Friday, October 4, 2013

How to Write Effective Email Subject Lines to Consulting Clients

by Ann Abbott

As the semester progresses and my experiment with turning my traditional Business Spanish course into a hands-on social media marketing consulting business continues, this is my top lesson so far:
In this new territory, I need to learn precisely what my students need to learn. So far, I see that they need to learn things I never imagined I needed to teach. 
I'll share the list of things that students need to learn in a future blog post. For now, I want to zoom in on one area of professional communication about which students need explicit instruction: the subject lines of emails to clients.

When looking for some guidance on this issue, most of the information that popped up on Google was about internet marketing; in other words, how to send e-mails with subject lines that make people want to open them so that they will read your email newsletter, sales offer, etc. (Here's an example of "how to get them to click" advice.) Buried in there, I found some advice about subject lines in a general business context. And of course there's a whole book on how to use email better: Send.

I couldn't find anything specifically about how to write subject lines in your emails to clients you already have and that allow you to accomplish your work with them in a way that makes their lives easier. So here is my advice.

Client's reality: Overwhelmed by e-mail and must make make split-second decisions about whether or not to do the work that each e-mail implies. Part of that work is reading it and interpreting it just so they know what they actually need to do.
Subject Line to the Rescue: Use strong verbs to clarify the actions that are required of the client. If your subject line is absolutely clear about what the client needs to do with the information in the e-mail, you have just saved her time and effort--and after all, that is why she hired you in the first place. I see too many e-mails that are long, vague, and packed with too much tangential information. Your client wonders: What. do. I. actually. need. to. do?! What do you do when you receive an e-mail like that? Here's what I do: I delay. I can't figure out what the person is asking of me. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. Argh! But if you send me (and your consulting clients) an e-mail that tells me up front and explicitly exactly what you need from me, I'll take care of it right away.
Example: "Facebook posts for your review and approval." (See picture above. This was an example I told my students to use with their clients.)
It's not rude ("Review and approve these posts!"). Yet I know exactly what this is going to entail. I expect to have to open an attachment, scan the posts, and answer yes or no. That sounds like a  job I can get out of my inbox quickly. Whew! Of course, if your actual posts for me are not appropriate, then you have again created a lot of work for me (I have to comment on each one), and I will probably have to delay my response to you. Your client's job is easy if you do a good job in the first place.

Client's reality: I'm starting to really dislike this very likable person because I can't understand her.
Subject Line to the Rescue: We never want to be rude. But sometimes our desire to be polite creates confusion. In one class period, I told the student groups to write an e-mail to their client reminding them about the first face-to-face meeting. One student drafted an e-mail that was very well composed, polite, and really communicated the team's excitement to finally meet the client. It included the date, time and place of the meeting. She wrote something like "we will be meeting to discuss your social media marketing needs." And that was the problem. Who was "we?" In an effort to avoid saying something rude like, "Be here at 1:00 on Friday," the student actually communicated something like, "My teammates and I (we) are going to meet to discuss your needs." It sounded like the client didn't have to be there. Again, if your e-mail messages cause any confusion for your client, you are creating work for them instead of taking care of work for them. Do not force them to figure out your unclear message.
Example: "Mark you calendar: meeting; Deb and consulting team; Friday, October 11; 1:00-2:00; 312 Davenport Hall."
This subject includes an action verb telling the client exactly what to do. It's to the point, but it's not rude. After the action is clearly described, all the pertinent details are included in the subject line. In fact, imagine this scenario: the client sees the subject line, opens up the calendar app on her smart phone, opens a new appointment, fills in all the details and touches "Done." Whatever information is contained in the body of the e-mail is simply extra; the subject line accomplished everything your client needed.

Client's reality: This person seemed so nice and chatty when we met. Now she's dry and all business!
Subject Line to the Rescue: Yes, this style of writing e-mail subject lines is direct, explicit and concise. It can take people by surprise. If you are a female consultant, it definitely toys with gendered notions of how women (should) communicate. But it's also really effective. So simply bring this up during your initial meetings, when you are already aligning expectations with your client. Just like you will establish work processes, timelines and prices at the beginning, also establish your e-mail style as a part of the process when you initially align expectations and sign agreements. Say something like, "I'd like to let you know about my e-mail communication style. I have found that clients appreciate e-mails that are clear, concise and explicit. They tell me it saves them time. I don't write that way because I am rushing or because I don't care about all the details of your business. I do it to help you. When needed, though, phone calls and face-to-face visits allow us to be more expansive."
Example: "Confirm in-office appointment: Monday, October 14; 1:00-2:00; your office; discuss Facebook ad campaign details."
You know that good consulting work also needs time for free-flowing, back-and-forth dialogue.

Client's reality: Didn't I just take care of this yesterday?
Subject Line to the Rescue: Establish the chronology of work that is cyclical. Every Friday this semester, my students need to send five Facebook posts or tweets to their client. They can't post anything that hasn't been approved. The action required of the client is always the same, but having an identical subject line each week can cause problems. Separate e-mail threads can get confused. The client might get a sense of deja-vu..."I thought I just got this out of my inbox the other day." Find a way to help your client keep track of the chronology of the work.
Example: "Week 2 of 10: Facebook posts for your review and approval."
My students' consultant-client relationship is finite; they will stop posting once the semester ends. You probably want to have a long and lasting relationship with your consulting clients, but try to find a way to put a "time-stamp" on repetitive tasks.

Client's reality: Who in the world is Giuliana and why is she e-mailing me?
Subject Line to the Rescue: If you work in a team, either have one person consistently e-mail or identify the project itself in the subject line. I have seventeen students in my course this semester and five clients. So I divided the students into five teams of 3-4 students. Ideally, one student in the team would be the client communications expert. Other students in the team might take the roles of photographer, picture editor, researcher, etc. (I'll do that next time I teach this course.) Since the "From" line of the e-mail might be inconsistent--some students use multiple e-mail accounts, too--the subject line will have to provide a consistent identity.
Example: "Facebook Team: Please send pictures of fundraiser dinner."
Identifying themselves consistently as "Facebook Team" with the first words in the subject line reduces confusion when the "From" line has a variety of different e-mail addresses and names.

Client's reality: I am swamped! I'm sure that Pradeep or Leslie will take care of this one.
Subject Line to the Rescue: If you send emails to a client team, identify who should do the job. Some of my students have found that working with a team of clients instead of one point person within the organization has been difficult. Remember, your clients are busy. They do the work that is in front of their face and easy to take care of. Don't make the team have an internal conversation about who should answer the e-mail. Make their lives easy and identify one person in your e-mail. I remember learning once that in an emergency, many people don't respond because they think everyone else will. If you see a car injure a pedestrian, for example, you should look at the others nearby, point to individual and say: "You, call 911. You, stand in the street and stop other cars from driving by this person. You, take down the drivers license number. You, put pressure on the bleeding. Etc." It's often the same in work scenarios.
Example: "Ben: Please provide answer to question posed in FB comments by a customer."
Everyone knows that Ben will take care of this.

Client's reality: Let me check my phone and get rid of my e-mails during my commute. I am determined to tackle my big project as soon as I walk into the office.
Subject Line to the Rescue: Consider how your message will look on a smartphone. On mine, I can see about four or five words of a subject line. Make those count. Use a verb. Make it look like something that will be easy to do over the phone, hopefully something that doesn't even require the client to thumb-type a long response.
Example: "Confirm accuracy of post."
Yes. No. But again, this only works if you actually do a very good job so that there are few if any corrections to be made.

Client's reality: Oh, my God. I never replied to the last two e-mails Cristina sent me. I'm behind, and now here comes another one. I can't even open it. I'm so embarrassed that I haven't replied to the others. I don't want to read it. I'll just skip it until I really have time. Tomorrow.
Subject Line to the Rescue: Present each e-mail like a brand new opportunity! No shaming. Even inadvertent shaming is counterproductive. I have been there. Many times. I have received e-mails that I just couldn't bring myself to open because I felt so bad about the previous ones that I hadn't opened. I needed a way to hit a "reset" button. A clean slate. Even when you are frustrated because the client hasn't responded in a while, you absolutely cannot let that come through in your e-mail. Make every subject line sound like a new chance to get caught up or even skip ahead. (Full disclosure: I've felt so ashamed about piled-up e-mails  before, that I'm not sure what subject line would have encouraged me to open up a new e-mail from the same person. In those cases, I don't even look at the subject line because my body goes cold just by seeing the name in the "From" line. So if things are really bad, try having someone else on your team e-mail that client or e-mail them yourself from a different e-mail account--socialmedia6879@google.com.)
Example: "New batch of posts for your approval." or "New topic: ...."
One more thing, if your client feels ashamed about the backed-up e-mails from you, then maybe you are sending too many e-mails! Try sending two weeks worth of posts instead of one. Try having the client reply only if they do not approve the posts. Try other processes that limit the e-mails the client must reply to.

Client's reality: I am going off-line for a while. I have to concentrate on the most urgent things that come at me. I don't have time for this consulting thing that was supposed to make my life easier anyway!
Subject Line to the Rescue: Pick up the phone. Print out the documents, hand address an envelope and drop it in a mailbox! Get in the car and visit. Don't always rely on the e-mail if it isn't working for your client at the moment.
Example: "In your neighborhood this afternoon: I'll drop by with a muffin and coffee for you."

How do you use e-mail subject lines to make your busy clients' lives easier? What other ways have you found to facilitate the consultant-client communication? Let me know in the comments. And contact me at arabbott@illinois.edu if you are interested social media consulting or in teaching your students to be social media consultants.

1 comment:

  1. Great advice! Email never seems to get enough time and attention from the *sender* and that's a big part of why email overwhelms our lives. This detail of the subject line is so important--and effective in improving online communications. But most people simply never give it any thought--if the number of (no subject) emails I get is any indication!

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