Responsiveness is a critical life skill. In fact, I think it may be the single most important factor to your success. People who are not responsive miss out on many opportunities. Why? Because others get tired of waiting on them.
But, let’s be honest—not everyone you or I deal with shares this value. Or, even if they give lip service to it, they don’t practice it in daily life. And so, you wait. And wait. Meanwhile, your own work stacks up and you look unresponsive to your constituents.
It would be great if you never had to deal with these people. The problem is that sometimes “these people” include your boss, a colleague you don’t have authority over, or an important customer. How do you get them to respond to you in a timely manner?
Here are ten strategies that I have found helpful:
- Put their name in the “To” field. This should be obvious, but if you want a response from a specific individual, put that person’s name in the To field and that person’s name alone. If there is more than one name, he or she might assume that one of the others will answer. Also, never use the CC field for any purpose other than FYI.
- Double-check the email address. A few months ago, one of my colleagues wasn’t getting a response from one of our authors. He said, “I’ve emailed him five times.” I was a little irritated myself, so I said, “Forward me your last email, and I will follow-up.” When I got the email, I noticed that my colleague had one character missing in the email address. I asked him to resend the original email with the correct address. The author responded within the hour.
- Write a relevant subject line. Think of the subject line like the headline of a newspaper. The goal is to get them to actually read the body copy. The more specific you can make it, the better. For example, if you are sending me a meeting agenda, don’t just put “Agenda” in the subject line. I get lots of agendas. Instead, put something like “Agenda for June 10th Executive Team Meeting.”
- Put your question at the top. Writing a good email is like writing a good blog post or magazine article. As they say, “don’t bury the lead.” Put the most important content (the “lead”) in the very first paragraph. Don’t assume that the recipient will read beyond that. You can use the rest of the email to provide support or background information.
- Keep your message short. Long emails only encourage procrastination. Think of your own behavior. What happens when you get a long email? Right. You save it for later. Unfortunately, many people never get around to “later.” If you keep the message short, you make it easy for the other person to digest what you have said and respond now.
- Use the high priority flag. You have to be careful with this, because if you use it with every message, people will “brand you” as someone who always cries “Wolf!” However, if you use this sparingly, it can communicate urgency. You can also begin the subject line with the word “Urgent,” a colon, and then your subject. For example, “Urgent: About to Miss the Grisham Deadline.”
- Offer multiple choices. Make it easy on the reader. Narrow the range of options down to two or three and then ask them to pick one. For example, “Which hotel do you prefer for our upcoming trip to San Jose: (1) the Marriott, (2) the Sheraton, or (3) the Hilton?” After you ask the question, you can provide the backup on each hotel.
- Provide a deadline. This makes your expectations clear, so the reader is less likely to procrastinate. I would advise against providing an artificial or bogus deadline. If the other person discovers that the deadline was not real, your credibility will be damaged. He will never take your deadlines seriously again. Instead, provide the specific date and time. For example, “by noon tomorrow (Thursday)” or “by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, August 7th.”
- Use a “negative option.” When all else fails, this is the strategy I use. Here’s how it works: You tell the person what you are going to do unless you hear back from them by a certain time. This makes their response optional. For example, “Unless you reply by noon tomorrow, I will assume that the proposal meets with your approval and send it on to the client.”
- Copy their boss. This is dangerous, I know. The person may respond, but they will likely also resent it. I never do this unless I am out of options, and I can’t get a response any other way. Before you use this strategy, you need to consider the collateral damage to the relationship. However, there are times when you have no other choice.
Finally, maybe you shouldn’t be using email at all. I know it’s hard to believe, but not everyone prefers email. If the person isn’t responding, why keep beating your head against the wall? Instead, Twitter them (via DM), call them on the phone, or drop by for a visit. If the other person is your boss or customer, it is your job to conform to their communication preferences not the other way around.