Returning emails
July 22, 2014 5:13 AM   Subscribe

How do you email a follow-up to someone who hasn't answered an email?

My program director has several times now not sent any kind of reply to (different topics) emails I've sent. How can I follow-up without being overly pushy? I'm currently several hours away and it is a time-sensitive matter (though not super urgent). Sometimes I just re-send the exact email but I'm wondering if there's a better way.
posted by Aranquis to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Pick up the phone and call? Make an appointment for a short meeting to discuss the issue.

Sometimes you've got to be pushy. In your first email, put a line that says, "This is time-sensitive and I need to have an answer by X date." Then send a follow up email, "Per attached email of X date, I need to have an answer, I'll call tomorrow at 8 to discuss."

It's okay to be pushy, that's how things get done.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:17 AM on July 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

If there's a specific thing that you need them to do for you by X date, I would both send another email and, after waiting 24h, call. Perhaps you could say you were worried that you had the wrong email address or that your emails weren't getting through for some technical reason. If there isn't a particular thing you need them and only them to do for you, I would consider contacting someone else if at all possible.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:22 AM on July 22, 2014

Ruthless Bunny is right about sometimes having to be pushy. My usual script goes something like this:

1. Original, polite email, in which I make the time-sensitivity and my deadlines clear.

2. Follow-up email, usually 2-7 days later, depending on how urgent the request was. I usually say, "Hi [name], just checking in on the below. As I mentioned this is time-sensitive and I really need your input by [time/day]."

3. Follow-up call, for urgent, down-to-the-wire requests, or another follow-up email, for less urgent requests. (I hate the phone so use it as a last resort.)

You definitely want to make it clear that each follow up is just that - a follow-up/reminder - so don't just re-send the same email again. That's not helping you.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:24 AM on July 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't just resend the same email! That's not really okay. You can reply to your previous email with "Hi Jamie, wanted to check on the status of this. I need a response by X time so that I can Y. Let me know if that will be a problem."

And then, yeah, call if there's no response in a reasonable time frame.
posted by brainmouse at 5:25 AM on July 22, 2014 [11 favorites]

My usual tactic is to forward my original email (which establishes when I first asked the question) and add something like "Hey! Just wanted to follow up on the below. BTW, we do need an answer by $date. Thanks!"

My level of formality (which includes potential emoticon usage; some people in my company really like emoticons and I think find emails without them to be abrupt) is adjusted based on the person I'm writing to.
posted by pie ninja at 5:25 AM on July 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

If you're asking the program director to *do* something, put that in the subject line or, if there's not enough room in the subject line, in the very first sentence of the email.

DO NOT send the exact same email over and over again. That's the kind of thing only passive-aggressive office managers with 30 years experience can get away with. If it didn't get results the first time, you need to do something different (and that might be picking up the phone, or emailing someone else).

There are a lot of reasons why you might not be getting a response - the thing you're asking the program director to do might be a totally automatic part of her job that she knows is going to get done, and she doesn't see a need to reassure you that it will get done. Or she might not know what action you want her to take. Or she might have forwarded your email to an assistant. Or she might have completely dropped the ball.

Are you looking for confirmation/reassurance that she's taking this action or do you need some physical thing from her? If it's mainly reassurance probably it's best to just call.

And don't expect *any* response to emails that don't ask for a *specific* response in the first sentence.
posted by mskyle at 5:40 AM on July 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Reply to the email or forward it; don't send the same email again as if you didn't already send it.

Just say that you're following up and need a response by Deadline.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:42 AM on July 22, 2014

Echoing what mskyle said, do NOT send the same email over again. If you did that, I'd ignore it at best. I generally reply to the last email on the thread in my sent folder, so those who use threaded mail readers can follow along.

Be clear, short, straightforward, and explicitly explicit with your expectations from the recipient, and give your reasons why. "Hi, I need you to ack/nak this travel request by August 1, the registration fee goes up after that date." This seems to me to be a classic communications breakdown, and it's on you to build the dialogue to get your requirements met, not the recipient.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 5:48 AM on July 22, 2014

"Gentle reminder" and "gentle nudge" are useful phrases that are conventional and popular in my field.
posted by painquale at 5:48 AM on July 22, 2014

Agreed about not forwarding the same email - the only time I would do that is if I were trying to be aggressive in pointing out that someone had dropped the ball (so basically: I'd never do that).

In addition to the excellent advice above, depending on the matter and what, specifically, you need from the person you're emailing, another thing that people in my company do is tag on a line at the end of their email indicating what action they'll take if they don't hear from the you by XX date - i.e., "If we don't hear from you by XX, we'll assume you're comfortable with the timelines we're proposing here and move forward accordingly." Obviously you need to be careful here since there is a risk of rework or aggrieved feelings if you don't keep on waiting (or pushing) for a response, but in many situations where all you're really waiting for is an okay/not okay, this can work well.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:59 AM on July 22, 2014

I sometimes cc someone else in the organization, like another advisor or someone else involved with the project. It helps Person 2 know that you're not just slacking off, but it adds some urgency for Person 1 to not look like a jerk in front of the other colleague.
posted by Madamina at 6:38 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd be careful about adding in cc's to your follow up, it can come across as passive aggressive and/or irritating. First try some of the language above (just checking in, etc).
posted by JenMarie at 7:22 AM on July 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Generally people who don't answer are not reading the messages but are just scanning subject lines to see if anything looks urgent. So in addition to the above re-request suggestions, be sure to change the subject line to make it sound more urgent. Some tricks to make the subject line jump out from the clutter are to use a few leading caps or uppercase symbols, thusly:

URGENT: [Your original subject line]

TIME SENSITIVE: [Your original subject line]

NEED ANSWER BY 5 PM: [Your original subject line]

>>>>>> Resending: [Your original subject line]

**** PLEASE respond by tonight ***** [Your original subject line]

>> Second Request >> [Your original subject line]

>> THIRD REQUEST >> [Your original subject line]

Also be sure the [Your original subject line] puts the question into a nutshell and is not something generic like "Quick question" or "[general topic]". Make it something like "Could you authorize me to do [XYZ]" or whatever it is you're asking.
posted by beagle at 7:32 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

In addition to beagle's excellent advice, I recommend the use of highlighting and/or bolding text to draw attention to what is critical. Also, use a lot of white space. If the subject is "NEED ANSWER BY 5PM", then the body should look something like this:

One sentence description of the issue.

Short (3-5 sentence max) paragraph or bullet list of key points.

Anything else you have to say below which a busy person won't read :).

Many people I work with (director, vice president and above) do not read or respond quickly to email. If your program manager is getting 500+ messages a day, that may be the issue.

Oh, and don't put your message in an attachment. Ever. Unless you don't want it read :).
posted by elmay at 8:17 AM on July 22, 2014

Jumping back in to add that you really need to know your workplace and your industry. For example:

URGENT: [Your original subject line]
TIME SENSITIVE: [Your original subject line]

These would be fine, if a little unusual, in my workplace (a think tank).

>>>>>> Resending: [Your original subject line]
**** PLEASE respond by tonight ***** [Your original subject line]
>> Second Request >> [Your original subject line]
>> THIRD REQUEST >> [Your original subject line]

These would be utterly unacceptable and would ensure that others saw you as difficult and hard to work with, even if you had 100% of the high ground and were technically justified in sending these emails.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:05 AM on July 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some people are not "good" at email because they don't like to write or they can't type fast or whatever, so I always include in a follow-up email phrasing something like "If you would prefer to discuss this on the phone, feel free to call me at (such and such date and time range) or let me know what would be a good day and time for me to call you."
posted by Dansaman at 10:13 AM on July 22, 2014

Thanks. I have found calling to be really ineffective because it's the summer semester, and it's hard to reach anybody. I'll try being more specific in the subject line, I hadn't thought about that.
posted by Aranquis at 11:34 AM on July 22, 2014

If this person has an admin, you should cc: them this time around. Also, depending on the thing in question, just decide an option and send an FYI email (now, so if it's a huge problem, they'll get back to you to change it).

I think ACTION NEEDED: is a better subject line starter because what is urgent to you may not seem so to the recipient.
posted by momus_window at 1:20 PM on July 22, 2014

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