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The Art of the Email Auto-Responder Message (I'm Away From the Office Until...)

You're about to go on vacation, so you dutifully set up the classic "Out of the office, will reply to your message when I get back" email auto-responder. While that auto-reply gives you a socially acceptable pass to do nothing about most incoming email for awhile, it doesn't make the nagging feeling that you're missing the one or two really important items go away. So, while you're at a resort in some Carrbbean paradise, you have to surreptitiously check your email for any ticking timebombs while your spouse shoots you disapproving looks.

Which is to say that, by and large, email auto-responders don't work.

Perhaps the most common vacation auto-responder reads something like this:

I'm out of the office and will get back to you when I return on April 5th. If this is an emergency, contact John Smith at

There are a couple of problems with this response. First, you're promising to get back to the person who emailed on the day you returned from vacation, when you're most backlogged and least likely to reply. Second, you're re-routing emergencies to a co-worker, who may or may not know how to handle the message. A variation on this response is:

If this is an emergency, call me.

The "call me" tact is risky, because it means your cell phone will ring while you're on vacation, guaranteeing even worse dirty looks from your spouse. But, it also means poor John won't have to deal with your emergencies for you.

Few of us have a personal assistant checking our email while we're away, who we know will call us only if we really need to know about something. But one product aims to automate that process. AwayFind creates a simple emergency contact form where emailers can type a short message that you receive via text message. You just include a link to this form in your auto-response, i.e.:

If your message is urgent, contact me through this link:

(Click on that link to see my AwayFind contact form.) Most emailers who don't need you right away won't go through the trouble of filling out the AwayFind form, but those who do will.

I tried AwayFind's form while I went on vacation, and, as promised, it did lessen the nagging "what if I'm missing something important?" feeling. But I did receive a couple of text messages which the senders thought were emergencies, and I did not.

Still, it was better than the "call me" approach. AwayFind's form doesn't reveal your phone number, and it doesn't call you. A text message is a lot less disruptive than a voice call. The message is brief and you can opt to ignore it, and there's no chance you'll get stuck talking on the phone for half an hour about something that didn't really warrant your attention.

Microsoft Outlook's Rules feature also lets you configure smarter auto-responders, that can, say, send you a text message if the boss or VIP client emails you. You can even set up a VIP list of people you want to receive a special auto-response message, versus a more general one for people not on the list.

For those of us without a Outlook or an Exchange server, AwayFind now offers a Firefox and Chrome extension that adds this kind of rich ruleset to Gmail or Google Apps mail. The beta extension, which launched last week, can call you, send you a text message, IM, or Twitter direct message if a particular person emails you for a given amount of time.

With an AwayFind account set up and the extension installed, click on the arrow by the subject line in order to configure the rule, as shown:

Whatever kind of auto-responder you do use, here's a tip: instead of promising to reply the day you're back from vacation, give yourself a few extra days of padding. Because when you finally go on vacation for real—not just faking it—you'll come home to quite a backlog to catch up on.

[Photo via Flickr/nattarbox (beach)]

Add New Comment


  • Christian

    I think a little bit funny message is also cool for a out of office message!

  • Don Wenzer

    VC's are masters of the self-important auto-responder message. Here's a little translator of what they really mean when they are trying to sound modest or helpful :) 

  • Norbert Szabó

    I usually don1t use autoresponse emails when I'm on vacation and phone calls are realy annoying. It happened so many times with me that I got called from the office with something they thought means life or death then when I had worked a lot on the problem sacrificing my time which I could spend enjoying my vacation it turned out that what I've done wasn't really that important.

    So my advice is that don't sue autoresponse emails or call me functions. If you have  agreat marketing system the work gets automatically done or if you have products to be shipped than have a staff to work for you when you are on vacation.

    Nowadays even this would be no problem even without staff if you use dropshipping or automatic furfillment services like kunaki. 

  • Chris Reich

    I-Phones, I-Pads, Email have given us a false sense of importance while distorting what truly is "urgent". These devices have made people more self-focused and less cooperative. In the old days, when an upset client called the office, everyone knew about it as the call was transferred to you!

    I say if you can't go on vacation for a week without your email, something is seriously amiss with your organizational ability. Look there first. 99.9% of the people reading this are not CEOs though they may be self-employed. I doubt you do anything so important as to need a service beyond an auto responder while you are on vacation.

    Use the auto responder but change the setting to keep the messages on the server. Check from a web browser if you think the world needs you that much.

    But seriously, if you can't organize things well enough, and cooperate intelligently enough with co-workers to cover a week or two, better take a good look at those organizational skills and a peek at the ego while you've got the hood up.

    Chris Reich

  • John Vasko

    I like Larry's approach. When I go on vacation, especially when it's out of the country, I simply don't check e-mail or even have a device that allows me to check it. From my experience most "emergencies" get sorted out somehow by the time I'm back. This Away Find is too much. Like you said, what those 2 people thought were emergencies weren't and you're life wasn't any better by receiving those texts.

  • Scott Cover

    The one problem with running the rules in Outlook (if not connected to an Exchange Server) would be that it requires users to have a way of ensuring that their Outlook instance is running while they are on vacation/out of office etc. This gives you a very large single point of failure in the "Out of Office" scenario.

    I've been using Awayfind since it was the original private beta and with the latest release talking directly to my Exchange Server, I can't see how I lived without that feature before now. It will automatically scans messages that come in and can automatically alert me however I choose if a message meets a certain criteria. I can get my updates via SMS, IM, Twitter DM and more.

    Add to this that most people don't know how to send SMS to their phones via e-mail (and neither Outlook or Exchange has native SMS functionality) it complicates matters.

    Personally, I feel that anything that is dependent on a client side component is going to leave the user with a good chance that their solution could fail at any point during their time out of the office with little to no way of them knowing that it has simply stopped functioning. Exchange based rules or a service like Awayfind are really the only options in my opinion.

  • Larry Asher

    I like the approach I saw a few days ago -- Seth Godin, perhaps? The advice was to say "I'm on vacation until (date). When I return I'm going to discard all email in my inbox, so please resend your message to me then if you still require my action or reply." In short, put the burden back on the sender.

  • Kishore

    Hi Larry,

    I am confused that how to add auto responder text. When any one sent me a mail.
    example: Thanks for your mail: etc....
    Can you please suggest me for this
    Looking forward for your reply.