When I was just starting out in journalism, I got a job as a reporter covering news at the Illinois state capitol. It was my first opportunity to see how the ‘real world’ operated – both in front of the microphones and behind. My boss was an aggressive, veteran newsman named Ben Kiningham. He was a joy to work with and one of the most valuable things I learned from Ben was the importance of professional respect. I’ll never forget being introduced to person who was the right hand for one of Illinois’ U.S. Senators at the time. Ben turned to me and added, “And he returns every phone call.”
As a person new to the business, that comment struck me as odd. Why wouldn’t everyone return their calls? That was in a day before email, but I soon learned how much easier it is to skip the conversations you’d rather not have or ignore the emails you’d rather not answer. Sadly, that’s becoming the norm.
Emails are optional, but replies shouldn’t be
Emails (and texting) have replaced the telephone as the primary means to communicate in business. I can always tell the generation to which someone officially belongs by their tendency to either 1) send a text, 2) write an email or 3) pick up the phone when important messages are called for. And speaking face-to-face? That takes so much time.
While I always enjoy a conversation, I consider emails a blessing. If you are one of those people who think of ideas 24/7, then dropping someone an email at any hour is no intrusion. They will read it when they have the opportunity, and they can get back to you when they want. Therein, though, lies the rub.
When is it okay to blow off someone’s email?
Most advice about email focuses on the mechanics, i.e. what goes in the subject line or how to create an email signature. A more fundamental issue is whether you respect the message and the person writing it.
Now that I’m an entrepreneur, I have regular interaction with people who want jobs, people who are trying to sell me something, clients I want to meet, my own partners and former business colleagues. My mix of email hasn’t changed a whole lot from the days I had a VP title in a major news organization. Not as much volume, to be sure, but there’s a common thread of all business in-boxes. People need information or validation – from you. Aside from obvious spam, it is not okay to blow off an email (or a phone call) – especially from people you don’t know. Coming up with a strategy for handling those messages with the greatest degree of professional courtesy is good people skills. And it is in your business interest.
Strategies for email
1. Create a short message that confirms receipt
The main reason people don’t respond to emails (or return calls) is that they don’t know what to say. The longer the email, the more involved a reply is required. (A good reason to keep your emails short and to the point). They read it, understand it, realize they should get back sooner rather than later, but they don’t. They delay responding until they have time to craft the perfect response. But no one is expecting you to have the perfect response. They just want to be sure you received the message and it isn’t buried in your inbox – or worse, in your spam folder. Here are a few mobile-friendly suggestions:
- “Got it.”
- “Thanks. I’ll be in touch.”
- “Appreciate the info. More later.”
How hard is that?
2. Make email management a priority
If you can’t manage your own email, how are you expected to be able to manage anything else? We all get mounds of email. That’s no excuse for letting it go for days unanswered. Everyone using some variation of Google mail has the option of customizing their inbox with tabs. They work. Outlook has folders. Create a system for handling your email within 24 hours. Control what you can control.
3. Write less email (and shorter too)
Save email for the business communication that needs to be in writing. Try having a conversation in person or picking up the phone more often. When you send fewer emails, the ones you do send will take on more importance. Confine the email to one idea or question. Imagine that all of your emails will be read on a mobile device – because they probably will. Anything requiring much more than a yes or no answer is begging to be shoved to the back burner.
What goes around comes around
Because some people treat email like a door knock that they’d rather not answer, your practice of treating every message with the care you would want yours treated will stand out. You’ll begin to get a reputation as someone who is dependable, organized and trustworthy. Desirable qualities – all for just replying to a message. And guess what? This act of professional respect will come back in your direction.