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Work Smart

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 johnsmith@example.com.

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:
https://awayfind.com/ginatrapani.

(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)]

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