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Avoid These Mistakes When Emailing Clients

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If you think composing a good email to a client is as simple as dashing off a quick note as it was in the olden days — before email — here’s news:  

What you say can unintentionally be a horrible turnoff. 

“Digital body language” is the subtext in commonly used phrases that can trip you up, argues Erica Dhawan, a leadership expert formerly with Lehman Bros. and Barclays, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

“Digital body language can make or break the connection and trust in sales,” she maintains.

The expert’s Wall Street Journal bestseller, “Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection, No Matter the Distance” (St. Martin’s Press-May 2021), is a deep dive into the do’s and don’ts of digital communication, including email, video calls and texting.

In the interview, she discusses more than 10 big mistakes financial advisors must avoid when emailing clients.

Most critical is to steer clear of phrases that come across as passive aggressive, such as the ubiquitous neutral-seeming “going forward” and the typically courteous “Thank you for your patience.”

Be “tone deft,” not “tone deaf,” Dhawan stresses, noting that ambiguity in emails can lead to miscommunication that can erode the glow of a great client relationship.

Founder and CEO of Cotential, a firm that teaches collaboration skills to leaders, managers and teams, Dhawan was named by Global Gurus one of the top management professionals worldwide.

Her clients include Bank of America, Fidelity, MetLife and PNC.

Daughter of two physicians, she earned a Master of Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School, a Master of Business Administration from MIT Sloan and a Bachelor of Science degree from The Wharton School.

At Lehman and at Barclays, after it acquired Lehman, she worked in capital markets selling foreign-exchange trading products. From there, she spent a decade as a researcher at Harvard.

Think Advisor recently held a phone interview with Dhawan, who was speaking from her New York City base.

Co-author of the bestselling “Get Big Things Done,” she explained how to deal effectively with the “digital native” and the “digital adapter,” touted the “power” of emojis; and revealed the most passive aggressive punctuation mark there is.

Here are highlights of our interview:

THINKADVISOR: What’s digital body language?

ERICA DHAWAN: The cues and signals we send in our digital communications that make up the subtext of our message. 

How we adapt to our clients’ digital body language can make or break the connection and trust in sales.

It’s important to know that people have different digital styles. The “digital native” — digitally savvy — loves brief, to-the-point bullet points. 

The “digital adapter” might want a longer message. 

If the subject is really complex, they’d prefer a quick phone call. It’s knowing your audience and the different digital cues that will best connect with them.

What’s critical for FAs to know when it comes to emailing with clients?

There are general rules of engagement that are important to understand and adopt.

Please cite some of the big mistakes advisors should avoid making.

Don’t write hasty, ambiguous messages. Limit excessive subservience, such as “I’m sure you’re busy but…” even though you’re trying to be respectful. Sometimes the tone is misinterpreted.

Avoid filler language [like that] versus what will actually serve the client. 

However, if the client is best served when you start an email with “I know you’re really busy, but here’s the [whatever document]. Would love to get on a call,” then send that.

In your book, you say the oft-used term, “Going forward,” when written in emails, conveys “Don’t ever do that again.” So this is clearly one to be avoided?

Right. It could be misinterpreted as passive aggressive. Especially in a situation where there’s low trust, that and other phrases can unintentionally [seem like] a threat.

Here’s another example of what you call passive aggressive: “Not trying to be rude, but…” People can easily take that the wrong way?


You write that “dot, dot, dot,” or the ellipsis, is the most passive aggressive punctuation mark. Interesting!

Use the ellipsis carefully. Those three dots suggest something’s going on but leaves you wondering what it is. For optimum clarity, avoid using it unless it effectively signals an unfinished thought.

“Thanks for your patience” can come across as a brush-off or implies that the sender needs more time, you write. That’s another surprise!

Yes. A number of phrases in digital communication can be read differently. They’re ambiguous. Others include “Per my last email” and “To reiterate our previous conversation.”

Some people may use these because they’ve learned them in business school. But they actually signal passive aggressiveness, resentment or frustration.

I recommend that if you get ambiguous messages, assume good intent. But don’t be afraid to phone and have a conversation if you’re noticing something “different” [about the sender in the email].

What about the “Can I call you?” approach? Should a financial advisor ask the client, or just phone randomly when they’re inclined?

A digital native thinks it’s intrusive to call out of the blue. A digital adapter loves a quick call [like that]. 

But I would err on the side of asking because in today’s landscape, everyone is in tons of meetings. 

“For future reference” comes across as “Let me correct your blatant mistake that you already knew was wrong,” you write. Wow.

In my research, I’ve found that with digital natives, especially, it can be read that way. Remember that language can be interpreted differently for baby boomer clients or millennials – and it’s not just based on their age. 

It’s based on cultural background and lots of other things.

What could be useful is to mirror the client’s digital body language by using a phrase they use. Don’t shy away from that. It could be effective. But be conscious that there are places and spaces where it can be interpreted differently.

What’s the scoop on FAs using emojis in emails to clients? Is it appropriate?

They’re the new facial expressions [replacing in-person ones]. They can signal emotional cues or levity or a humorous tone. An emoji can be used to share a cue of happiness or engagement.

So I would encourage advisors to try to use the power of emojis, but think before you use one. 

If you’re working with a digital native client who’s very savvy, an emoji can show that they can connect with you in a more relaxed way.

If you’re working with a digital adapter, who may be much more reluctant to communicate digitally, it’s probably best to err on the side of formality. This client may value bullet points, bold[face] and underlined headings. It goes back to knowing your audience.

So age difference isn’t the chief issue to consider?

It isn’t about age anymore. The fastest growing segment on Facebook is ages 65 and older. They use a ton of emojis and GIFs and memes. It’s a way that they communicate.

Of course you ought to be professional. But you also want to be relatable. Throwing in that emoji or exclamation point could be helpful to signal positive intent.

Everyone uses an abundance of stock made-for-email phrases. I suppose that saves time and can reduce ambiguity. But should one try to be a bit more original in composing client emails?

Focus on being authentic in your style. It will allow you to be more relatable even from behind the screen.

Pictured: Erica Dhawan. (Photo: James Demato)


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