Email communication is a fundamental component of everyday business. Email is ubiquitous and we easily forget that it has only been with us since the mid-90s. Before email existed, customer service and business communication was dominated by telephone calls, letters, faxes or face to face interaction. In a relatively short time period, email soared in popularity for both customer service and internal employee communication. It caught on because email is fast, it’s free, and it’s highly effective. While most team members know how to send and receive email messages, there are dozens of important nuances that can make the difference between your customers and coworkers getting mediocre service vs receiving top of the line treatment via email.
Let’s discuss the appropriate uses of the To, the CC and the BCC address fields when setting up an email. Each field has a distinct function and purpose.
Let’s begin with the To field. The email addresses in the To field should include those individuals who are directly involved in the subject matter of your message. The subject of this email will concern them. Another way to think about it is to ask yourself who are the people you would want to invite to a conference table on the subject, if you were arranging a face to face meeting rather than sending an email. The To field is for recipients you would expect to read the message and possibly be required to take action.
So what about the CC line? Back in the days of the typewriter, a typist could create an original document plus an identical copy by inserting a sheet of carbon paper between the original sheet and a second sheet of paper. That’s where we get the shorthand term, “CC.” The days of actual carbon copies are gone, but the CC term lives on.
Today the term CC is often used to designate a courtesy copy. This is a way to keep appropriate people in the information loop. Remember the people sitting around the conference table in the example for the To field? The CC field is for those who didn’t need to attend that meeting but who will get a memo later recapping what was discussed. Courtesy copies are for anyone who would derive value from being included but with this distinction: Their direct action, input or response usually isn’t required. The CC field is ideal for recipients that you want to keep advised about the topic or message.
- Recipients in the To and CC fields each can see all the parties who were copied in both fields.
Let’s look at the BCC field. That is a blind courtesy copy. It’s a method of copying people on your message without openly displaying their address or the fact that they were included in the correspondence to the recipients in the To or CC fields.
- Recipients in the To and CC fields cannot see the parties copied in the BCC
Here are some situations where you might use the BCC field. Use blind courtesy copies when you want to keep others informed about developments without openly displaying their email addresses to everyone in the To or CC fields. Perhaps you want someone in management to be copied without influencing any coworkers who might react differently if they knew a manager was being copied. Or maybe your message requires that you BCC someone to protect yourself by covering all your bases.
Also, use BCC to large groups, when you want to eliminate Reply To All messages or back and forth interaction on a subject. Reply To All will be covered in the next section in more detail, but we all likely understand what we mean by that term for this BCC use example. For instance, let’s say you need to check some possible dates for an upcoming office holiday party. Use BCC if you want recipients to reply back to only you and not be able to create an email storm with dozens of coworkers announcing their schedule conflicts to the entire group.
BCC also gives you control over privacy. It allows you to protect the anonymity of the email addresses in your distribution list and, because so many emails are forwarded, BCCs also can prevent third-parties from harvesting email addresses to use them for spam or unauthorized contact down the road.
- TO: is used for parties directly affected by the message
- CC: is a courtesy copy used to keep secondary parties informed on the matter
- BCC: is a blind courtesy copy used for interested parties when you wish to keep their addresses undisclosed
Reply to All (Use Cautiously!)
Here is something that probably has happened to all of us at some point. You meant to reply to a single person who originally wrote to you as part of a larger group. You were in a hurry and instead of clicking the Reply button you accidentally clicked Reply to All. Ouch!
If you are lucky, the Reply to All mistake is limited only to being a minor annoyance. If you are not so fortunate, the outcome from this type of mistake can range from extreme embarrassment to career ending, depending on what you said and to whom you said it. How would any of us feel if we realized we had just sent a response with a negative comment about a boss, colleague or customer to a large email group (via Reply to All)? That type of event certainly won’t do you any favors when it comes time for your annual review.
- Reply to All means that every name in the To and CC fields will receive your reply.
That could mean dozens or even hundreds of recipients will get your reply, and many of those will wonder why. Sometimes this is referred to as an email storm or a reply apocalypse. Reply to All errors aren’t just limited to inappropriate messages. There’s another concern. One major benefit of using email for business communication is the time-saving potential it offers, but unnecessarily Replying to All can result in a huge waste of time.
Consider this: If you unnecessarily Reply to All to a group of 60 coworkers with a message that has no value to them, but it takes each reader about a minute to sort through the message, you’ve just caused one entire hour of cumulative work time to be wasted. One full hour evaporated by a single, careless Reply to All. Multiply this by the amount of times unnecessary Reply to All messages take place and it doesn’t take long for this practice to become a major productivity killer.
There are documented stories about large organizations being involved in epic wastes of work time because someone accidentally replies to a huge group, and some of the recipients, in turn, reply back again to everyone, asking to be unsubscribed from the group. This further causes others to ask to be removed. This creates a huge whirlwind of wasted time and lost productivity, in addition to annoying a lot of people.
So, if you’re replying to a group message and only some of the people in it need to see your answer, as a courtesy simply remove the group members not affected, or use the BCC field to copy people, but avoid risking your exposure to a Reply to All storm. Just like proofreading or ensuring the address field didn’t auto-fill with the wrong recipient, take a few extra moments to make sure your outbound email is sent only to your intended parties.
- Avoid unnecessary Reply to All
- Each of the address fields (To, CC, BCC) has a distinct function.
- The addresses you use in the To field will be those of the individuals directly involved in the subject matter and from whom you may need a response.
- Those addressed in the CC field are people who would derive value from being included in the discussion but whose input is not necessarily needed.
- The BCC field may be used in a variety of ways:
- When you want to keep others informed of developments without openly displaying their email addresses to all the other recipients.
- When you want a member of management copied without influencing any coworkers who might react differently if they knew management was being copied.
- When you need to protect yourself by covering all of your bases.
- Reply to All means exactly what it says. Every name in the To and CC field is going to get your message.
- Unnecessarily using Reply to All can cause a huge waste of time.
- If you are replying to a group message and only some of the people need to see your answer, as a courtesy, simply remove the group members not affected.