Is it that hard to just hit the "reply" button?!
November 19, 2010 2:55 PM   Subscribe

A large part of my new job involves contacting various people and asking them for information. How can I convince them to get back to me quickly?

I need to call or email people and ask them for information. I can't do my job without this information, and I have deadlines, so I can't keep calling them for weeks or send formal letters. So far, what I've asked them for has been easy to give--nothing personal, and nothing a two sentence answer wouldn't satisfy. Even an answer of "I have no answer" would be fine. (This might change later, but for now it's been pretty basic stuff.) Also, so far what I've asked for has been information that my having it would be beneficial to the people I'm asking. But I've never done this job before, and I'm finding that I just can't get people (different kinds of people from various walks of life) to get back to me in a timely manner, if at all. I leave a voicemail, or write an email, or both. Sometimes I leave a message with an assistant or visit a place in person and leave my contact info. A few people have gotten back to me, but most have not.

Of course I've had to call or email people and ask questions about stuff all my life, as everyone does. Maybe I've had to do it more than some, as I've had many secretary/assistant jobs involving planning events and setting up meetings. But the job I have now is different because a) I'm calling for myself and my work, not on behalf of a boss or company, b) the aforementioned deadlines, and c) this is a career job, not just a pay-the-bills job, and I actually care. I want to do it well. I'm sure I can do it well, but I can't do it at all without the information I can't get right now.

What I've tried so far:
-Being friendly, very polite and slightly deferential (this is how I naturally behave in professional situations anyway.)
-Explaining that it would benefit them to answer me. (This is common knowledge, btw, I'm being vague about what I do but it's something everyone - especially the people I'm dealing with - understands. It's not some obscure research project or something; it's a well-known way for them to have their voice heard.)
-Following up multiple times.
-Telling them that I have a deadline.
-Offering them information on what I'm doing and who I work for. (It's a new-ish company they may not have heard of, so I'll explain it if I'm on the phone, or send a link if I'm emailing.

These things have not worked. Possibly relevant info: I'm new at this so I might come off as tentative, but I'm not lacking in confidence generally. I'm female, early 30s though I look younger. I'm in New England so tactics like Southern OTT niceness or New York assertiveness would not be looked upon well. I'm in a relatively small place where who you know means a lot, and they don't know me. Though getting to know them is part of my job, and it would help them as well as me.

So I implore those of you who have success with getting responses quickly from strangers: Do you have tips, tricks, guidelines? Are there magic words? Help!

(Anonymous because my real name is on my account and if all those people read this then they'd *really* never get back to me.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have experience doing getting information from people as a reporter and fact-checker. Your question is vague enough that I can't give specific advice, but memail me and I'll tell you what I know.

In general, though, if your tone is effusive and chipper, it really makes a difference.
posted by purpleclover at 3:01 PM on November 19, 2010

it's a well-known way for them to have their voice heard.

You sort of sound like your job might be sales-oriented. While I can see your explanations as to why people getting back in touch with you benefits you, I can't really see the way in which it benefits them except in that sort of sales way. Are you solving a problem for them?

If you are in fact in some sort of sales-oriented situation and you really want people to get back to you, I'd go with the old faithful "These calls and emails will continue until I get a response from you, any response at all." I know that would make me get back to you with a "take me off your list" or something else fairly quickly.

Otherwise, realistically, you have to make replying to you in some way more appealing to their own self-interests than just ignoring you which it seems like is what they are already doing. Give them a stupid-simple way to reply that they are familiar with [send postcards? if your part of New England is anything like mine, emailed or web-based responses may not be so useful to them] and some sort of acknowledgment that you are actually providing something of value to them as THEY determine value, not as you determine it. Without knowing more about what exactly you do it would be tough to figure this out, but might be worth thinking on if you're having trouble getting responses.
posted by jessamyn at 3:40 PM on November 19, 2010

Okay, even not knowing any more details about what you're doing, although in my imagination, it's survey research:

People hate voicemail. You won't get a lot of calls back that way. The best thing a voicemail can do for you is provide a friendly voice that goes with the email you sent them, or an introduction for the next time you call them and catch them there.

Call at various times. People keep odd schedules; some people are best at 8 a.m., others are best at 5 p.m. It's highly individual, and there is no one best time to call. (Except restaurants. Then, it's 11 a.m. if they're open for lunch or 4:45 if they're dinner-only. At least you'll get a hostess who can provide live information.)

Make sure they know what will happen to the information they give you. People freak out about getting mixed up in something that may cost them money or embarrass them.

Don't delay starting your calls. The sooner you get the initial call out, the sooner you may be able to cross them off your list. Procrastination can sneak up on you, and then the deadline looms ever larger.

Get your patter down. Don't fumble at the beginning. Figure out how you introduce yourself in a way that you're happy with and stick with it.

All this is based on the idea that you're calling strangers, though, so this part of your question confuses me: I'm in a relatively small place where who you know means a lot, and they don't know me. Though getting to know them is part of my job, and it would help them as well as me.

Maybe you need to do some outreach with the people from the local chamber of commerce or the mayor or city council or newspaper or something?
posted by purpleclover at 3:53 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Of all the feedback prompts I receive (biomedical products), I only reply to the ones that involve a reward (typically a $5 Starbucks gift card once a week or so), usually on the same day.

Are the people you contact within your organization, i.e. under what obligation are they to reply to your questions in the first place?
posted by halogen at 4:20 PM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

it would benefit them... it's a well-known way for them to have their voice heard

Whatever "it" is may not seem as obviously beneficial to them as it does to you. Especially compared with whatever else they've got in front of them that needs their attention.

But if you're sure they would see it as being worth their while, some things you could try...

- Avoid leaving messages, try to get them in person only. If you get an assistant, ask when is going to be a good time to call. When you get the person you want, open with something like "Hello... this is X from Y... have you got a couple of minutes?" i.e. Make sure they know you only want a few minutes, and then only take a few minutes.

- If you must leave messages, give them a clear deadline for responding. "If you'd like your views included in our study, please get back to me by Friday lunchtime." Vague actions with unspecified deadlines don't get done, even by people who think they would theoretically like to do them.
posted by philipy at 4:42 PM on November 19, 2010

It's not clear to me from your question whether you would be fine with a selection of the people you contact getting back to you, or if your job requires that most (if not everyone) you contact get back to you either way. The answer to that determines how forceful you should be with every individual you try to contact, I think.

My job depends on people getting back to me in a timely manner so that essentially, I can process their work. I need every single person I contact to get back to me, usually within the frame of less than a week. Keeping the necessity of every individual response in mind, my solution has always been to keep calling and calling, direct-to-desk lines, until I actually speak to the person I am trying to reach. I have followed up four or more times with certain people in one day. If I finally get ahold of the person and they're annoyed, it's then that I explain to them kindly why it was so important for me to get in touch with them and how I am trying to help them out.

If calling a person daily and consistently before a deadline still fails to get a response from them, then there's not much else you can do except accept that they won't get your services promptly or maybe at all, and it's of their own volition. If this matters to your supervisor, do you have a way of documenting your attempts to get in touch with people?

Like purpleclover, I find that perfecting a voicemail message or giving your argument as to why someone should call you back in voicemail is not effective in actually getting someone to call you back. Persistence in following up has been the only thing that's done it for me.
posted by houndsoflove at 5:17 PM on November 19, 2010

If you do manage to get a live human being on the phone, strangle the urge to ask "is this a good time/can you do this for me." I know it feels terribly rude, but speaking from experience as a fact-checker, I can more than triple my call success rate by removing that easy opt-out from the conversation. If you're calling the right person, they probably CAN answer your questions, whether they believe it beforehand or not, and there IS no better time for them to answer your questions than when you've actually got them on the phone.
posted by Ys at 6:00 PM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

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