Why Your Emails Aren’t Being Returned

When I shared my approach to handling my emails, I received a question from someone who wondered what to do when emails are not returned.  You might have asked a question or reminded someone of a project, and you get no response.   Crickets.  It can be frustrating because it requires you to remind and chase down a reply continually.

There are a variety of reasons why people don’t respond to your email.  Some of them may be your fault. 

Your email might have been too long.  Some people like to write stream of conscious emails.  A busy person might be overwhelmed by your long prose. Researchers from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering found that the average email response is only five words long. More than half of email replies are less than 43 words, and only 30% of emails are longer than 100 words.

Make sure your request is explicit.  I like to underline specific requests that are included in my emails.

Consider whether your request is reasonable.  If you need some quick information, consider calling instead of using email.  People shouldn’t be checking their email throughout the day. 

The person you may be writing to could be very busy or swamped with email requests.  A recent study showed that the average person receives about 141 emails a day but sends only 40.

Remember that it is also possible that the original email when into a spam folder.  If you feel that may be possible, try making a phone call.

When I send an email that requires a response, I set a reasonable deadline for an answer.  Unless I am delegating a significant project, I might give someone 5-7 working days to respond to me. I place a copy of the email in my “pending’ folder and add an item to my to-do list.  An example might be, “NOV 12 – Jerry email re Building Contract.”  When I look at my to-do list, I can quickly say that I’ve asked Jerry to respond by November 12th regarding a building contract.

My follow-up will depend on who is responsible for the information I am waiting for.

Let’s begin with emails to people you supervise.  If you have asked for input or suggestions, make the deadline clear. “Jerry, I’d like your thoughts about this issue.  I need to know by this Thursday.”  If Jerry doesn’t respond by the deadline, go ahead and implement your solution or idea.  If you seek information that you need before making a decision, treat it like any other assignment that you make to a staff member.  Failure to finish a project, or respond to an important email, becomes a performance issue.  If a person is persistent about meeting deadlines (whatever they may be), they could face disciplinary action.

If you are waiting for an email response from your boss, remind him or her that you cannot complete your work without a reply.  You are limited to what you can do, but friendly little reminders usually work.  I’ve worked for individuals who are overwhelmed by emails. They simply lose track of requests.  In that case, your polite reminder may trigger the information you need. You might also consider putting a phrase in the subject line like “Action Required” or “Immediate Response Needed.”

If it is a supplier or a contractor that isn’t responding, send them a reminder.  If they still don’t respond, find a different vendor.  Businesses that are serious about doing a good job won’t take advantage of a client.

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