B2B Client Relations by E-mail

Most of us know the standard e-mail etiquette rules. For example, don’t use ALL CAPS, as it connotes shouting.

But how many profitable business-to-business (B2B) client relationships are lost due to e-mail misunderstandings? Probably more than anyone knows because clients don’t always disclose why they leave. They just silently go AWOL.

Here are some experiences I’ve had over the years that show what happens when online communications derail.

Don’t Take All E-mail Messages at Face Value

Recently, I received an RFP (define) via e-mail from a current client for a huge campaign. I read through it and realized I couldn’t complete the project in the timeframe outlined because I’d be away on vacation for two out of the four weeks. In fact, I didn’t see how I could handle the entire project because it was complex and some aspects fell outside my expertise.

I was ready to decline to bid when I picked up the phone and talked to my day-to-day contact at the company. She assured me the deadline would definitely move, and the work would probably be parceled out to a number of different creative resources. She also provided perspective on the creative development process, which helped me develop a realistic bid.

When I returned from vacation, I discovered I had won a key part of the campaign. If I hadn’t picked up the phone, I wouldn’t have even been a contender.

E-mail the Right Recipient

In the last month, I’ve been mistakenly cc’d on two e-mail messages from colleagues on client projects for which I have absolutely no involvement. Apparently, the person they meant to e-mail is also named Karen. Outlook automatically suggested my last name when the first name was typed in.

In one case, the mistaken e-mail brought about the happy discovery that a designer and I have a client in common. And that led to us both winning the big campaign mentioned above, when we realized we could join forces. That was a lucky fluke.

I’ve also been mortally embarrassed by this Outlook feature. A while back, I was feeling a little bad for myself. My cash flow had taken an unexpected dip, and I was writing a “woe is me” e-mail to a good friend named Elizabeth.

I also have a client named Elizabeth who inadvertently got the e-mail that laid bare my temporarily bad financial situation (which righted itself within days). The next day, she was kind enough to tell me she deleted the e-mail once she realized it was not meant for her eyes. Weirdly enough, this exchange’s humanness made us closer as colleagues, and we’re now great friends. If I could have retracted that e-mail before it reached her inbox, however, I would have in a heartbeat!

Since then, I’ve turned off the AutoComplete name completion feature in Outlook. It’s a pain to look up e-mail addresses, but it’s a small price to pay to avoid future embarrassment.

Couch Negative Comments in Positive Terms

At this point in my career, I’m considered an expert in certain areas. As a result, clients often ask for advice or want me to weigh in on certain sticky situations.

No matter how much you know about a subject, the more humble your tone the better. Phrases such as “in my experience” and “best practices suggest” can go a long way toward winning a good reception for a new idea or softening a critique.

Take the time to read and reread your e-mail. If it’s an especially touchy subject, ask a colleague for a second opinion.

If there’s a real difference of opinion — or you find an e-mail thread of back-and-forth responses is getting nowhere — pick up the phone and talk the issue through. You can sometimes get more done in a two-minute phone call than in paragraphs of explanation.

Some of these suggestions may seem like no-brainers to people who grew up with the telephone as a primary tool of client communication. However, I’m seeing — and hearing from colleagues — that younger people who grew up with e-mail are likely to depend on it far too much and take it too literally. From my recent experiences outlined above, clearly even seasoned veterans like myself can be victims of online miscommunication.

The overall lesson? For day-to-day business interactions, e-mail is great. But when you’re dealing with sensitive client relations or big projects, pick up the phone. Better yet, meet with clients in person.

How do you use B2B e-mail to collaborate, accelerate your workflow, or forge better client relations? Let Karen know.

Meet Karen at ClickZ Specifics: E-Mail Marketing on October 2, in New York City.

Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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