How to Write Right

By Heather Baldwin

Pop quiz: You need to get a message to your customers and can’t reach them by phone. What do you do? That’s an easy one, right? You send an email. It’s fast and easy. You can quickly write two or three lines to pass on the message, hit send and zip-zap you’re done.

That’s just the problem, says Joy Van Skiver, president of The Writing Exchange, business-writing specialists who have been in business for more than two decades ( Email has become so quick and so ubiquitous, she says, that salespeople tend to make mistakes that can hurt their careers and their sales. Here, says Van Skiver, are six of the most common email mistakes salespeople make and how you can avoid them.

1. Too much information. Sales professionals are so used to telling compelling stories to make a case for prospects to buy that many tend to do the same thing in emails. With an email, however, you need to get right to the point. No one wants – or has time – to read a lot of background, says Van Skiver, so put your most important information in the first paragraph. If recipients read only that graph they will have the key information.

2. Too many emails. Van Skiver recently met someone who gets 200 business emails a day – and he’s not alone. Most businesspeople are bombarded by email every day. The higher one’s position, the more likely they are to get bombarded. If you’re guilty of contributing to that bombardment then your emails are going to be deleted, so make sure you send only what is absolutely necessary.

3. A bad e-reputation. Everyone develops an email reputation. Think about the emails you receive. Depending on who sent it, you’ll either open it right away, plan to open it later because you know the writer always rambles or delete it because the writer never sends anything worthwhile. Now think about what you send. "When people see your name do they decide not to open it because your email takes too much time to read? Or do they want to read it because your emails are always concise?" asks Van Skiver. Every time you send an email think about what it’s doing for your e-reputation.

4. Poor visuals. If you pay attention to the visual appearance of your emails, they’ll be more enticing to read, says Van Skiver. Make your paragraphs no longer than six lines, never send a single, solid block of text, put a line of white space between paragraphs, make lists when it makes sense to do so and use headings to separate topics. If you really have to send a lot of information, do it in an attachment. Tell your readers what’s in the attachment in the body of the email so they can decide whether to open it.

5. Too general. Subject lines and opening lines, particularly in emails from salespeople, tend to be generic and boring, says Van Skiver. "The most common opener I see from salespeople is: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me," she says. Boring! Instead, be specific: Thank you for explaining your goals for the fourth quarter. Or: Thank you for telling me about your priorities for your new CRM system. That kind of specific opener accomplishes two things. First, it tells the reader you were listening and, second, it sets you up to get right to your point. The same goes for subject lines. Instead of writing something general such as Mutual Funds, be specific: Mutual Fund Comparison Information You Requested.

6. Too many errors. You’ve heard this one before, but it bears repeating: Before you hit send, slow down and read what you wrote. "Salespeople are in such a hurry they forget that emails stay out there a long time after they’ve been sent," says Van Skiver. The misspelling or angry sounding email you send today may wind up in the hands of a key decision maker tomorrow. In fact, when you’re writing an important email, or when you’re tired or grumpy, it’s a good idea to leave out the To address until the end so you don’t send the email by mistake in mid-sentence. "On Friday afternoons I tend to make more mistakes so I always leave the To line blank on Fridays," says Van Skiver. "Only when the email is finished and thoroughly proofed do I fill in the To address and send it."