Why Civility Matters for Productivity, Profit and Reputation

Not responding to an email is the equivalent of having someone who is standing in front of you ask you a question, and simply ignoring it and walking away.

In my own practice and hearing from other consultants and small business owners, I am amazed at instances of people failing to respond to an email containing a business proposal, ideas for a project, or simply a follow-up message upon meeting a new contact. It seems that the civility we exercise in your daily lives, holding the doors for strangers and saying “please” and “thank you” a hundred times a day, gets lost when an electronic device is involved. Last year, I discovered that a proposal for services I had submitted at the request of an organization following an in-person consultation, would not be accepted. Not winning the project (apparently due to budget constraints) was not the issue, however. My concern was that I only heard of the client’s decision months after emailing it to several people. To make matters worse, I heard about it during a casual conversation, from a party knowledgeable on the matter, but not involved in the decision. None of the decision-makers I had met with responded to my attempts to follow up on the proposal, not even to say “thank you; we got it and will think about it”, or “thank you, but the cost of your services is beyond of our current means”.

Courtesy online is not that different from “live” manners.

Those who fail to respond to any electronic communication may think that not responding is the same as saying no, or that a negative answer (see above) is less desirable than no answer. But in fact, not responding to an email is the equivalent of having someone who is standing in front of you ask you a question, and simply ignoring it and walking away. Would you ever do that? In a normal interaction, would you let someone talking alone and turn your back? Probably not. In a professional environment? Oh, of course not. So why do that online?

Don’t have time to waste? Don’t waste others’ time.

The email saying “it was nice meeting you yesterday at the conference”, or containing a link to an article of mutual interest, took time and effort. The least one can do when receiving it is acknowledge it. We are all busy and at times overwhelmed with electronic messages and other types of information input, but in the same way we wouldn’t stay silent when a server asks whether we would like to order dessert, we should never stay silent when addressed individually online. Think about it: the relationship here is equally client-vendor. I am not talking about spam or generic offers of services. This is about one-on-one interactions with someone you already know. It is simply a matter of respect to acknowledger receipt of a message. What are the consequences of not replying? For starters, you evidently made the sender waste time, which may reveal a lack of understanding of productivity and efficiency on your part. You also left the sender with a negative impression about you: that you are inconsiderate, do not understand the value of communication, or at a minimum, are bad at time-management (if your excuse is that you are too busy). But it goes beyond that: your behavior may jeopardize the reputation of the organization you represent, close the door to future business relationships, or worse – to future employment. Whatever you do in your professional life will be part of your reputation, and follow you to the next job, the next city or the next career. Therefore, we need to care for our online relationships and electronic footprint in much the same way we maintain civility in our face-to-face interactions.

Respect is king!

Personally, I may consider working with the organization whose staff members ignored my proposal in the future – but not if the same staff members are involved. It would be hard to trust their sense of commitment to whatever project, or their respect for others’ schedule, capabilities and professionalism. Sadly, the notion of business etiquette as an extension of civility, and the business consequences of its absence are lost in those not attentive to those behaviors.


By Viviane Vicente