The Greatest Productivity Tool You Never Thought Of: Email Autoresponder

Have a mangled inbox? Do what HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes, swissmiss founder Tina Roth Eisenberg, and WomenInnovateMobile cofounder Kelly Hoey do.

When we emailed Kelly Hoey to ask her about why the autoresponder is a part of being a well-adjusted Internet person, we, fittingly enough, got this message right back:

A well-crafted autoresponse

Hoey, a cofounder of the WomenInnovateMobile accelerator, started using an autoresponder about a year ago. It was partly for her own time management: She felt addicted to making immediate responses—rather than having a clear head to work on the most important projects, she found herself addressing more immediate, but less substantive tasks, like wading through her inbox.

This, she says, is symptomatic of our always-on, always-available culture.

When it comes to emailing people, she says, "we're lazier than a Google search. We expect information to come immediately, so we feel a responsibility to spit information out immediately."

For many people, info-spitting makes up a huge chunk of their time—about 28% of the day. Plus, it seems that the higher you rise, the more you're messaged: MediaCom CEO Karen Blackett gets 500 a day. And the more visible you are, the more extreme the inundation can become: Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder of swissmiss, CreativeMornings, and TeuxDeux, is getting 1,000 emails altogether in her many inboxes.

The autoresponder: a much-needed adjustment?

"About a year ago, I really hit a wall of feeling such anxiety and guilt around my inbox and not being able to keep up, the thought of disappointing people and not being responsive and not getting back to people, that really stressed me out. It got to the point where it wasn't healthy." Eisenberg says. "So I put the autoresponder up to adjust expectations for people that email me."

The autoresponse, then, takes the sting out of the maybe-not-get-a reply. And with that, Eisenberg can regard her inbox a little bit more like Twitter—where having a connection is awesome, but a response isn't mandatory and a lack of one isn't guilt-inducing.

"We almost need to have an adjustment of what is realistic," she says. "Our society needs an adjustment on the email front. I don't want to be criticized as arrogant or whatever, but it's insane what I'm getting."

The autoresponder: A guidepost?

At other times, the autoresponder can be a much-needed productivity hack. As Ryan Holmes, the CEO of HootSuite, was explaining to us how he was cultivating a maple syrup mafia, he also said that he's constantly refining his inbox game: that includes canned messages for the canned inquiries for speaking engagements, business development, and whatnot, plus being precise about what message works for which medium—if a conversation's better done face-to-face, he forgoes the written word, as David Ogilvy did.

But his latest hack is putting an inquiry-directing autoresponder up, a "If you're interested in this, this, or this, here are the people to talk to" kind of thing.

Why? As Holmes explained:

I don't want to become a switchboard for my company, but I found I was doing that. I was spending a lot of time on these things that I didn't need to rewrite every time, so I'm just going to put this in front of people so they can go and chase down and be self-empowered. Some people might call that douchey, but I just think it's getting people in touch with the right thing. Hopefully I do that in a way that doesn't turn people off, but I don't want to spend my life being a switchboard operator.

Holmes's case, then, crystalizes the inbox quandary: We all have an immense number of demands heaped upon us. And with this Internet thing, we're more accessible to the world than we maybe realize. And if we have a reputation for being really nice—like, say, Hoey, Eisenberg, or Holmes—then the world will want all sorts of things from us. And will probably be pinging us to "pick our brains" soon.

[Image: Flickr user Lali Masriera]

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15 Comments

  • Derek Winter

    I'm all for helping people tame their inbox, but I can't help be reminded of automatic telephony systems ... "Please press 1 for service, 2 for ...", a process that always seems to be frustrating. I am on board with the idea of setting expectations in our 24/7 "always on" culture, so if the discipline of only opening the inbox at set times of the day is in place, communicating that is a good thing.

    One of my most effective methods for controlling email is to have anything I'm only cc'd on automatically moved to another folder and I only look there occasionally. The more I've thought about this article though, the more I'm reminded of the Agile Manifesto, and the reality that the most effective means of communication is face to face (and writing is the least). The underlying principle is to only write something down that's "stable" or finalised, unlikely to fluctuate. So, particularly in an office environment, going to see someone or at least picking up the phone is far more productive than writing an email in the first instance.

    So, my advice? Think twice before typing and get out of your chair or pick up the phone first. Then confirm via email if absolutely necessary.

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  • Keith Barnwell

    I am a great advocate of not allowing your in-box to dominate your working day. I coach all my busy clients to switch off any form of notification that an e-mail has arrived; reading your messages as they arrive interrupts your train of thought and disrupts your concentration, which can take as long as 15 minutes to regain. I also recommend that they set aside two (or more if absolutely necessary) specific times during the day at which they will review their in-boxes. I really like this idea of making those who send e-mails to you aware of how you deal with your in-box and giving them a number to call if they deem the content to be that urgent that it can’t wait until the next time you look at your in-box – or better still suggesting they make the time to come and speak to you (if you are likely to be free of course). Knowing that every e-mail you receive will have been responded to even though you haven’t seen it will be reassuring and give you the freedom to deal with them at a time which best suits your working pattern. In future I will strongly urge all my clients to craft a clearly worded auto response for all e-mails, perhaps with different responses for internal and external senders if the technology allows.

  • Ryanw

    Does Jeff Bezos use an auto-responder? A quote from an article on The Business Insider:

    "Jeff Bezos may run Amazon and he may be a billionaire. But he is very accessible to his customers with an easy-to-find email address, jeff@amazon.com. And when his customers aren’t pleased, Bezos isn’t either."

  • Personal Shoplifter

    The auto-responder is PAs and secretaries, who forward a representative small sample of general enquiries, whilst allowing emails from a smaller list of folk (family, friends, peers) to more easily get through.

  • Jacki S.

    I work with several mid-level managers who have adopted a similar tactic in that they only check email twice a day at specified points in time.  They set this expectation in their signature lines as well as auto-responses and have shared that it's made a big difference in their work life.  We've seen that when mid-level managers do implement these rules it helps slow some of the exponential effects of emailing across their teams - people do more communicating face-to-face rather than shooting emails left and right.

  • Emma Dalgarno

    Dear Jacki,
    I can believe the difference it makes to the manager and face to face (or phone) is so much more efficient, do you know how the clients responded?

  • Brandon Olson

    Great article, Drake. Completely agree that auto-responders can be a huge time saver. One perspective you might also consider is that autoresponders are big productivity boost for businesses from an outbound sales point of view. We've found that many small businesses use autoresponders to automate follow-up messages to email subscribers. This saves them a lot of time and energy, allowing them to focus on growing their business. (As a disclaimer, I represent AWeber, which offers autoresponder follow-up messages to email subscribers.)

  • Paul H. Burton

    I've been promoting the use of auto-responders for years - at all levels of the organization. I'm glad to see we're hitting the mainstream with this notion. Unfortunately, we're focusing on CEO's, which gives people the "out" of saying, "Well, they're CEOs and I'm only an X."

    The real message here is that Responding and Being Responsive are two different things. Responding assuages the sender's concern that the email was received. Being responsive is communicating something of value, advancing the effort forward. Autoresponders take care of Responding automatically, which allows the recipient that extra bit of time (which adds up when we're talking about 100 or 200 or 500 message a day) to be responsive.

    Autorepsonder messages must be well-crafted, professional and communicative. They also need to provide instruction on what to do if information is needed more immediately, such as a phone number to call.

    Email is a terrific communication medium. We've just started to hide behind it too much. Autoresponders provide us all a way to get the mundane task of confirming receipt out of our day so we can focus on more productive work.

    A related productivity trick is to use a sorted inbox. Google offers it for free in Gmail. RepriseMail - www.reprisemail.com - has announced it's bringing that same functionality to Outlook. Getting the clutter out of the inbox, using automation, is a similar way to increase time spent on worthy efforts.

  • Senor

    I agree with A. Simpson. Sure, if you're the CEO or President and you can't stand to be bothered by small requests and annoyances throughout the day, then maybe this kind of autoresponder is better than not responding. But this idea of "here's the people you should speak to" sounds really douchey, and to me, you're alienating yourself from the person by saying "don't bother me, go find these people and figure it out". Next time I walk by your office, I'll probably be too "self empowered" to chat with you about an important issue.  Be authentic and personable, not distant and robotic. 

  • Chadandy

    I can only suspect that you don't get as much email every day as others on this post. I'm seriously considering using an autoresponder, because there is no possible way I can get back to every email I receive (an average of 100/day on my work email alone) in a timeframe the sender wants. It's better to manage expectations than to fail them. People expect immediate responses to email, and it's not possible, unless we decide to not show up to meetings and not do the actual core functions of our work.

  • A. Simpson

    Is this realistic for anyone but a CEO, or an independent? A mid-level manager or director might get some curious looks from the senior staff at such a non-committal, automated response.

  • Dave McGhee

    As a Business Coach I can tell you it is absolutely realistic for a mid-level manager and maybe even more important. They key will be to make your autoresponder professional and give people a time that you will be returning email. Also, let them know if they need an immediate response they can call you.