don’t.  You’ve set an expectation in their mind, and if you fail to live up to it, you will lose trust.

We can’t predict the future, but if you’re good at managing your time and your schedule, you should have a general idea about when you can respond (realistically).  So if you’re pretty certain you can get back to them by Monday, tell them it will be Tuesday.

It’s better to set the expectation for Tuesday, and get back to them sooner (now you’re a hero), than to tell them Monday and not meet your own deadline.

Commandment # 4: Be Patient & Understanding

Poor communication among professionals is one of my greatest pet peeves in the practice of law.  While I do set expectations for my clients, I hold my adversaries and colleagues to a higher standard.  I can’t tell you exactly how many attorneys lack the ability to communicate in a reasonably prompt manner, but it’s a lot more than I’d like to admit.

However, life in the modern world can be hectic, and we all have things going on.  In particular there’s an expectation with attorneys that we can be in two places at once (yes, really).  There’s been days when I’ve shown up for an 8:30am court appearance only to get stuck there until 4:30pm.  It couldn’t be helped, and by the time I get home, I’m drained and my brain is no longer working at full speed.

So if you sent a message and don’t receive an immediate response, consider that the recipient may not be available for any number of reasons.  And again, 48 hours is a good rule of thumb for the period of time you should wait before you follow-up.  Bombarding someone with a dozen calls, emails and text messages in an 8 or 12-hour span is not likely to get you a response any faster; in fact, many times it has the opposite effect.

Of course, if more than 48 hours goes by with no response at all, send a brief follow-up.  Again, be understanding and courteous.  I usually forward my prior message and write something like, “I am just following up on my previous e-mail.  Please provide the courtesy of a response at your earliest convenience.”

In many cases, the person simply forgot to respond or overlooked your e-mail, perhaps during a particularly busy week.  Either way, a polite nudge usually prompts a response quickly without damaging the relationship.

Commandment # 5: Nip Problems in the Bud Right Away

If you’ve already set expectations, shown courtesy through prompt response, and have sent the polite follow-up message but still find you’re in the dark without a response, you should escalate the conversation right away.  Letting bad communication issues linger will only reinforce that it’s acceptable behavior, when really it’s not.   This can also apply if someone is a habitual non-responder.

When it comes to legal matters, there are usually strict deadlines that have to be met.  Whether set by the court or the circumstances, time is often of the essence.  However, I cannot prepare a client’s case without their input and cooperation.  Again, I explained this to them in the beginning, and will remind them of this again, when needed. Similarly, I often need input or cooperation from adversaries and total silence after 2-3 days can really put the pressure on.

However, the emphasis should be on the importance of good communication.  I will remind clients that I am assisting them with their case, and that disappearing for weeks at a time prevents me from preparing case with applicable deadlines.

That said, you should always remain polite and courteous; you may feel quite upset, disrespected or even concerned in some cases.  But getting angry and placing blame will not improve the situation, and it will take focus away from the main issue, which is to improve communication.

In most cases I will wait a full calendar week before I escalate the communications.  However, depending on the circumstances it might be appropriate to wait more or less time.  Whatever the time frame, at this point I will send a more formal communication, such a mailing a letter.  I find that this tends to get people’s attention since mailing a letter is such an unusual method of communication in the 21st century.

I keep the letter short, explain the concerns caused by lack of communication, and invite them to contact me by any means.  Always leave an inviting door open for them to walk back through without causing them any embarrassment.  Otherwise, they may continue to ignore you because they don’t want to be berated or made to feel bad.    Once you do get their attention, just reiterate the expectations you set in the beginning and emphasize good communication methods for moving forward.

Commandment # 6: Don’t Underestimate the Value of an Apology, When Appropriate

We’ve all had days where there are a million things to do and everything on your list feels like a priority.  So if you find yourself guilty of poor communication practices, offer an apology (with or without explanation).  A simple, “I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you” will usually help ease any tension created by your previous silence.

But an apology means nothing if you continue to practice poor communication.  So be sure to promptly reply to future communications, reinforcing that poor communication is not your usually modus operandi, and letting your customers and clients know they can rely on you to be a professional and courteous communicator.

Commandment # 7:  Always Maintain Formality

E-mail and text are wonderful because they are sent and received instantly.  However, there are times when it is not appropriate to respond to a message.  For example, when you’re driving, you shouldn’t be checking emails and messages.  But more than that, if you’re engaged in another matter, such as in a meeting or even a personal appointment, it might not be the best time to rattle off a response.

I like to let more in-depth communications sit for a few hours before sending them.  It gives me a chance to revise my message and ensures that I am not shooting from the hip with my information or even my tone.

I can say that I am guilty of replying to a message in anger, leading to a breakdown of communication.  Had I just waited a few hours, or even a night, I would have responded much differently and preserved the relationship.

So even though we may communicate using seemingly informal methods does not mean we should stop maintaining the appropriate formalities and professional demeanor demanded of our particular industry or profession.  While I have built friendships with some of my clients over the years, allowing me to act with a little less formality, those cases are few and far between.  No matter how “friendly” your client is, you are not friends and pretending you are is never a good idea… for one, friends expect discounts.

Commandment # 8:  Work Smarter, Not Harder

I’m a big fan of doing anything that makes my life easier.  Taking control of communication with another human can be difficult.  They may not be used to your style or method, or they may just not take the matter as seriously or urgently as you do.

That’s why I always start off a relationship by asking a client for their preferred method of communication.  However, if they tell me they prefer email, but never respond to my emails, I will revisit the issue and verify that they wish to continue communicating via emailing.

But more importantly, I assess the effectiveness of the method of communication apart from the client’s preferences.  For example, a legal matter may seem simple and easy to me, but I have to remember that some of my clients are not trained or experienced in legal matters, and may also not be very well educated or sophisticated, generally.  In fact, for most clients, I am their first experience with the legal profession and the law.

So if I find that they are emailing me long-winded messages, with questions that require a lengthy answer or complex discussion, I know that my response (no matter how well it is worded) is likely to cause confusion and not provide them with the information they really seek (most people don’t know what or how to ask their question, they just know they have a gap in their information and understanding).  In these cases, it is easy to get stuck in an endless back-and-forth email marathon that seems to go nowhere.

Don’t waste your time with useless communications.  If your preferred method of communication is not encouraging effective communication, than you need to switch your method, perhaps to a phone call or even a face-to-face meeting.

Don’t forget that written communication often lacks tone that could be much better conveyed in a phone call, and is also devoid of non-verbal cues and communication that can only exist in person.  You may have intended to convey a stern tone, but it is received negatively, causing communication to break down and trust to disappear.

Commandment # 9: Use the Tools at Your Disposal

I am not a tech guru by any means, and new platforms scare me.  So I guess you can say I am a bit old school.  I have had the same Gmail account since 2011, and generally track my emails, calendars, contacts and tasks through good ol’ Microsoft Outlook.  More recently I added CLIO to my list of management tools, which allows me to keep time, billing and client information in one handy location (it also allows me to set reminders, which are automatically forwarded to clients, when needed).

That said, I know there are a variety of platforms that can be utilized to manage your client relations and communications, but you have to select the one that suits you and your business best.

The point is to have these tools available and to use them.  If I receive an email that I am not ready to respond to, I can click and drag it to my calendar or task list and set a reminder so that I don’t forget to respond all together.   I also make very good use of my “away message” or “vacation responder”.  It provides an immediate and automatic response to let your clients know you are not available, and when they can expect you to return (and respond).  That means they are not left wondering why you haven’t gotten back to them for a few days.  I will sometimes use it even when just taking a personal day, or when I know I will be in court or otherwise indisposed for most or all of the day.

For me, it takes the pressure off because I know that no one is sitting in front of their computer staring daggers at their empty inbox.

Commandment # 10: Look in the Mirror

Whatever your profession,  effective communication is probably a crucial part of your job.  Getting your message across clearly and succinctly (conveying the right tone and attitude) can mean the difference between closing the deal and losing it.

In my profession, I am looked at as a wordsmith.  My primary function is to communicate effectively.  My clients need to fully understand the pros and cons of the decision I am helping them to make; Judges needs to understand my argument, and why my client’s position is right; my adversaries need to understand why I am making certain demands or proposals.  Without understanding, there is often no pathway to agreement or acceptance, which will surely prevent you from reaching your ultimate goals, whatever they may be.

So when I find that I am unable to effectively communicate with someone, whether a client, judge, or adversary, and I have already followed my first 9 commandments, I take a look in the mirror and ask myself what I could be doing better to improve communication.

And I have found all kinds of reasons why my own communication style did not work in one case or another.  Sometimes it’s as simple as a language or cultural barrier.  Other times I find I am working with an arrogant narcissist and I have to be a bit manipulative to make any progress at all.  The point is, take a look at the person and the matter carefully, and you may find clues that will help you to adjust your communication style to better suit the situation.

Bonus: Reply All

In my mind, there are very few times when ‘reply all’ is appropriate.  How many times have you been cc’d on an email only to receive replies from dozens of people, and none of it relevant to you?  I recall recently, someone sent a new year salutation and copied a few hundred people.  Suddenly my inbox was flooded with a hundred “happy new year to you too!” responses.  Nothing can be more distracting!

That said, if you are part of an email with multiple recipients, be sure that your response requires a ‘reply all’ before you respond.  And be careful not to respond with confidential or sensitive information that should not be shared with others.

Moral of the story, y our default should be to ‘reply’ to the sender only.  If you later feel that other recipients should have received your reply, you can always forward it.  But once you ‘reply all’ there’s no taksies-backsies.

I hope you find these suggestions to be helpful in y our every day life, personal or professional.  Happy communications!

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