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Why People Don’t Reply To Your Emails–And How To Increase Your Chances They Will

Stay tuned at the end of this post to receive BONUS MATERIAL that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE!

We all have this problem, and usually it’s one or two people in our lives. Their inboxes are blackholes–and IM’ing or texting isn’t much better. Very frustrating.

So, I’ve been thinking about this from the perspective of my own behavior. Why do I read/reply to some emails? Why don’t I read/reply to some emails?

First, the reasons why I DO reply to emails (quickly):

To correct the record, based on something the sender wrote, especially if it is likely to cause me some kind of pain or inconvenience.

To accept something being offered that I want (like free lunch).

To redirect the sender to the right person: “You should ask John about that….”

To make the person go away, although that can sometimes backfire; responding to stalkers from LinkedIn sometimes encourages them.

And finally, and most relevant to this post, to give a direct answer to a direct question(That’s bolded for a reason….)

And the reasons I DON’T reply (either quickly or at all)?

The sender didn’t request anything of me. FYIs are easy to spot. Don’t expect a reply unless it’s been explicitly requested. One of my best mentors taught me that, by way of his non-replies.

The email is TOO LONG and contains too many issues/requests lumped together (I’m guilty of this sometimes, too).

The sender appears to be picking a fight or trying to set me up. Remember: email has “the privacy of a postcard, the longevity of Styrofoam” (I don’t recall the author of that quote). Sometimes it’s better to pick up the phone….

I was cc’ed. Same as an FYI. Deadly. If you want any/all of the recipients to reply, include them ALL in the “To” field (and address them in the body of the email…”John, Jane, and Sarah: Do any of you know where the…”).

Here are a few things that have increased the rate of reply to my emails:

Send fewer emails. Try to make them count, and try to solve the problem on your own, first. This one is especially difficult today since we have pan-access to our co-workers via email, chat, and text. Familiarity breeds complacency; in the modern workplace, we regularly disrespect other peoples’ time because it has become so easy to interrupt them. Truth be told, we all do it to ourselves by not setting boundaries. Use the internal wiki, ask the Google, or just take a few seconds to see if you can find a solution on your own.

Make the subject line compelling…even titillating! Things like “Studies have shown that reading and replying to my emails will make you feel better” or “Please don’t read this email unless you are sitting down” are likely to at least gain someone’s attention. Don’t do it every time, though. Instead….

Get to the point in the Subject line. Imagine that! “This file needs to be placed on the Test server” is easier for someone to process–and more likely to be handled sooner–than Subject: “Update to Test Server.”

Ask the question FIRST.  I can’t emphasize this enough. It is a constant battle for me, as I’m sure it is for you. We may think it is important to provide three paragraphs of background info which will ultimately lead the reader to see it our way and reply with the desired answer. But the reader is just trying to find the “what are you asking me to do?” part of the email.

Isn’t that what you’re trying to find when you read someone else’s email? WIFM? (or, maybe, “What do you want from me?”). This takes lots of practice and discipline. If they’re willing to help you, they will do so based on the question itself; the background info is there to help them help you.

Stick to the facts (who, what, when, where, how), and then let them ask follow-up questions, if needed. Also, make it evident that you’ve already put some effort into this yourself (i.e.-tried to solve the problem on your own before asking for their time and energy) before hitting the FWD arrow (I like to call it the “Arrow of Least Resistance” or “the only feature my mother learned to use on email”).

Do you get replies to most of your emails? How do YOU do it? Leave a comment below, please.


AND NOW, for the Bonus Material:

If you have at least learned to keep it simple and ask the question first in an email, you’re on your way to a much more satisfying email experience (and more replies).

But, for email nirvana–Inbox Zero–this post by Keith Rarick will change your life, especially if you use Gmail for work. I’m not kidding here.

And, after reading Keith’s gift to modern man, since you will now be using the Star in Gmail (or the Pin in Inbox, if you’ve converted already…it’s still the “s” key), you will need Taco (a Web app that makes To-Do lists shrivel up and die) to complete the circle. You are now The Last Dragon. When these guys start charging $$, I will be first in line.

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