Modern Etiquette: Personal vs. Professional Correspondence

Illustration by Anna Emilia

A few weeks ago I got a great request from a reader. Event planner Laurel White was grappling with the modern etiquette issues surrounding business communication. Her main concern was one that immediately intrigued me and I related to: How do you manage work-related messaging that takes place in the form of text message or social media messaging? In a world where people are less and less likely to pick up the phone and talk, how to you set boundaries while still being accommodating to clients? While I’m not running an events business, I know what it’s like to try to balance a mix of fast & furious communication forms, switching from email to text message to Facebook emails or regular emails. When and how do we draw communication boundaries with work contacts is a lot to tackle, so I’m excited to dive into this one today. As always, I fully welcome and encourage your feedback- we all have different angles on these topics and I think we get a better idea of the issue in general if more people share their experiences. Thanks so much to Laurel for the question! xo, grace

This column, perhaps more than others, leans heavily on the Modern part of Modern Etiquette. We’ve covered email etiquette before, and I’ll refer to that post again for some points, but I think this issue touches on the idea of modern correspondence including things like text messaging and social media messaging as well. While clearly not all businesses fall into an area where text messaging with clients is a normal thing, there are many that do and this will speak to them as well as the general idea of setting boundaries with clients.

Setting Boundaries: When, How and Making Exceptions

Few things are more important to the long-term success and stability of a business than setting boundaries. Running a business is exhausting, period. No matter how much you love what you do, you will learn to un-love it if you feel like your work follows you to bed, to the gym, to the dinner table and on vacation. You need to set limits of how and when you’ll contact people and sometimes that can be hard. Not just because you don’t want to lose out on business, but because it can seem like such a small thing. But small things add up and lead to exhaustion, so be mindful to not create a tiny drop that turns into an avalanche of communication. How do you do that? Here are the guidelines I use:

1. Create a clear list of approved modes of communication: Provide clients with an easy list of ways they can reach you. Note your preferred method clearly and make it clear what your hours of business are. The bottom line? Don’t offer something you’re not prepared to deliver. Don’t want to text with clients? Don’t give them that option. Offer phone and email or in-person meetings, but do not offer texts explicitly. Here’s an (pretend) example:

Grace Bonney, Event Planner
How to Contact Me:
Email: Grace@gbevents.com *Preferred method of contact*
Phone: 457-556-7777 (Please note: I am available via phone call 9am to 5pm, M-F)
Please note: I will answer all emails and messages left after business hours on the next business day
.

For a lot of people this will seem too difficult. What if a bride calls me on Saturday? What is a vendor needs me on Sunday? For the most part, that’s planning that’s failed on their part, not yours. If you notice 5 missed calls from one person, it’s probably best to check and make sure it’s not an emergency. But otherwise, it can wait until Monday. Certain fields (like wedding planning, etc.) are prone to “emergency” calls that aren’t truly emergencies, so creating these boundaries is necessary to prevent someone else’s stress from becoming yours.

2. Stick to your Guns: Everyone thinks their need is an exception. Whether it’s a last minute panic about a wedding color or a thought about Monday’s meeting, it’s pretty easy to get buried in communication that is non-essential. Whether it’s a work day or not, it’s best to be firm but polite about communication that crosses a line. Here are some helpful ways to end a situation that steps over the line:

Off-hours (to be sent via your preferred method of contact):

Hi Karen,

I received your text message and will be happy to reply with ideas when I’m back in the office on Monday. If you need anything else please feel free to email me a list of your concerns and I’ll respond when I’m back at work (I prefer to handle all business requests and discussions via email rather than text). Have a lovely weekend,

Grace

Too many messages (to be sent via your preferred method of contact):

Hi Karen,

I received your messages about [insert brief description, like “Table Numbers” or “Monday’s meeting”]. I’m happy to talk about all of these concerns- perhaps we could set up a call to discuss everything at once? Does Monday at 10am work for you?

Grace

I’m of the mind that if someone is bugging you with too many messages, it’s best to be kind at first and assume they don’t realize they’re being too aggressive or too frequent with their questioning. If this simple response doesn’t work, it’s best to follow up with a short note that says, “I received your messages and would be happy to discuss these over the phone or via email. In the future, I think it would be most effective and efficient for both of us to set up [weekly meetings, etc.] to go over these questions rather than continuing with multiple texts. I want to be able to offer you my full attention and focus. Thanks for your understanding.”

3. Handling Difficult People: Not everyone is going to respect your boundaries. There is always someone who decides your cell phone is their personal hotline or that your email is something they should treat like a conversation, sending multiple short emails rather than one concise message (I’m guilty of that one, big time). Rather than get frustrated about things and re-send the same email or tread into passive aggressive territory, it’s best to do the hard thing and have a sit down. Whether you meet in person or pick up the phone, take a moment to speak kindly and directly with the person who’s monopolizing your time. Explain that you enjoy working with them, appreciate their enthusiasm (or understand their concerns), but that their method of communication isn’t working for you. Stress that you want to be as helpful and effective as you can in terms of working with them, but that you need things to change so you can give them your best work. If they don’t get the message after that, or can’t handle things, it’s time to decide whether or not you need them as a client. Yes, it’s tough to lose work, but is it worth your sanity or the way it may possibly affect your other clients when you get worn out? Possibly not.

4. Making Exceptions: There are always exceptions to rules, even if you try hard to create an iron-clad lock down on your schedule. But they should be few and far between and, for the most part, they should be genuine emergencies OR clearly explained windows when that sort of communication can happen. Here are some examples:

Non-traditional work spaces: I try to run a tight ship here at D*S, but because we post new content on Mondays, we often have to work or communicate on Sunday nights. We do our best to finish Monday’s posts on Friday, but sometimes we have to text or email each other with changes/questions last minute. If that sounds like your work situation and works for your needs, it’s no problem to bend the rules a bit as long as it’s understood by everyone that they may receive an email or two on Sunday evening, by say, 6pm. But you can’t expect everyone to respond on days off if they’re not officially at work. So make sure those exceptions are known.

Genuine Emergencies: Did your client forget their presentation and you have the only other copy? Did your bride’s dress get ruined the night before the wedding? Those sorts of things warrant a phone call sometimes, so don’t be too upset if an actual emergency needs your feedback or help. That said, you do have the right to explain that you cannot always change your plans to fit their needs. If you’re away for the weekend and that presentation is back on your desk at home, you shouldn’t be expected to drive several hours home to get it. But if it’s a simple phone call, email or “drop it in the mail” solution, it’s not the end of the world to step in and help.

VIP Packages: I don’t mean celebrities here, what I mean are people who’ve paid to get your undivided attention whenever they want it. I can’t imagine offering this as a service, but I know a lot of florists, wedding planners and other “big event” companies that offer a package that basically means someone can contact you for whatever, whenever. If someone’s paying for your time 24/7 and you offered it, clearly they’re allowed to make good on that deal.

Genuine Friendships: Sometimes your work colleagues genuinely turn into your friends. That’s great! Who couldn’t use a new friend? So if their texts start to pop up and you’re ok with it, discussing the transition is a great way to take it officially into friend-zone. Example, “Hey Jen! I’m so excited to hang out this weekend outside of the office! On the weekends I don’t check my work email though, so could you send anything person to this email address instead? Thanks!” Having a separate email for personal communication is a great solution to muddying the waters between work and personal life.


BOTTOM LINE: Communication is fluid, ever-changing and difficult to get 100% under control. But there are ways you can set boundaries, clearly communicate them to contacts and stick to your guns. Having a clear and realistic communication policy allows your clients to know when they can reach you and reminds you when you’re off duty and need to recharge. That boundary will allow you to rest, relax and re-focus so your clients get your best work when they’re with you during work hours. So don’t forget that the sometimes awkward parts of reminding people how and when they can reach you leads to a more balanced and sustainable business.

FripperyVintage

Great post. You do have to learn to set boundaries for yourself and not assume others are working 7 days a week as well. Great advice.

Lisa

This was great, and really useful for a lot of lines of work. I’m a self-employed psychotherapist and have to have the same clarity with people about my availability and clarity with myself about how much “minimal” work (such as a quick text reply) I’m willing to do when I’m off.

Heather Morgan Pile

I have also found that when a Bride or vendor starts discussing work related topics via text or social media (sometimes mid “socializing”) I gently remind them to send me an email bc phones and FB are notorious for losing information, but if it’s in an email then I can always get the backup off my server. It’s hard to keep a “chain of custody” on authorizations and change orders when dealing with 10 simultaneous modes of communication.

Christine

These sample emails are super helpful, Grace. Sometimes as a business owner, it’s simply hard to craft correspondence when you are busy meeting deadlines, paying water bills and picking up flowers for your next meeting. I try to put each bit of correspondence through my “always with grace” filter and never loose my cool (even though I might be using profanity in my head). Over the years, I’ve collected a folder full of “email correspondence” reference, so when repeat situations pop-up, I’ve already got the response handy. I’ll be adding these to my collection – thanks so much Grace!

Jessica S.

Grace, thank you for this post. As someone who’s a professional in terms of media – but, a bit of a novice-blogger…navigating into waters that are personally uncharted – I find this sooo helpful!

Now, I’m planning to give the post on “email etiquette” a second look.

Best,

Jess

Natalie

Perfect timing on this as I’m just getting my e-commerce site up and running. I was reluctant to add a phone number to my website because I was nervous about feeling obligated to answer calls at all hours of the day. Wait- nervous or hopeful?? ;) Either way, life balance is important as is training your customers to respect your time. I’m printing this and applying the ideas to my site. Thanks as always!

sarah

great post, good advice, thank you.

i try to set boundaries (e.g.: my office hours, when is best to call, how to send me info etc) and it’s usually ok. i dislike when clients text me, that’s not a communication method that i find professional (unless otherwise agree upon with them).

Kim O'Brien

I would love to see a post on etiquette regarding how it is acceptable for a boss to contact an employee and how an employee can draw boundaries. I am always finding myself concerned with work matters on my days off.

Carrie

THANK YOU. This is a huge problem at my office and it feels great to see ways to deal with it outlined in clear, respectful steps.

Heather P.

As a teacher, I deal with this a TON. Students (and we’re talking college here) often think that I’m a robot who is available 24/7. I try to make it clear on the first day that they should expect me to respond to them in a timely manner…and by that I mean within 24 hours. This semester, I teach 12 hour days twice a week – so my ability to respond to them on those days is almost impossible. On my “off” days, I try to check my email only 1-2 times each day (I don’t get paid for days I’m not in the classroom). It’s a boundary I’ve set with both my students AND my boss, who still has trouble sometimes understanding why I don’t like to work on days they aren’t paying me.

For the most part, everyone stays much happier if they’re all on the same page. :-)

Erin @ The Great Indoors

Another great addition to this series. What’s interesting to me in this is that in the era of smartphones — where everything is at our grasp immediately — so many people are actually backing away from that and attempting to create separate space for work and life. I know I struggle with it, but I wish everyone best of luck in achieving it!

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