What Happened to Business Email Etiquette?

Please answer my email

[tweetmeme]Have you noticed lately that more and more people are not replying to your emails?  I have.  I don’t think it’s personal.  I’m not talking about the email people ignore that is obviously spam.  But an email to someone you know.  It could be a business colleague or client, or a prospect that you have been in correspondence with.

I tend to be pretty prompt when answering email.  I almost always reply the same day.  There would have to be a good reason I didn’t — and right now I can’t think of one, unless I was sick and not at my computer.  There are the obvious reasons why people don’t respond, I guess:  too busy, too many messages clogging my email box, I’ll stow it in a mail folder for emails I’ll respond to later (but don’t), I forgot, etc.  But these have always been possible reasons.

So why are fewer people  responding to email?  I decided to poll a few friends about their email experiences.

Here is a summary of what I learned

As you might expect everyone mentioned the sheer volume of emails.  But several offered some interesting solutions/comments and I’ve highlighted them.

“Volume is a problem. I have received an email, wanted to think about it for whatever reason, and then failed to respond. In fact, this just happened to me last week. To improve the likelihood of a response I try to put my question in the subject line or at least a reference that will prompt the person to read my email. For example, I regularly send emails to people who don’t know me to schedule interviews for a newsletter. My subject line is “Interview for OIC Advisor Quarterly” knowing the recipient will recognize OIC and why they are receiving the email. (OIC is the Options Industry Council, my client.)   Alternatively, if it is someone who knows me I write “Note from (her name)” and I usually get a response.”

“I think there is an increasing situation where business people in general do not follow interpersonal etiquette. I am blown away when I continue to hear that people who have interviewed at a company several times never hear any response.  I also know that I am at fault. I am curious about so many topics that I am flooded with emails from various websites. So curiosity causes some of the overwhelm. When an email is hidden in a list of 150 per day — it can be lost/forgotten.  Interestingly, I started writing a response (to you) several days ago. Saved it as draft. And then had to scroll down hundreds of emails to go back to it today after my trip. Maybe paper letters were easier to spot!”

I find that my emails that are time/date sensitive and pose a question get a response. When an email does not get a response, I forward the original email with a “Did you get this?” in the subject line and that usually works.   If I really need to reach someone, I do it the old fashioned way, I simply call them.”

“Actually I have not noticed a lack of response but I try to use email as little as possible. I still feel that telephone and person to person contact are better. I know that sometimes I respond slowly since I get so many emails that are newsletters, junk, etc., that real emails that require answers get lost in between.”

For me, one difference is switching from using Outlook to Gmail. Because there are no separate folders — I used to have an @Action folder for things I needed to handle, for example — things get lost in my inbox if I don’t answer them right away. Gmail also sort of telescopes related responses so sometimes I don’t realize that I’ve missed something. Other reasons include: I don’t want to handle this; I forgot; I really have nothing to say/am not sure I need to respond.”

“A simple reply is only common courtesy (not that common).  I find that often people don’t reply because they don’t have an answer, status on a project or they may be waiting for someone else to reply to them before they can get back to you. If anyone has a solution for this — I’m all ears!”

The following reply from a friend seemed remarkably prescient (see Addendum to this blog).  “We are getting so many emails these days (they seem to have doubled in the last 6 months due to all increased connections)  that people are overwhelmed and forgetting about previous emails. Typically this is the more in the business area – potential clients etc.  If the answer is really important I follow up with phone call or letter.

Addendum

As I was putting this blog to bed, my daily email arrived from Seth Godin.   He touched on the subject with his blog post “Redoubling to system failure.”  In its entirety it reads:

Every 18 months for the last decade, the world has doubled the data it pushes to you.

Twice as much email, twice as many friend requests, twice as many sites to check, twice as many devices.

When does your mind lose the ability to keep up? Then what happens? Is it already happening?”

So, if the social media guru Seth Godin says we’re being buried with data, including email, then I’ll accept that as an excuse when I don’t hear from you.

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Comments

  1. I’ve recently cut back on the number of courtesy responses I send out. Is anyone else doing this? In conversation, I would say thank you, but in email, a barrage of thank you or you’re welcome messages just seems like overkill.

  2. Absolutely, we are overwhelmed with information. I just cleaned out about 500 e-mails yesterday I never got to read and probably never will. But there was nothing personal there, mostly newsletters, blog feeds (not yours, of course!) and pitches. Also got a chance to unsubscribe to the ones I was no longer interested in.

    I find certain people use several e-mail addresses and rarely check all of them. I just got a reply from something I sent out 5 or 6 days ago.

    However, what is the most revolting is at a certain company I worked for, some management personnel ignore e-mails from employees!

    Susan:

    No, sorry still believe in business etiquette. I also thank everyone who connects with me on LinkedIn or who subscribes to our channel on YouTube. Never know where the next referral comes from! But then I am strictly sales oriented.

    I even reply to e-mails while on vacation.

  3. I think it is easier for people to not respond than it is to enter into a discussion they’d prefer not to have.

    I try to answer all my emails promptly, but I have to admit that I have let a few go because I think I’ll handle them later. I usually pick them up eventually, but sometimes it is weeks later.

    Part of the problem is sheer volume. I love email and find it the easiest way to communicate. Still when you get hundreds of emails a day, it can be hard to keep up!

  4. I try to handle all of the important e-mail at the same time each day. If I dont have the answer I file it into a folder marked “needs attention”. I still manage to forget to respond to some of the e-mail.

    I have found that If I ask too many questions in one e-mail the person will only answer one of the questions. I hate sending a separate e-mail for each question. Does anyone have a solution?

  5. In my earlier comment, I was not clear about dropping “thanks!” emails. If someone has gotten information to me or responded to any kind of request I always follow up with a thank you note or call. I prefer note cards for this, but often use email. What I was referring to was using “thanks” or “good” or “got it” as an acknowledgment or confirmation of information. For example, some of my clients email me to confirm appointments. They are responding to an email from me containing the appointment date. It just seems to add to an endless stream of emails that don’t seem necessary.
    And while we’re at it, what about all those people who insist on using reply all instead of reply?

  6. Great topic, Jeannette. I am in the camp with many of your other responders who want to think about the emails they’ve received — and then forget all about them. One thing I try to do is write down (on my To-Do list) the names of the people with whom I absolutely must get back in touch. This has really helped as a nudge, reminding me to respond within a few days.

  7. This is quite thought provoking especially since I noticed on some website contact forms the question “do you require a reply” Yes/No.

    In the corporate world I didn’t answer all emails, especially if they were information only emails or someone trying to cover their own back by using cc to tell the world and his wife what he had done.

    Now as a self employed coach my preference is to speak to people directly. It is amazing what can be read into an email. However, now I will respond to all emails even just to say thank you – unless of course it is the dreaded spam!

  8. Good article. We do get too many emails but there are other reasons as well.

    Basically to be polite doesn’t seem to be as important anymore as it used to be.

    Another thing that has struck me is the difference between how people communicate in different countries. The US, Sweden, Germany and so forth are short to the point and messages seldom contain pleasant phrases.

    In England, Spain and other countries people are polite and show they care. I much prefer the polite way that unfortunately is unusual nowadays. And it goes hand in hand – to be short to the point in a matter of fact way and ignore emails. But this is probably what is called development, unfortunately.

  9. We should all be conscious of sending unnecessary e-mails. For example, do you really need to hit reply to some queries? Can you set up filters to move certain e-mails to folders to let you see what is coming in?

    I do write to anyone I link with in LinkedIn as discussed above. I wish I would hear more from people who want to link to me or have done so.

    Rob

  10. Hi Jeannette,

    I enjoyed reading your blog, it’s like some wise person is sharing their thoughts and experiences.
    Email etiquettes pointed here are worth to be practiced, at least they create positive environment.

  11. I just stumbled across this while searching for anything on “Biz speak for emails..” I answer business and personal emails almost as soon as I get them-no matter what the volume. There are those of us apparently that are not compelled to “clear their desks” or perhaps need more time to think about the information. A simple quick response (even automated) lets a client or business partner that you are important to them. By the way, I’ve noticed this trend away from replies even more in the last 6-8 months. It’s as if the quickness of email is fading into a “postal mode.”Thanks for publishing your insight!
    J.J.