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Sloppy e-mail sends wrong message

July 25, 2001

Forget casual Friday. Employers worried about the image their workers are projecting to prospective clients and business associates should take a look at the sorts of things being sent out on company e-mail.

Chain letters and silly jokes aren't the problem: It's the incomplete sentences, misspellings and rambling thoughts flying through cyberspace in the name of doing business.

E-mail is easy and fast. Sometimes those traits translate to sloppiness, and that reflects on writers and the organizations they work for, communications experts say. As a result, some business schools and a number of observant managers are beginning to see e-mail writing as a skill worth honing.

From the beginning, critics of popular culture have bemoaned the growing popularity of electronic messaging, suggesting it would spell the end of the art of letter writing.

But, at least in professional circles, e-mail has increased the need for writing skills - perhaps more than managers realize, said Dianna Booher, the Dallas-based author of "E-Writing: Twenty-First Century Tools for Effective Communication."

It can last forever

"They don't consider it writing," Booher said. "People just think of it like the telephone or voice mail - that it won't last forever."

Chances are, it will last forever, or at least long enough to damage a reputation, she said.

"E-mail can be forwarded to the world, and your career image rests on people seeing your writing," said Booher, who holds seminars and workshops to help organizations teach their employees to communicate using the written word. "They can't follow you around and see you make decisions or solve a problem. They just see what you write down. . . . And if you are careless in your writing, they'll assume that's the way you put together your product."

At FirstMerit Bank in Akron, Ohio, writing online is taken as seriously as writing on letterhead, said Joe Haren, the bank's chief Web officer.

Many of the company's Internet banking customers use e-mail as their main method of correspondence. Haren said customer service agents who traditionally would spend most of their time on the telephone are now required to communicate in writing.

Carelessness common

"I think there is a tendency to be careless (with e-mail) if professionalism isn't enforced," Haren said. "E-mail started out as informal communication - spelling didn't count, punctuation didn't count. It was just, get it out there. It's important .


. that we don't see it that way. These are communications with customers. They're just as important, just as viable, as the U.S. mail."

With that philosophy in mind, the bank places greater importance on writing skills when hiring for customer service jobs in the Internet banking group, said Jeanine Tate, assistant vice president and service operations manager for FirstMerit's customer contact center.

"(An e-mail) may be your only correspondence with a person," Tate said. "That's why it has become even more important that the written communication skills be very strong."

Booher said one of the worst mistakes people make is stream-of-consciousness writing - filling their e-mails with irrelevant information.

"That has the same effect as if we were to call the credit card company and say, 'I have a charge here that is not mine,' and the representative were to say, 'Well, last week Sara gave me this file, and you don't know Sara, but she said




' Your whole impression of that representative's ability is negative. You don't even know if she understood what you said," Booher said.

In fact, the representative in that scenario may be hard working, creative and more than capable of handling the problem. But, Booher said, just as with e-mail, none of that matters if the message isn't conveyed well.

"Think before you write," she said. "You should be able to summarize your message in a sentence or two. If you can't, you aren't ready to write.

"You are judged on your capabilities, and your technical capabilities are often based on your writing skills. You may have a brilliant idea, but if you can't communicate it, it will never go anywhere."




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