Network etiquette is understood to be one basic rule: show consideration for the other party online.
Until now, the edict has been written mostly from the point of view of relationships between individuals, or between businesses and consumers.
One important group has often been overlooked: business-to-business (B2B).
It is for this group that etiquette plays the most crucial part. The slightest improper behavior online can ruin a good business opportunity.
Business-to-business etiquette is a growing, evolving behavior model for how to present oneself and represent one's company when networking online.
The guidelines were established from no central source but through a collaborative process that grew along with the Internet.
Where Businesses Fail
Business operators new to the Web are eager to solicit prospects and partnerships online but are generally ignorant about how to go about it professionally.
Without knowledge of B2B etiquette, your actions can be taken for rudeness or incompetence, leaving the other party with a poor impression of your company.
Whether you solicit new partnerships or seek to maintain and build relationships with current businesses, the key is to prevent misunderstanding and not give offense.
When sending e-mail:
Can the urge to be creative. Avoid using multiple fonts, size and colors. No HTML or rich media, either. Keep it all in plain text.
Keep it punctual. Don't speak at excessive length. Don't use jargon or talk with an overly hip attitude. For your signature file, don't use cute quotes (unless it happens to be the slogan of your business).
Watch your tone. Don't speak in terms of how great you think your company is. Speak from the point of view of the other business to say, "Look what we can do for you."
Size matters. Don't tie up people's e-mail by sending large, unsolicited attachments. If you have to send a large file, give warning, check on a time most appropriate to send it, such as before or after regular working hours, or send it in segments.
Use discretion. Something that might seem funny to you might be patently offensive to someone else. Even if the person on the other end has no problem with what you're sending, other people in their office could glance at the offending message. If you're that inclined to show or tell the person what you have, ask for a nonbusiness e-mail address you can send it to where they can review it with more privacy.
Planning to feature a hyperlink on your page to a business site? Proper etiquette involves giving the site owners notice. Explain why you would like to feature them on your site, where you plan to feature them, and the description you plan on using with their link.
If you're soliciting another company to link to your site, provide some background information. Give a brief introduction, a description on your company, and how your site would be a benefit to the prospect's audience.
Make sure your link has relevance to the other company's site. If yours is a car company, you shouldn't solicit a Web design company for a link. Offer something in return, such as a reciprocal link, that is, you linking to the other site as well, and/or some specific comments about that site.
It doesn't leave the solicited with a good impression if you expect something and offer nothing. A generic link request is about the worst thing you can do. It shows you have nothing to say about the site, and yet you expect its operator to do something for you.
There's nothing wrong with asking your colleagues for advice, but expecting free business advice from people you don't know personally -- and for your own business gain -- is a very touchy issue.
If you are set on asking a company or an individual whom you've never met for advice, handle yourself with the greatest care. Introduce yourself; give your profession and or skill background (if you're a student, mention where and what you are studying); explain why you need the advice and how you plan to use it.
To make a better impression, mention an interest in the person's site or works, and what you found there to be helpful or interesting.
Most importantly, before you ask for any advice, search the Web site first -- then the search engines and directories -- to see if the answer is there.
Even if the business doesn't have the answer readily available, showing that you put in an effort will make its owners more open to referring you to another site that might have the information you seek.
Services, With Strings Attached
If you're soliciting another business to provide you with services, it's incredibly rude to expect a work commitment without a contractual arrangement. Some common examples are:
- Telling a business owner to look at your Web site or your other online works, and asking what would improve them.
- Expecting business owners to create a few samples so they can wait for your decision.
- Offering to pay for work based on increased revenue, such as pay for performance. If you want some assurance as to work and service quality, look at a portfolio and ask for references.
B2B etiquette means knowing how to present yourself online with the same degree of formality and professionalism you would in a face-to-face meeting.
The next time you attempt relations with a new business, stop to think how the person on the other end is likely to receive your communication. Put yourself in those shoes and ask, "What kind of impression do I make?"
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