Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

The fine art of saying hello

Posted on 15 September 2010 45 comments

Article illustration for The fine art of saying hello

Yesterday afternoon I received an email from a potential client. He spoke briefly about the people working on the project (supposedly a team from a very well-respected tech company) and also detailed his own credentials via a link to his LinkedIn profile, which revealed that he’s been managing several tech start-ups over the last 15 years or so.

All of these things should have impressed me and got me excited about working on his project. But instead, I binned it.

Why? Because his email started with a generic ‘Hi’ — a tell-tale sign that this is a copy-and-paste job sent out to multiple designers. But hang on: he couldn’t even be bothered to do that. My eyes moved to the headers of the email and in the ‘To’ field I saw… nothing. There was nothing there because he obviously BCC’d a whole bunch of designers. That’s right: he couldn’t even be bothered to write several copy-and-paste emails. And, as these tricks are obvious from even a cursory glance at the message, I’m now acutely aware that I’m just a name on a list. Sure, that list might be small — perhaps only five or so designers, say — but then there’s even less justification for this lack of personal address. And the sad thing is that if his credentials are actually true, he really should know better.

This isn’t just me being pernickety about email etiquette: this kind of behaviour is a strong signifier that this client will be a nightmare to work with. At the first point of contact, he doesn’t even care enough about me to address me by name or speak to me on a one-to-one basis. Imagine if someone did that to you in person!

If you ever get an email like this and your instinct is to reply, don’t.

I admit that I’m in a very fortunate situation where I can be relatively picky about my clients, and I realise that many people, like those just starting out, aren’t necessarily afforded this luxury. But still, I would urge those people to turn away clients like this. Learned only through bitter mistakes, it’s my experience that the warning signs for ‘bad eggs’ are obvious from the start, and if they ever appear this early on in a project (before it’s even started!), it’s a guarantee that things will only get worse once you start delivering work.

Next time you get an email like that, either trash it before you waste any time on it, or maybe reply briefly with a link to this blog post.

45 comments

  1. JohnONolan

    JohnONolan

    15 September 2010 @ 10:35AM #

    Great post Elliot, I do the exact same thing. However, I would argue that people starting out can’t afford not to do this. A bad client will (almost) always cost you money, not make you any. When I first started freelancing I took on a nightmare client because the money was good, but in the end I ended up with a 25% deposit and 2 months of lost time. Calculate in the full fee and potential other business lost and the client set me back about £14,000.

    Bad clients are bad for business.

  2. Kris Noble

    Kris Noble

    15 September 2010 @ 10:43AM #

    Well said Elliot – choosing a professional to work with on any project – be they a designer, developer, UX consultant, whatever – should be a process based on personal interaction and not lazy generic communication.

    After all, you’ll likely be working with that person for an extended period of time, so it’s in everyone’s interests to make sure the personalities click for starters. The most enjoyable projects are those where everyone involved is on the same wavelength – generic emails like the one you received don’t do anything to ensure that.

  3. Alan Feekery

    Alan Feekery

    15 September 2010 @ 10:46AM #

    At a first glance over your post title and first paragraph one would think you are being overly picky and maybe a response to the potential client would perhaps have them engage properly with you.

    However, you are right. It is a tell tale sign of a potentially bad client when they are emailing web designers with generic emails.

    Maybe you should consider a contact form on your website? It will force potential clients to identify themselves.

  4. Marcus

    Marcus

    15 September 2010 @ 10:47AM #

    Hi Elliot, I’ve been preaching this for years but, even now, I still very occasionally walk knowingly into a bad situation. They ALWAYS cost you money.

  5. Laura James

    Laura James

    15 September 2010 @ 10:52AM #

    Completely agree Elliot, speaking as someone who is in the midst of working for a complete nightmare client too – any warning signs that can alert you to a potential bag egg have got to be useful!
    BTWdid you send the offender a link to this blog post ? ;)

  6. prisca

    prisca

    15 September 2010 @ 10:57AM #

    Elliot,
    with you all the way on this one… I cannot stand the abrupt and rude emails some people find appropriate.

    Just received one of those this morning – sadly by an existing client who’s site (with my design) has been online for 3 years now. Project had gone very well, however none of the follow up work or planned updates happened due to change in management. So I have not heard from them for years – until this morning…
    email: no subject, only a question mark as message with attached screenshot of a small display error. Nice, ehy?

    In case of a new client – this sort of thing is definitely a warning sign!

  7. Jozsef Deak

    Jozsef Deak

    15 September 2010 @ 10:58AM #

    I have to agree with that. During my short “career” I had a couple of clients like this. They always cost me in my money and a lot of time and I ways always angry all day.
    No more accepting clients like this.

  8. Matthew R

    Matthew R

    15 September 2010 @ 11:21AM #

    I don’t understand. How else do you start an email? “Dear Mr Stocks”?

  9. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    15 September 2010 @ 11:26AM #

    Thanks for your comments, guys and gals.

    @ JohnONolan: You’re absolutely right. These kind of clients cost money and newbies would be wise to start saying ‘no’ to these people from the very beginning.

    @ Matthew R: ‘Hi [name]’. I’m not saying that I don’t like emails that don’t directly address me, but with introductory emails like this, it’s a tell-tale sign that you’re not the only person being copied in.

  10. Marcus

    Marcus

    15 September 2010 @ 11:41AM #

    Hi Elliot, I’ve been preaching this for years but, even now, I still very occasionally walk knowingly into a bad situation. They ALWAYS cost you money.

  11. Elisabeth Irgens

    Elisabeth Irgens

    15 September 2010 @ 11:46AM #

    I am so happy to hear stuff like this from people who know what they’re doing. It makes it easier for me to trust my gut feeling that there actually is such a thing as bad clients. Which is often not the advice given by family and friends to us just starting out.

  12. Cyprian

    Cyprian

    15 September 2010 @ 12:14PM #

    I totally agree. Even if there was possibility of making good money, working with client who doesn’t respect you (or thinks that you should be happy of working with him) – doesn’t make sense.

    I experienced it once. Web site for really good money, which ended after 6 moths and I can’t put it to my portfolio :)

  13. Riccardo Fala

    Riccardo Fala

    15 September 2010 @ 12:45PM #

    Very interesting post Elliot, as usual.
    Just the other day I was thinking about these kind of emails from potential clients and also emails from weird job agencies looking for designers.
    I’m close to cancel my account on linkedin :/ (maybe it’s where they can access emails and job titles easily).

    From my little experience in web design, the first email of a client is very important to understand who he/she is.
    So, I will bookmark this page and definately forward it to strange clients email ;)

    Regards,
    Riccardo.

  14. Tim Wright

    Tim Wright

    15 September 2010 @ 04:05PM #

    Overall, I agree but I do think there are some cases where you don’t know the name of the person you’re e-mailing. Like when mailing an HR department or something where “hello” or “to whom it may concern” are the best you’re going to get.

  15. Lucian

    Lucian

    15 September 2010 @ 08:24PM #

    I have already start some time ago ignoring those kind of emails. A client who doesn’t say “Hello” and address you by name is a huge red flag.

  16. Paul Reinheimer

    Paul Reinheimer

    15 September 2010 @ 09:50PM #

    I usually go a step further:

    Hi ,

    We met last year at /I’ve seen your work at xxx and think you’d be great because of yyy/Your colleague zzzz recommended you to me… etc.

    Getting past spam filters as an individual is easy, convincing someone to read your email is tricky.

    paul

  17. Laneth Sffarlenn

    Laneth Sffarlenn

    17 September 2010 @ 04:10AM #

    I completely agree.

    As some have said, there are times when one simply doesn’t have / know the name of whom you’re emailing.

    That said, being Elliot Jay Stocks, one would have thought there’d be few that don’t know you (even those in corporate boxes that never see the light of day). At minimum, they could do a quick Google search of the email address to see if it comes up anywhere with a name… Sacrificing a couple of minutes of time to find the name of the potential designer / client is definitely worth the trouble.

  18. francois

    francois

    17 September 2010 @ 03:00PM #

    I totally agree with you, Elliot.
    Nowadays with the Internet hurry, some people just forget this little and so simple word called respect…

  19. Amit Tripathi

    Amit Tripathi

    18 September 2010 @ 01:04PM #

    Hi,
    Nice article. I think people should learn to give respect if they want the same. Me also want to go with Elliot’s point of view. But some times circumstances make people hard and fast and they say what they do not want to. All in, nice article, love to forward it to my friends.

  20. Martin

    Martin

    20 September 2010 @ 02:23PM #

    It could have been worse, imagine if someone is being polite out of courtesy :D The one thing that could win for me is humor! :)

  21. Oskar

    Oskar

    21 September 2010 @ 10:11AM #

    Yes I’m with @JohnONolan on this one. We are selling our time to clients. If you’re short of work and are tempted to take on what you know could potentially be a bad egg, it could be arguable that you’d be better off getting a small loan to tide you over the quiet patch and instead use that time to invest more in advertising or networking for new (good) business.

  22. Nick

    Nick

    22 September 2010 @ 11:15AM #

    Nice post, Elliot. I totally agree with you on this point.

    Emailing a designer about a new potential project is not just like asking for info about a generic product.
    I believe a client chooses a designer based on his portfolio and style (I think every good designer has his own personal style, which shows from his works). In a scenario like this, how can he possibly not know the name of the designer he’s writing to?

    From my experience, this kind of generic emails are meant to obtain a quick and rough price range, to compare designers based on price instead of competence and value, which is even worse.

  23. Graham

    Graham

    22 September 2010 @ 11:27AM #

    This is so true!
    It is amazing how you learn to tell from the get go who is going to be trouble.

    Thanks for sharing this – I think most of us have been burned by clients like these.

  24. Jacob

    Jacob

    22 September 2010 @ 10:39AM #

    I like this post, as it tells me I am not alone out here, reading emails the same way you do. Considered how few real letters I write today (and how any emails and posts), I try to be personal, even when I do not know who I address. I think this is important, since we all tend to sit behind screens a great deal of our working time. And if we do not get personal, it seems like the conversation is just »something on our screens«, and not that we are trying to reach out to people.
    Maybe we should see everyone as a potential friend, even if we will never meet that person IRL.

  25. jDesai

    jDesai

    22 September 2010 @ 11:01AM #

    Yes. I do agree with your point here. Once we reach a point of popularity we do not expect others to treat us one among the herd. But I don’t quite get it when you ‘almost generalized’ it that if a potential client doesn’t say ‘hello’ nicely, he’s likely to create problems in the future. This just isn’t the reason enough to break all ties with a client.

  26. cris marc

    cris marc

    20 September 2010 @ 08:55AM #

    I’m curious about 1 thing why did you presume that he pasted from somewhere else and he just send it bulk to 1000 designers?

    Do you like the expressions like Dear Sir/Madam. or Dear Sir?
    I presume he wanted to me more familiar and also I don’t think you can judge a guy who has 15 years experience so hard.
    Everyone looks to you like to a GOD. Probably you are.

    If your potential client didn’t show respect, then you have to show him respect. This make us what we are. You are a teacher for us. This is a lesson that you should teach also to your “bin” people.

    Thanks.

  27. MiniNaim

    MiniNaim

    22 September 2010 @ 04:37PM #

    OK I totally agree with you. The client should care about the designer or developer.

  28. Lewis

    Lewis

    23 September 2010 @ 09:36AM #

    What a timely post, having just received an email that began:

    “Hi,

    I spoke to one of your colleagues earlier and I would be pleased to help with your future IT needs."

    To discover they had used the To field and not the BCC. For all one hundred addresses. Are you going to look after my IT needs as well as you look aftre the database you paid for?

  29. Jeremy Hutchings

    Jeremy Hutchings

    23 September 2010 @ 12:38AM #

    Given that most decent email to employers aren’t even met with a “thanks but no thanks” is it any wonder ………. there are two side to this coin.

  30. Ewan

    Ewan

    28 September 2010 @ 02:01PM #

    I’m not sure in why in cases like this, it seems impossible to simply say “Hi, thanks for contacting me. If you would like to discuss this further, please give me a ring on XXX-YYYY”. If they don’t call, then that’s fine, leave it.

    Unless of course the person as asking for a full tender document or something, then I don’t see why a short reply as above is so out of the question. After all, they are offering to pay you money for your time/services. (though I realise you may be in the fortunate position of being able to pick who you work with)

    If it were someone enquiring about a job then I would of course be right behind you on this. :)

  31. Norik Davtian

    Norik Davtian

    02 October 2010 @ 10:34PM #

    Hi Elliot,
    being relatively picky about clients is a good thing. If you work on a project you like and have an interest in, and working with a client that you like to work with, helps you to finish the projects faster.

    I think you should post a blog about that and your selection process too.
    I also think same goes to finding a job and employment, employers can sniff a generic emails from others.

  32. QnA site for developers

    QnA site for developers

    30 September 2010 @ 09:38AM #

    I agree with you. I sick and tired of all that letters from recruiters that starts from Hi, hello, sir???

  33. Judith

    Judith

    27 September 2010 @ 10:02AM #

    Well, this guy should have known better, considering his credentials. You are right, this is e-mail etiquette that everyone doing business online should know. I hate business emails that are too impersonal.

  34. Ivo

    Ivo

    08 October 2010 @ 09:21AM #

    Elliot, I totally agree with you on this.
  35. rozmik

    rozmik

    10 October 2010 @ 04:20AM #

    nice post thanks for sharing.

  36. Mark

    Mark

    11 October 2010 @ 04:10PM #

    I can see where you’re coming from. But on the other hand I think it depends on who the email is to.

    Quite often you can get a sense of how the company operate and what they’re about just from their website alone. The wording for example could convey a laid back, relaxed working environment, and in that scenario one might wish to “blend in” and talk to them on their own level.

    Of course being professional is paramount, but talking to people on their level and being able to interact on a “buddy” level can often be a good thing.

    With regards to BCC’ing, thats a no no and I completely agree with you on that point 100%.

    Just my 2cents of course.

  37. Tanner Christensen

    Tanner Christensen

    06 October 2010 @ 10:00PM #

    How a person treats their email is how they’ll treat you – that’s what this is all about, right?

    If someone can’t take the time to write you a personalized letter, they’re probably not interested in writing you a personal check either.

  38. Richard Turner

    Richard Turner

    07 October 2010 @ 10:50AM #

    I agree with you Elliot,as for me working on outsourcing company I personally send our email proposal one by one to those addresses with personal touch lol .

  39. davidseeg

    davidseeg

    19 October 2010 @ 07:46AM #

    Not sure why this page wasn’t allowing people to post to it :/

    Maybe something to do with my caching plugins. Need to investigate!

  40. Jan

    Jan

    07 November 2010 @ 11:04AM #

    I strongly agree on this, these clients are the ones that prevented me from sleeping several nights already and I’m trying to avoid these as well.

    But for starters it might be a good thing that they don’t turn them down just by looking at the e-mail. It’s work so it will get in some money and I learned allot more about how to work with clients at picking just a few wrong projects so far.

  41. Melissa

    Melissa

    10 November 2010 @ 05:26PM #

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who considers this poor etiquette and not worthy of a reply. It’s just spam disguised as a personal email. Not worth is.

  42. JohnnyMC

    JohnnyMC

    17 November 2010 @ 07:56PM #

    i totally agree with u elliot, hi, hello… i dont wanna see

  43. mietwagen spanien

    mietwagen spanien

    22 October 2010 @ 02:32PM #

    Very enlightening and beneficial to someone whose been out of the circuit for a long time.

    - Kris

  44. Richard, Leeds Developer

    Richard, Leeds Developer

    12 November 2010 @ 10:55PM #

    I’m not lucky enough to be able to turn down work on a whim, but I have been stung before by spending a long time pitching on a job, only to realise that (unbeknownst to me) they’ve sent exactly the same request to lots of other companies.

    I guess the reason for this scatter-gun approach is that they’re looking for the cheapest quote, rather than specifically picking companies who they like the look of.

    I don’t think such enquiries are worth binning, but it’s probably worth having a non-personalised price guide and work examples to send them, so they can decide if they want to get back in touch and have a proper conversation about the actual work.

  45. Khalid Majid Ali

    Khalid Majid Ali

    19 March 2011 @ 11:28AM #

    A great post and I agree with both Elliot and Richard, it varies from case to case.

    If I find myself in a similar situation I’d certainly respond to the email and will wait for the second one. Probably even have a conversation on voice before deciding what’s what.

    To relatively new designers it’s really quite hard to reject a client straight away. Though not rejecting on the first email doesn’t mean that you are bound to complete the project.

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