“There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it.” – Dale Carnegie
Over the past few months, I have repeatedly run up against one of the most annoying frustrations of modern business life — sending out e-mails and hearing nothing back. It has always been a head-scratching complaint of mine for years, but it appears to be getting progressively worse.
Don’t get me wrong. I certainly understand that all of us are now living in a 24/7 world where it seems like we can’t keep up with the pace of constant texts, emails, phone calls, meetings, etc. and that our goal of work-life balance is getting more elusive.
But, still – whatever happened to common courtesy?
Already I can sense some of you grumbling and readying your excuses, but before you quickly defend your situation with “I am overwhelmed with emails and can’t answer them all” – let me point out that some of the busiest and best executives I know are able to manage their inboxes very efficiently.
For example, many meeting/hospitality industry leaders I have corresponded with such as Don Welsh (DMAI), Roger Dow (USTA), Carina Bauer (IMEX), David DuBois (IAEE), Christine Duffy (Carnival), Michael Dominguez (MGM), Geoff Ballotti (Wyndham), Steve Bova (FICP) and Julie Coker-Graham (Philadelphia CVB) – to name a few, do an excellent job communicating back in a timely fashion. All of them are CEOs or senior executives of their respective organizations, yet respond quickly in spite of the huge number of emails they receive on a daily basis. They are examples of outstanding leaders who know how to manage, delegate, and handle priorities.
As I reflected on this “no response” phenomenon, it prompted me to do some research as to why some people don’t respond to e-mails. It turns out there are a few reasons, some of which are obvious and logical:
1) Lack of time management skills - incompetent professionals cannot manage their time properly, and therefore their emails stack up because of a lack of focus, preparation, delegation, and the ability to organize their work time effectively. After an email has been buried in their inbox for a week or longer, they forget about it or are not inclined to respond after so much time has passed.
2) Avoidance complex - Many emails go unanswered simply because the recipient can’t make a decision, or commitment, and don’t want to respond with a no. The person may feel uncomfortable turning people down, so they ignore it or delete it and hope the issue goes away.
3) Intentional postponement - Many people set aside e-mails to reply to later, but then other things get in the way and they get lost in the shuffle. Unless they receive a gentle reminder, chances are they will not respond.
Research done by Yoram Kalman and Sheizaf Rafaeli on response latency in electronic communication indicates that there’s about an 80% chance that an email will get responded to within 29 hrs. If a response does not come within this time frame, there’s about a 17% chance that the email will get a response within another 11 days. After that, the sender can assume that the silence is for good.
So, their research suggests that we should wait about 12 days before following up. But in most cases, email tends to be time sensitive, so a delay of that length is not acceptable.
The problem with unanswered emails is all the assumptions that get loaded on to the nonreply, which tend to be negative assumptions: “Did I say something wrong? Was my email too aggressive? Did they find my request off-putting? Did I offend them? Was I too pushy?” In other words, why am I getting the cold shoulder?
In my case, I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and allow about a week to 10 days before following up, and then try again a week later if I still get no response. After that, I pick up the phone and call. The problem there is most people don’t return phone calls either.
Which takes us back to common courtesy. If you don’t have the time to respond fully to the message – simply send a short response saying “Traveling this week… will respond next week.” Or, “Swamped right now but will get back to you by Friday.” Just say something! And if you are not interested, just say so. I can handle rejection, but I have a harder time not knowing. It just wastes your time and my time.
As a speaker, I frequently deliver a session called the Brand of You and I discuss this subject. What’s important to remember is that responsiveness defines your Personal Brand. People quickly learn whether they can rely on you, or count on you to hit a deadline or meet your commitment. When you don’t respond it sends a bad signal that you are not a competent professional and consequently your personal brand suffers.
You may think to yourself that this isn’t a big deal. But by not responding, your silence communicates volumes. It leaves things open to the (mis)interpretation of others. They decide on their own what the lack of response means. And the meaning they give it is rarely what we intend, nor positive.
True professionals communicate in a professional and timely manner regardless of the mode of communication. If you are a consummate professional you know that putting your best foot forward at all times is just what you do.
In closing, I hope to hear back from all those people out there that have had my emails sitting in their inboxes collecting dust. You know who you are.