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How To Master The Fine Art Of The Follow-Up

Here’s your guide to how to (professionally) pester about a job, a pitch, an invoice, and more.

How To Master The Fine Art Of The Follow-Up
[Photo: Shutterstock]

Is there anything more frustrating than waiting for an answer and getting silence? Someone is holding onto your money, your idea, or your very future, and you need feedback before you can breathe (or just buy groceries).

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Tactfulness and persistence are both important, but exactly how tactful and how persistent, and also, do phone calls work? We got the points of view from several authorities on the subject on what makes for successful pestering. (Results may vary.)

When You’re Following Up On A Job Interview

The authority: Angela Jacobs, director, talent acquisition & development at the University of Chicago

Write a thank-you note. Don’t overlook the post-interview thank-you note. If you pester and you didn’t say thank you in the first place, it seems out of order. If you send a snail mail thank you, it might not get to the person in a timely manner, so send an email thank you.

Don’t overdo the follow-up. Shorter is better. Consider a three-sentence email: “Thanks again for the interview. You mentioned you would follow up by this time. I just want to reiterate my interest in the position.”

Do know when to quit. Inquire weekly after that. If you email twice and nobody responds, cut your losses.

Don’t burn bridges. It doesn’t come off well when people are demanding and say things like, “You told me you would know by such-and-such day.” Well, things happen in business. There’s been a budget change, people move away. You have no idea what’s happening on the other side. Everyone remembers the second and third runners up from a year ago, and sometimes they end up being the right person for a future position.

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When You’re Following Up On A Pitch

The authority: Kara Corridan, health director at Parents magazine

Inquire when it’s best to follow up. We might have several months go by before we get back to a writer. That’s why following up every Monday is a bad idea. Publicists, particularly the junior-level people, tend to follow up too frequently. Certain people that send me something on a Friday and then follow up Monday–it’s ludicrous. Even if we were interested, we couldn’t turn things around that frequently. You can try again in a month. Give us a chance to process.

Don’t call. I find that email is best for everything. It’s not worth it for a writer to leave me a voice mail. I think most people would agree.

Don’t email at the start of the week. If you check in on a Monday, you’ll be one of many. Midweek is preferred.

Mention the competition. If there’s genuinely a chance someone else might be interested in your pitch, it’s not a bad idea to mention it in a nonthreatening way. Maybe it will light a fire if we were interested, and I just haven’t gotten the final word yet.

Don’t be passive aggressive. I’ve had situations where writers have said to me, “I haven’t heard from you, so I’ll assume you’re not interested.” There’s just a tone to it. If I’m given a deadline, I don’t respond well to it.

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Don’t respond immediately with another pitch. Sometimes I will carve out a couple hours to tackle my inbox. When I have gone through it, I feel so good, but the next time I check my email, 15 writers I’ve replied to have boomeranged a new pitch to me. I understand they’re trying to strike while the iron is hot, but sometimes I feel that they haven’t necessarily taken into consideration what didn’t work about the pitch that I just rejected: They’re just throwing an idea at me that might not be any more right.

Think through what you’re volleying back. It’s also not a great idea when you send a new pitch but haven’t heard back yet on the first, especially if we haven’t worked together before. Editors like to see how someone does on a particular piece before sending them another one. We won’t assign them both anyway, so it’s best to hold onto it.

When You’re Following Up On An Invoice

The authority: Amelia McDonell-Parry, editor-in-chief of TheFrisky.com

Make sure you’ve made it easy on the person handling it. The easiest way for freelancers to do their part to get paid on time is to make sure your invoice is perfect. If something’s wrong, the finance department won’t be able to alert you to it right away.

Make sure that you have your name, address, email, date, date of publication, name of the piece, individual fee per piece, and grand total at the bottom. If you’ve moved, alert your editor. If it’s been a while and you haven’t gotten paid, reattach the invoice. Also, don’t submit your invoices more than once per month. It’s much less likely that something will get messed up.

Don’t follow up on Fridays. Or in the early morning. Fridays are typically the days checks are cut, so the finance departments are pretty busy. If you think maybe your check has fallen through the cracks, earlier in the week is better. I tend to prefer to get anything that is not related for the day-to-day running to the site later in the afternoon.

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When You’re Following Up On Your Book Manuscript

The authority: Jacqueline Flynn, literary agent and editor, Joëlle Delbourgo Associates

Research submission guidelines first. Literary agents have submission guidelines on their websites, which includes typical response times. Also, did you follow the guidelines in the query? I don’t want to read “Dear Sir or Madam” or see it’s been sent to 500 agents. You probably won’t get an answer, and following up isn’t going to do any good. Go back and follow the instructions if you didn’t.

Ask for confirmation of receipt. When an agent comes to you and asks for your manuscript or proposal, say, “Let me know you’ve received this,” when you send it. You don’t want to be sitting for four weeks. That would certainly give you an opening to follow up.

Be specific with the nature of your follow-up. Sometimes people will say, “Oh, I’m just checking in.” That’s not asking for a particular action. Say, “Are you still considering my project? When might I be expecting to hear from you?”

Don’t play dumb. Sometimes the follow-up comes across as clueless. “Oh I don’t really know how this works and I’m new to this, so I hope I’m not totally screwing up. I want to know if you think I should write this blog post,” like you’re their agent already. It shows that you don’t know this process, which is good reason to say no to you. People think they will disarm you but it doesn’t work.

When you’re following up on time-sensitive materials from a client

The authority: Rich Krisher, custom health-care publications editor

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Don’t expect the clients to care about your deadline. I’m working on a project right now that has a monthly deadline, and there’s no leeway in the schedule. In that case, I have learned my lesson: When I first was assigned the client, I assumed everything ran on time. I got to that hard deadline and I only received materials from a few of the people in the organization.

Pre-pester and offer help. If clients are supposed to provide me with an article, I offer to give them a little bit of an outline. Then I’ll come the next day and ask, “I wanted to touch base: Is there anything else I can do to get that together?” Then a week out, I’ll send a friendly reminder saying, “Thanks for your help in the past. I wanted to let you know we have this deadline next week. Let me know if I can do anything to help you.” I’ll send another one on deadline day, replying-all to that message, saying, “Today’s the deadline, and if you anticipate any problems, let me know and we’ll see what we can work out.”

Only enlist someone to help with your dirty work as a last resort. Sometimes, if I’m not getting a response, I talk to someone else who is in contact with the client. Occasionally, if there’s a different voice making the request, that proves successful. Sometimes a client will just go AWOL, and even though I don’t like it, you have to copy their boss.

Related: Are You Networking Or Nagging?

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About the author

Since 2002, Claire Zulkey has run the blog Zulkey.com. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the Los Angeles Times.

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