With much business done online today, your online “handshake”—the way you answer an email or what you say on social media—directly affects people's perceptions of you as a small-business owner.
“Some of today’s business relationships exist entirely online, with the service provider and client never even meeting in person or talking on the phone. But those involved still form as strong an impression of one another as if they met face-to-face,” says Rachel French, owner of Protea Coaching, a certified professional coaching company that specializes in helping entrepreneurs and other professionals build successful businesses and careers.
Your Online Image Speaks Volumes
Because we exchange so much information through our websites, emails, cellphones, videos and social media, the way we conduct ourselves online is as important as how we appear in person.
“The world is shrinking, which means your potential sphere of influence is growing,” French says. “It’s important to create and maintain a very professional tone in your online correspondence, as recipients have the luxury of reading your words over and over again, as well as forwarding them to anyone they please. Whereas an offhand spoken comment may be easily dismissed, anything we say online can be analyzed, shared and obsessed over.”
The slightest slip-up online has repercussions, agrees Candace Smith, founder and director of Etiquette for the Business of Life. “When the invisible rules of civility are ignored, the cry will be 'How rude!' Business owners should always ask themselves exactly what they are communicating before they share.”
Help guarantee your online business success by keeping the following etiquette rules in mind.
1. Stay neutral. You can’t go wrong if you remain as unbiased as possible in your online communication. “When it comes to writing an email, strive for clear, matter-of-fact content,” French says.
“Don't be funny, sarcastic, passive aggressive or make innuendos. It's probably best to avoid these tactics in oral exchanges in the business world as well, but at least in person we can rely on vocal inflections, body language, facial expressions and audience participation to ensure that we're making our intended point. Online, these communication strategies are prone to misinterpretation or escalation.”
2. Follow grammar and punctuation rules. In any virtual communication—be it emailing, texting, posting on Facebook or blogging—use real words and complete sentences, and skip the emoticons.
“With very few exceptions, you should write the way you were taught in school,” French says. “Avoid all but the most common of internet abbreviations, and certainly skip the ones that are flippant or possibly inflammatory. And never curse.”
3. Know how to use online communication tools. "There are protocols for the use of online community groups and messaging systems, such as Twitter and texting,” Smith says.
“Analogous to how we use tableware—just as we don’t use a knife to pick up our bite of steak to eat, we don’t use the text message space to write an essay. Knowing how to use a fork correctly is really the same thing as knowing the protocols of virtual communications. Familiarize yourself with these operational rules as much as possible, and always exercise self-control.”
4. Consider your virtual recipients. "As Ann Chandler, founder of The Chandler School of Etiquette, likes to ask, 'What is it like to be on the other side of me?'“ Smith says. “Remember that there is a real person on the other end of whatever you put out there. With this in mind, it’s important to show character and to be civil, and to always ask yourself if what you’re saying is true.”
5. Take care choosing your professional user name. Put some thought into identifiers for yourself that others will see. Your best choice is to use your business name as your user name whenever possible and to never be cutesy. And if you own a business, French advises having an email address with your own domain name.
6. Pick up the phone when necessary. When a conversation is getting long or involved, for clarity’s sake, move it to the phone, French advises. “Endless email strings or text messages are frustrating and eventually create too much opportunity for confusion.”
When a long email is necessary, be respectful of your recipients by making it as easy to read as possible. Put the most important information at the top and organize with bullets and short paragraphs.
Adhere to these rules of the Internet, and you’ll be sure to develop successful online business relationships.
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A freelancer since 1985, Julie Bawden-Davis has written for many publications, including Entrepreneur, Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle.