Emails are usually about asking. Either someone is asking you for something—to do a task, consider an offer, or share a piece of information—or you are asking them.
No ask is complete until it has an answer, and yet many of us treat email as if it were a one-and-done proposition. You shoot off an email with your request, and now the ball is in their court. It’s on them to notice your email, thoughtfully consider it, and respond in a timely fashion, right?
Wrong. Assuming that anyone has the wherewithal—or even the obligation—to respond to your email is a recipe for failure. We’re all busy and distracted and overwhelmed, and that means things slip through the cracks. It’s no one’s fault, but it is a fact. That means you need to have a system for tracking pending items.
Many of the things you ask for in emails are linked to a task you need to get done: You need to book a venue for a party so you email the venue asking for a quote, you need to upgrade your version of WordPress so you email your web developer asking her to do it, and so forth. But merely sending the email does not mean these tasks are done—what they are is pending completion. This means you need to keep monitoring them to ensure they do get done.
This kind of conscientious follow-up is a skill that is overlooked and underrated by many. But it couldn't be more crucial to actually getting things done, both in the world of email and the great wide world beyond. Here are five pointers on following up effectively.
Some people hesitate to follow up because they think it would be intrusive or off-putting. But typically the opposite is true: Rather than viewing such persistence as annoying, most professionals view follow-up as a sign of passion and initiative.
Speaking personally, I have hired people, responded to sales pitches, and taken time out to offer advice precisely because someone pursued me with an alacrity that caught my attention. Follow-up shows that you genuinely care. (That being said, too much follow-up won’t endear you to anyone. One or two follow-up messages, appropriately spaced out, is typically a good threshold before you tip into the category of truly annoying.)
As we are all well aware, there are certain times of the day and week when our influx of email is particularly intense, as well as times when people are less likely to be focused on work. Everyone has a lot of email on Monday mornings, for instance, and most everyone is a bit checked out on Friday afternoons and weekends.
If you’re extremely keen to get a response, time your follow-up for a moment when the recipient is likely to be paying attention. In my experience, this means sending your email outside of normal work hours, either very early in the morning or later in the evening.
Some people follow up by merely forwarding their original email and saying, "Hey, did you get a chance to look at this?" Now, if that person didn’t respond to your email the first time, resending the same message is probably not going to get better results the second time.
Instead, forward your original email as a record, but write a new message on top that rephrases your ask in a more concise manner, ideally so that the recipient can skim the follow-up email and respond without reading down the thread.
Although you should never assume that your recipient actually read your first email, there’s always a chance they did—and they didn’t respond because it wasn’t compelling. Without making your email too lengthy, consider adding a fresh angle on why the opportunity you’re proposing is valuable when you follow up.
Maybe it’s a new sentence or just a few well-crafted words that capture a benefit you didn’t mention in your original pitch. Offering not just a reminder but new information reiterates that you’re enthusiastic about working with this person and gives him or her a new reason to consider your proposal.
We’ve been talking throughout this book about how you are not obligated to respond to anyone’s email—unless it’s your boss. But remember that it goes both ways: Neither are you entitled to a response from someone else who, like you, might be too busy with their own tasks to deal with yours.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother following up, but it does mean you should try to do it with grace and consideration. You might begin your message with, "I know you have a hectic schedule, but I’m wondering if you’ve had time to consider my request to . . . ?" or something similar. Acknowledging that you understand the receiver is juggling a lot of tasks, of which your request is just one small consideration, always helps.
This article is excerpted from Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done by Jocelyn K. Glei. Copyright © 2016. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. It is reprinted with permission.