Email etiquette. Nobody tells us how it should be done. Much like taking photos, it's something we tend to learn as we go along, and our individual email style can take several years to shape. Here are many of the things I’ve learned through dealing with a multitude of different clients, including how best to address and engage with those with whom you’re doing business.
Speak to a Human
One surefire way of increasing the chances of getting a reply to your email is to obtain details for an actual human being. Many companies — be it model agencies, publishing houses, or management groups — will list two sets of details on their website. One will be a generic email (let’s say, firstname.lastname@example.org), and the other will be their office phone number. I know many people who are terrified of speaking to a prospective new client over the phone, but it’s certainly worth biting the bullet for. Give them a call and ask for the details of the person you need to contact. When I’m trying to organize an editorial and require some models, I phone the agency and say something along the lines of:
“Hello, could you possibly provide me with the details of whomever I’d need to speak to at the Womens’ Development Board in regards to an editorial/test shoot?” This way, the person on the other end of the phone will give me a personal email address, so I can make direct contact. Emailing a company’s generic email runs the risk of causing a delay or often, having your email end up in some distant folder of the Internet, never to be seen again. Plan out what you’re going to say when your client answers the phone, and obtain the contact details that are actually going to help you.
Know Who You're Dealing With
Do a bit of research into the person you’re dealing with. There’s no shame in it; we all do it. It’s not creepy or considered stalking. It’s actually a really helpful technique in gauging the character of the person you’re talking to. LinkedIn is one of the most useful sites for getting to know your client. In a few clicks, you can view their job title, how long they’ve worked for the company, what their past experience is, and in most cases, see a photo of them. The latter I find is most useful in determining how colloquial my approach will be in the email. If I can see that my contact is roughly the same age as me, I’ll be a little more conversational, which can be great for breaking the ice. If there’s a larger age gap, or if they’re in a senior position, I’ll likely stick to formalities until I’ve had more time to see how laid-back they are. Having an understanding of a client’s past experience also comes in handy when you initially meet up. I’ve worked with many PR agents who have previously been employed elsewhere, and it’s a great conversation starter when you’re able to say: “I see you previously worked at (place). I used to work closely with (old colleague).”
Keep Everyone in the Loop
The art of CC’ing or "carbon copy" is something many of the junior photographers I’ve enlisted for client shoots seem to be unsure of. The general rule is if you’re unsure, hit "reply all." It goes without saying, if your client has CC’ed someone else into the email (even without formally introducing them), it’s because they want them to be involved in the thread. Hitting "reply" instead of "reply all" means some people are up-to-date, whilst others are left out. This is usually the beginning of great miscommunication and understanding. It’s common practice for there to be several levels of hierarchy involved in one email thread, including managers, PR representatives, agents, producers, stylists, makeup artists, etc. In such a last-minute industry, it’s essential to be sure everyone that’s involved has access to all of the information.
There’s also the wondrous BCC, "blind carbon copy." If someone is included in an email thread via BCC, it means they are invisible to everyone in the conversation except the person that brought them in. In most email systems, the person on BCC will be able to see what is being said by both parties. What this inevitably means is that anybody can be reading the things you are writing in an email without your knowledge of them being part of the thread. With that said, you should never say anything in an email that you’re not willing to be quoted on later. Be sure that you’re committed to your words before hitting the send button.
Avoid Being Negative
Someone (OK, my mum) once told me something about email etiquette that has always stuck with me: focus on the positives, and avoid the negatives. I think it stems from mum’s years of studying psychology, but what she advised me was that you should always spin any less than desirable situation into one that won’t leave a bad taste in your client’s mouth. Let’s say, for example, that you’re dealing with someone new, someone that you’ve been keen to work with for a while. You’re trying to pull out all the stops to impress, but your stylist has dropped out of the project last minute. Of course, you’re going to try and find a replacement as soon as humanly possible. So, being the professional that you are, you decide to be straight with your client, but don’t want to put a damper on the situation, since you’re confident you can source someone else from your pool of excellent stylists. Avoid words and phrases with negative connotations such as "unfortunately" or "I'm afraid." Putting a negative spin on your choice of words can be damaging, regardless of how innocent it was. By addressing the situation with something along the lines of "I am just in the process of sourcing a new stylist" instead, you can be honest about what's happening, but are doing so in a way that avoids being negative and subsequently won't leave the client full of doubts. This might seem like a really obvious technique, but I find that once you're aware of this kind of approach, you will find it hard to forget. Often, I naturally begin to type the first thoughts that come to mind, but end up amending what I've written to make sure my email reads as positively as possible. We want the client to feel good and to walk away from the conversation feeling that doing business with us was a pleasant experience.
Compress compress compress. When you’re attaching photos, consider using sites like Compress JPEG, or Small PDF. If a client can see there are huge files attached to your email, they’re more likely to delete them as soon as they possibly can. And we all know that being out of sight means being out of mind. That is, if your email was even read in the first place.
Where possible, send links. Link to your website rather than sending over a PDF of your work. If sending images to a client for review, use sites such as Dropbox and WeTransfer, so as to avoid spamming their inbox. There’s a publication I work for regularly, whose inbox often bounces my emails back to me, simply because they receive so many images, PDFs and press releases that clog up their inbox. Sending sizeable data within your email will not only annoy your client, but it will have a domino effect on all of your client’s clients. Don’t do it!
Utilize Your Signature
Email signatures are there to be utilized. It’s only a very small addition — a formality appearing at the end of your message — but including a link to your website and/or social media means that those you correspond with have quick access to you at all times.
Your client may also be CC’ing a colleague into the thread at any given moment — someone who is not already familiar with your work. Including a link to your portfolio in your email signature can be a subtle way of making sure everyone is up to speed on what it is you do.
Always check your spam box. For no reason and without any warning whatsoever, I’ve found important emails from people I’ve engaged with previously make their way into my spam folder. I’m no tech expert and have no explanation as to why one day those emails suddenly become classified as junk. But rearrange your email menu to keep your spam folder in sight. I check mine every day, and even though it’s more often than not a load of garbage, there’s been a few occasions I’ve averted a disaster because I was able to pick up an email that had been incorrectly labeled spam.
Engage with the person you’re speaking to, and don’t be afraid to show a bit of personality whenever you feel it’s appropriate. There’s no harm in adopting different personas for different clients. I’ve found that in the fashion industry, it’s almost compulsory to add kisses to the end of your email. Often more than one — sometimes as many as five! Of course, there are many people I correspond with that I wouldn’t dream of posting “xx” to. But that’s not to say it’s not part of the etiquette amongst other branches of the creative industry. Learn about your client, gauge their responses, and cater to them accordingly.
Avoid waffling. Emails are one of the more formal ways in which we communicate, and since it’s usually the format in which we leave our first impression, we want to set a good standard. Much like a telephone voice, most of us have a writing style when it comes to emails. Once you’ve finished typing it out, think about what the purpose of your email was and read back over it. Have you conveyed the message in a simple and straightforward way? Or have you gone off track and gotten lost in a ton of over-the-top terminology? Don’t try and overcompensate by using complex grammar that is ultimately going to distract your reader from what you’re trying to say.
Being a successful photographer goes beyond being able to take great photographs. It involves becoming business-minded and mastering the art of dealing with people from all walks of life. Never underestimate the power of being a competent handler of emails; it will make life easier for both you and your clients as you aim to make a name for yourself in the industry.