It's Not You: Why Your Emails Go Unanswered And How To Cope

Despite spending a third of our days tackling our inboxes, plenty of requests go unanswered by friends, clients, and colleagues. We asked the experts why, and got their take on how to deal.

Frustrated. Put out. Annoyed. Ignored.

Those were the most common feelings that surfaced when we asked our readers how they felt when they emailed (or called, or tweeted, or texted) a request to someone and received no response.

It’s no surprise that plenty of respondents were in sales or public relations, where a request for someone to consider their product or client often goes unanswered. As Meredith Fineman, CEO of FinePoint Digital PR notes, “I pitch and follow up all day, and tread the line between persistence and harassment.”

Billie Blair, Ph.D., president of organizational consulting firm Change Strategists, says she’s encountering the lack of response more and more frequently. “Nothing is more irritating,” she exclaims.

Is not responding the new "no"?

Blair says that from a psychological perspective, it’s partly caused by volume. “Everyone is inundated with messages these days and the easy way out is just to ignore what one isn't interested in,” she posits. Dubbing it “The Age of Ennui,” Blair is on to something. We already spend nearly a third (28%) of our time answering emails daily and we need more than a minute to recover from every message.

Taken together, that could add up to hours spent composing and sending responses each day. Indeed, Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Give and Take says, “If I don’t spend a minimum of three hours a day answering email, it is impossible to keep up.” And that’s after using an autoresponder.

Paul Baard, professor of organizational psychology at Fordham University, points out that beyond email’s 24/7 expectations, automated phone calls add to the inundation. “The idea of being polite and hearing the person out” is no longer an option, he says, when that call or note is considered an intrusion. Baard says untimely requests work on the recipient’s brain. “We don’t like to be told what to do,” he explains, “When you put in a request, you’ve made a demand [for them to respond]. It’s not lost on people.”

“Unwanted sales emails have a special place in hell as far as I am concerned,” says Mike Sudyk, vice president of operations at software outsourcing firm EC Group. Although, when you have a legitimate business request, says Sudyk, it comes down to respect.

“Everyone is busy and it’s hard to get back with people, but if you have a level of respect and understanding with that person, there is little reason that you can’t get back to them within 48 hours--vacations and travel aside,” he contends. The downside of not responding degrades the relationship over time. “I am less likely to jump to respond to them if they fail to respond to me in a timely manner and a downward spiral ensues,” he says.

Then there is the sidestep. “It is fairly typical to want to avoid difficult conversations at work. Email requests can be difficult conversations when someone is making a request that is not an easy one to approve,” says Stuart Sidle, industrial organizational psychologist, and associate provost from the University of New Haven.   

What makes matters worse for managers is that a virtual “no” may be forwarded to someone else in the form of a complaint, or be read in a much more negative light than the manager intended, Sidle explains. “I am sure managers who have gotten stung by an employee who overreacted to a virtual “no” have learned to be cautious in how they respond, so they put it off and then forget to finish the conversation.”

Hand in hand with that theory, Blair suggests it could be a sign of times filled with uncertainty and confusion. “It relates to a reluctance to finally close the door on possible opportunities,” she says, “Sort of a semi-depressive state, where one is reluctant to act.”

How best to deal--and get the response you crave?

Alice Robbins, managing associate at Finn Partners, believes in making requests simple and concise. Most importantly, she remembers to “include a tidbit that references the benefits the receiver will get if they do respond.”

Sudyk discovered that it’s worth the time to figure out which medium the person is most likely to respond to. “Sometimes I need to ping my clients on Google Messenger or Skype because email just does not work.” That said, Robbins cautions against too many pings. “I never follow up more than once unless I know the person well and think the request requires it,” she says.

It's important not to take a lack of response personally, says Gail Davis. The senior account director at the Catchpole Corporation suggests giving the recipient an easy opt-out that allows you both to save face. “I might say in my email something like, ‘I sent you an email last month regarding matter X and just wanted to close the loop. If I don't hear otherwise from you, I'll assume it's not a fit,” she advises. “No response conveys actual meaning in this case, and the recipient (hopefully) doesn't feel as guilty about not being able to respond,” Davis says.

Fineman says it’s also important to remember that sometimes it's them, not you. “He or she doesn't have as good of a grip on her inbox, or doesn't like to reply as frequently,” she says, “If you really do think it's personal, either confront it or move on.”

[Image: Flickr user Anne Hornyak]

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9 Comments

  • On average it takes 3 visits to make a sale, so if you only follow up once, you are losing valuable customers. Getting the first visit is the hardest part! So follow through on a regular basis and you will have more success!

    Recommended: The Goal by Eli Goldratt - already read by millions of people all over the world - The Importance of Ongoing Improvement - http://vur.me/s/TheGoal2014

    Thanks for letting me join in this discussion Tweet Me @MsWizMagic

  • Its a fine line, some salespeople nail it. Others come across as pushy. Its even harder to know where that line is if you are not a salesmen, regularly creatives dont push hard enough for an outcome, because thats not what they have been learning. I know this because I do it all the time. By the third 'oi, buy this', i feel horrible inside, but the other person is often more at the 'oh, show me more' sort of stage. This article highlights how difficult this can be, particularly digitally.

  • Thanks for sharing David. I agree that making authentic connections is the ultimate goal, but with so many people (like the PR reps in this piece) trying to reach individuals they don't have a daily working relationship with, an email intro is often their only option. Companies need to factor that in to the cost of doing business and treat it as another resource that requires time, money and focused development.

  • I get far more traction with a first outreach, or with an early relationship, through twitter than I do with email. However, once that relationship is established, I completely depend on (and enjoy) email.

    Really enjoyed the piece, especially as the recipient of all of those PR messages for the better part of a decade. As a managing editor, I spend most of my day digging through (and deleting) those emails. Email is not the problem here, the message/delivery is. I get pitches that are longer than entire articles that we would publish, don't appear to have researched who/what we are, and are painfully impersonal.

    Disclaimer - I work at Evomail.

  • Great article Lydia! I agree with Gail, an opt-out is always a good thing to include, some people are busy and some people are just not a fit, finding the balance of persistence is critical.