What to do when people ignore your emails

We all know that there are some emails that deserve to be ignored.

 

For example, the unsolicited, obviously automated, <<dear first name>> emails. I hypothesize that these <<dear first name>> emails have destroyed our empathy and left us as angry, email-hating, shells of humanity.

 

That may be hyperbole, though.

 

Less well-known, but no more deserving of our attentions, are the email replies that only contain one word: “Thanks.”

 

This is one of my pet peeves. It is even worse when someone uses Reply All to send that one-word answer. Grrr!

 

We discuss this in detail in my seminar, Conquer Your Email Today…for there is no tomorrow. There is often a lively debate from those who intend to express appreciation by sending those meaningless responses.

 

Here’s my point: I think that people should say what they mean and mean what they say.

 

If, by saying “Thanks,” you actually mean, “I received your email and will take the actions you requested of me,” say that.

 

Say what you mean!

 

If you are truly thanking that person, you need to say more than one word. In my seminar entitled People Hacks: Tips to maximize your interactions with other humans, I offer the acronym B.E.T. as a tool for expressing gratitude meaningfully.

 

B.E.T. stands for Behavior, Effect, Thanks. Tell them what they did (Behavior), the positive impact it had (Effect), and then say “Thanks.”

 

Mean what you say!

 

But what if your email was intended to elicit needed information or action from other people, AND the recipients are still ignoring you?!?

 

 

Make sure your original email was clear

 

Below are some common email pitfalls that can lead to non-responsiveness:

  • Was your subject line on topic and actionable?
  • Did you mention people by name or just pose a question to the group?
  • Did you specify that there was specific action needed and from whom?
  • Did you give a date by which the actions needed to be completed?
  • Was your email sent to a large group? Did you overuse the CC field?
  • Did you write paragraphs and paragraphs of text?

 

Below is a video I made in 2012 that addresses most of these pitfalls. Although my voice has deepened and my company name has changed, the recommendations are still valid.

 

 

What if I’m not a spammer, I sent a clear email, and they STILL don’t reply?

 

If you are looking for abject apologies, to shine as a model of email righteousness, or to prove to the powers-that-be how mistreated you are, stop reading here.

 

The recommendations below require humility, a willingness to set aside who is right and who is wrong, and a desire to just get the work done.

 

Onward.

 

Assuming you specified dates by which you needed the information/action in your original message, you need to follow up (duh, right?).

 

However, there is an art to sending an effective follow-up email.

 

Follow up after an appropriate interval

 

Do not be one of those people who, 2.5 seconds after they send an email, either call, visit, or IM the recipient with, “Hey, did you get my email?” That’s annoying and unlikely to inspire a cogent reply. Email is not instant messaging. It is foolish to expect immediate replies from an asynchronous communication tool.

 

If you are afraid that you will forget to follow up later, then you need to put a reminder to follow-up on your task list on the appropriate day. Just because you sent an email does not mean that your accountability for the result has been completely transferred to other people.

 

In Outlook, you can drag-and-drop your sent message to your Task list. Decide when you want to follow up, and let Outlook remind you when the time comes. Again, give the recipients time to respond before you follow up with them.

 

Don’t put recipients on the defense

 

Rather than, “You didn’t reply to my email, you ne’er-do-well!” or something equally accusatory, you’ll likely get faster replies using statements such as:

  • In the absence of feedback to the contrary, here are my next steps…
  • My apologies for not being clear about what I needed from you. I cannot proceed on this without…
  • I don’t think I received your input. No worries, I will put this on the agenda for our next 1:1/team meeting. Let me know if you have any thoughts in the meantime.
  • If you replied to my prior message, I fear that it has been caught by a blood-thirsty spider in the interwebs.
  • I may have dropped the ball on this one, can you review the below and correct my impressions of what we need to do next?

 

I recommend taking the high road. Why? Because people are busy. 99% of the time, their non-responsiveness is not personal. Unless you are a complete jerk (or have asked them about the email every 2.5 seconds), they are likely not being passive aggressive.

 

Many of the recommendations above apply especially well when the non-responder is a peer, a superior, a client, or a prospect (i.e., someone over whom you have no direct authority).

 

If the frequent non-responder reports to you (i.e., you do have authority over their work), give them feedback using good performance management techniques. One thought – refer them to a productivity coach…cough, cough.

 

In general, it’s a good practice to assume that your colleagues mean well, are trying to do a good job, and simply lost track of your message in the morass of most email inboxes.

 

Recently, I sent a follow-up message apologizing for not attending to a project when the next steps were clearly the vendor’s responsibility.

 

I expected to receive a response to the effect of, “Oh no, Melissa, I’m the one who should apologize to you!” Instead, the email read, “No problem.” Fortunately, the vendor provided the data I needed in his very forgiving reply.

 

After I (gently) banged my forehead on my desk a couple of times, I took a deep breath and got on with my business.

 

Always be kind to each other, occasionally take blame when blameless, focus on getting the work done, and then joyfully go home.

 

Because we have all been the unresponsive ne’er-do-well at some point.

 






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Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at getproductive@melissagratias.com or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.

3 Comments

  1. Julie Bestry

    And look, just eleven years later, you’ve now achieved world domination! Your advice is great, and definitely works in the business world when both people recognize they’re doing (grown-up) business.

    One frustrating problem is being a businessperson dealing with someone who is decidedly NOT a businessperson. Too businesslike of an email can put prospective clients off. (This isn’t necessarily the stereotype of the grandmas who’ve never worked in an office; I find that they appreciate formality, politeness, and a detail-oriented email. The problem with getting responses to clearly-marked questions tends to be with the people who reply in all-lowercase letters, without punctuation but with multiple emoji. I’m sorry, is that chicken emoji a stand-in for a rooster? Does it mean I should call first thing in the morning? Does it mean call after you’ve had your eggs?)

    You’re right, of course. The high road (and a light touch) will make it all easier to get a response. Albeit one with hieroglyphics. 😉

    It seems that many people cannot handle making more than one decision or reply to one than one inquiry. Even when people’s emails ask me to call them, I almost always have to follow up with a second or third reply asking them to PROVIDE a phone number. There may only be two sentences my the entire email, but even if the first sentence is just agreeing to the time and date we’ll talk, invariably people will ignore the second line requesting a phone number on the first.

    Reply
  2. Sabrina Quairoli

    I agree with you and Julie! When I just graduated from college, I was working at a retail district office where I was responsible for gathering data and other information from other locations in the district. These retail locations were super busy and had only a few minutes to review emails. Back then, I learned to share information and ask questions without too much fluff.

    The extra fluff in an email distracts even the most focused person. Using bullets, and spelling out steps, is just one way to get the quick responses I needed.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

    Reply
  3. Mr. Pickles

    Thanks

    Reply

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