When you're being productive in your small business, it can be disappointing or even frustrating if other people aren't similarly on top of things.

Whether you're waiting for someone's response, a payment you urgently need or other communication that's past the expected deadline, sending aggressive demands won't necessarily hasten matters and could harm your professional relationships.

If you want to prompt a reply, the best option is usually a polite and friendly but direct reminder email. Striking this fine balance can take some practice, but with time and experience it becomes second nature, especially if you save your templates.

This guide is for small business owners or anyone else who wants to improve their communication skills and motivate people into action.

Why might you need to send a reminder email?

The type of situation you're dealing with and your relationship to those involved will affect the messaging of your prompt email. These situations might include:

  • Late payments – chasing people or companies for money owed to you is regrettably common and necessary in most business. You should aim for a clear timeline of when payments will be made.
  • Missed deadlines – if someone agreed to do something for your business by a certain date, you may want to find out why they didn't manage it, but it's more important to arrange a new deadline.
  • Late deliveries – if you're expecting inventory, equipment or other shipments, not receiving these on time could stall your business plans. You need to know when you can expect to receive it or if you need to claim a refund.

A different type of reminder email is encouraging existing customers or other contacts on your email list to check out your latest products or promotions, such as:

  • Upcoming events or product launches they may be interested in
  • Promotional periods that are ending soon
  • Following up on incomplete actions, such as abandoned shopping cart reminders
  • Delivery reminders, which can also be a chance to promote other products they may be interested in
  • Impending expiration and renewal reminders

In these cases, no one owes you anything, but time-sensitive urgency still applies.

When is the right time to send a reminder?

Timing can be the trickiest part of sending a prompt email, as it depends on the nature of the agreement and varies from case to case. But as a general guideline:

  • Payments, shipments and urgent business with explicit deadlines can be reasonably followed up the next business day after they were due, unless you had advance notice of a possible delay or there are circumstances to consider.
  • For less urgent or informal agreements, a little extra time may be allowed. Think realistically about when you need them to get in touch at the latest and whether emailing them now might seem overly pushy.

If someone makes you wait up to a week without an update, following up is reasonable. Leaving it longer could show them that the request isn't so important.

Friendly reminder emails: best practices

Here are tips about what to include in your prompt emails for the best chance of persuading your contacts and getting the outcome you want, starting from the top.

1. Clear subject line

Whether you're creating a new email or replying to a chain, it's better to write a new email subject line than to reply with the existing RE: title.

Include the name or description of the request so they can see immediately what it's about.

Use an urgent phrase such as 'Important' or 'Response Required' if that matches the tone of the message.

2. Personal greeting

If you know the person well or the request is informal, you can start your email with the casual 'Hi [Name].'

'Hello [Name]' or 'Dear [Name]' are more suitable if your relationship is strictly business.

Either way, using the person's name makes the personal connection you want.

3. Friendly introduction

This is the 'friendly' part of the reminder – a brief, positive preamble enquiring about their wellbeing generally ("I hope you're doing well") or more specific if you know them and their family.

If you prefer to get straight to business, asking them "Have you had time to look at this?" shows that you understand they might be busy too.

4. Get to the point

This is the 'reminder' part. State in no uncertain terms why you are emailing and recap what they agreed to deliver, including the agreed due date.

Keep this as short and to the point as possible. See if you can rewrite the paragraph to remove all the unnecessary sentences and digressions.

5. Call to action

Now that you've given your friendly reminder, state what you expect. This may be an extended deadline or simply a request that they get in touch to update you.

Save time with templates

You don't want to waste too much of your valuable time chasing up emails and payments, especially if it's a frequent occurrence. If you can see yourself sending these emails again and again, you can save time and effort by saving your message as a template.

Templates are an option with many email clients, including Gmail's Canned Responses feature. You just have to adjust relevant details each time, which can be less draining than having to type out the whole email.

What happens next?

Hopefully, your optimized email will succeed in flattering and motivating the recipient and your work, cash or delivery will be on its way promptly. If you don't get a reply, or another deadline is missed, you should send follow-up emails at a similar rate to your first reminder.

If emails just aren't working, more direct contact is needed. Phone calls can be ignored too, but doing so is much ruder than ignoring an email and you're more likely to get through. If you're calling someone at a business premises, make sure you call during the business' opening hours.

If friendly reminders don't work, you may have to enter the legal realm as a last resort to claim what you're owed. Being friendly, professional and direct in your emails makes this outcome less likely than if you were passive.

For more marketing tips and insights into growing your business online, follow the Limecube blog.

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