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I've been an outside consultant for many years. There have been many times when particular people did not reply to emails. Over time, I've learned to keep my emails short and on topic, and I know I will have to follow up sometimes with some correspondents.

However, now I am dealing with a particular organization where the culture seems to be that you don't need to reply to emails. For example, someone will ask me to do something, I will do it and send them an email telling them the work is done and, and let me know if there are any issues. In response, I get nothing. It makes it very difficult to advance any projects I'm working on because there's no continuity of conversation.

I have also tried making more use of the phone and discovered that they often will not return my calls. I suspect that the area I'm working in is peripheral and that I am relatively unimportant in the larger scheme of things. Still, there are projects to be completed.

In general, how should one deal with situations where people don't communicate?

(Incidentally, none of these people are "down the hall" or even in the same state, so I can't just go talk to them in person.)

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is this about software projects? if yes, consider tagging the question software-industry to help answerers keep specific –  gnat Jul 17 '12 at 17:03
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I often don't respond to emails that provide information ("the work is done") but do not request/require a response. Depending on my mood, how busy I am, and how good what I was presented with was, I might take "let me know if there are any issues" to not require a response unless the item provided failed somehow to meet expectations. –  Matt Jul 17 '12 at 21:30
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What are you expecting in responses? Especially if the email doesn't require any further information to flow back to you. Are just looking for a thanks. I don't want every email I send out to be responded to with "+1 add me" and 400 other emails below it reverse chronological order. –  Jarrod Roberson Jul 18 '12 at 4:51
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I can see my question needs some more work as everyone assumes that this can only be a software development related issue. Also, I need to provide more examples of the types of communications that are going unanswered. I'm not sure that "Don't use email" is a very practical solution, any more than "don't use the phone" also, not all end users are going to want to use an issue tracker and I don't have the authority to mandate that they do so. –  Joe Programmer Jul 18 '12 at 16:44
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If you are looking for "acknowledgement and confirmation" as in your comment above, dont (just) ask for "let me know if any issues". they are 2 separate things. Ask for "Please let me know if this work is now complete at this point so I can close it out on the books." –  Michael Durrant Aug 12 '12 at 19:13

10 Answers 10

I've been in a similar position. I work for a multi-national company and there have been a few responsibilities that I've had to complete for a company that was located in UK. (I work in the Eastern, US.) The team in the UK would often send me emails requesting that I URGENTLY start and complete some project for them. I'd quickly respond with an email, requesting necessary follow-up information. After a couple of days with no response, I'd send another email. Yet again, no response. Below is the strategies that I've had to employ while working with this company. You may not complete your projects, but following these guidelines will help you both keep your sanity, while track your efforts to complete your work.

As you've stated, try to keep your initial email brief. We are all busy, so writing a thesis of any trouble or issue could cause avoidance of the problem. If something needs to be thoroughly discussed, it might be worth sending an initial email, requesting a phone call to discuss the issue(s) further. Then you can discuss at length the specific concerns that you may have or get the finer details that you need to advance your project.

Wait a couple days, to a week, depending on the level of urgency. Remember, you are working for them. If they don't respond, it might not be as urgent as they might have initially stated. When you respond, open your original email and respond to it. Do not write a second email from a blank, new email. Of course, you need to change the recipient from yourself to the project manager. (I've forgotten this on a few occassions and I've sent myself emails intended for others. o_O)

The reason you respond to your own email is because this creates an e-paper trail that you are trying to further the discussion to the best of your ability. This is important, as you will see soon.

After sending the second email, wait again for another few days to a week.

After not receiving a response, try to contact the primary contact over the phone. If they are unavailable and you get a voice mail, hang up. Yes, that's correct. Voice mails are easily lost and are untracable. I, therefore, avoid leaving messages over the phone unless I am absolutely positive that I will get a response from this specific person.

Instead, start calling other individuals who are next in line of responsibility for this project. If you can't get ahold of them, think of anyone who might be loosely related to the project. See if you can speak with them directly and have a casual discussion of the situation.

They may not be able to help you finish your work but they might be aware of any circumstances that have changed. They may be able to tell you your manager is away on a vacation, or if other circumstances have kept them away from everything associated with your project. The bottom line, try to find some one who can make any kind of statement about the status of this project, even if it's not their responsibility.

Once again, respond as a reply via email to the project manager and state any information relayed to you from the person you managed to speak with over the phone. Tell them that you are tabling the project until he or she directly contacts you. If the individual that tried to update you on the status of your project was incorrect, the manager should be frustrated enough to contact you and clear up any confusion. This is a bit of social engineering, but this technique has actually opened up channels of communication for me in the past. It's at least worth a shot.

If you can't manage to get anyone on the phone who is useful and the company has a receptionist, speak with them and see if the project manager is on vacation or away on business. It's been my experience that compared to us Americans, the Britains take quite a few "Holidays" and are some times gone for 2-3 weeks. This could be true in your circumstances as well and during this time period, you shouldn't expect any form of response.

If this is the case, just defer any further attempts at communication until the time in which your PM is suppose to return. Give yourself one more shot at communicating with them. Keep in mind, if they've been gone for a few weeks, they will probably have a ton of emails to sort through when they get back in the office, including your original attempts.

You may want to wait yet an additional few days after their return before trying to contact them. You don't want your final attempt of communication to be lost in a sea of emails that have piled on during their absence and, furthermore, it's generally polite to give them time to respond to your initial attempts at communicating with them.

Regardless, if so far they have not returned your requests, respond with one final email back to the responsible party. If that individual has a manager, be sure to CC them to the email. Once again, send this message as a response to the second email that you've sent. The CCed manager should see that you have attempted multiple times, over multiple weeks to further a discussion so that you can finish your work.

The ball is in the associated companies court. If they refuse to communicate, you can't make them do it. It is at this poin that I, personally, file away any associated documentation with the project and consider it "finished". You may be in the middle of "important" work but if those individuals who need your services refuse to communicate, you can't force them to talk. Instead, you can do your best to facilitate the needed conversations, document your work and, finally, forget about it if they refuse to cooperate.

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Good answer - pretty reasonable approach, along with nice detailed description. I practice about the same way, only augment it by copying communication details, dates and efforts spent in our internal issue tracker - this helps keeping information for further aggregation/reuse and allows to present a convenient overview of my activities when needed –  gnat Jul 17 '12 at 16:58
    
+1: The only thing i'd add would be to be very clear regarding what actions/answers are needed and be clear that you expect them to provide them. –  Fredrik Aug 11 '12 at 22:09

There are usually very strong reasons why people aren't communicating. The root cause might not be their fault or anyone's fault but some common reasons why would include:

  • They're crushed with responsibilities and answering an email/phone-call commits them to more responsibilities or to responsibilities which are beyond their control.
  • They get so MUCH email it is literally impossible to keep up with it.
  • They don't feel the communication contains any clearly actionable requests. Conversely, the communication might not contain enough formalities and niceties to encourage a response (there are people who roll this way).
  • There are too many people on the "To:" field or "CC:" field. Too many people in a memo dilutes accountability, and/or encourages deference to the "the boss" for an answer.
  • The particular mode of communication you chose doesn't fit with the recipients workflow-- amazingly there are still people who work primarily by phone or in-person, others can't stand voice-mail, other require it. Some people have such tight metrics associated with their work they simply can't do anything except what they've been assigned.

I agree with the other answer that going through side-channels might shed some light on why communication is not occurring. Once you know "why", you might be able to accommodate for that in future communication.

The actual solution to get around this might vary a lot, and I don't think involving management is necessarily the best answer. If it at all possible, try establishing rapport with the recipient and craft your communication mode to adapt to their situation.

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You said

For example, someone will ask me to do something, I will do it and send them an email telling them the work is done and, and let me know if there are any issues. In response, I get nothing.

This case can be handled differently than those where you cannot move forward at all until an answer is given. In the email where you state the work is complete add a sentence to the effect of:

If I do not hear from you by , I will assume that there are no issues and proceed with the next step.

If you are proposing an action and awaiting an approval the sentence would be:

If I do not hear from you by , I will assume that you approve of this approach and I will begin work.

Now you have a paper trail that says they were informed and they agreed with you or they would have responded back. This has worked well for me in a few cases where I had people ignore my emails. And after one or two times when we did something that wasn't what they wanted, they stopped ignoring the emails too!

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With respect to maximizing the probability for successful communications, I try to:

  1. Simplify wherever possible.
  2. Address emails to specific people or peoples.
  3. Frame the questions as choices.
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If they don't get back to you in a reasonable time-frame (say end of next business day), then this is what you do:

On the 2nd request, you put a nice "2nd Request" in the subject line, with the original subject. Don't add any extra people to the email.

If they haven't gotten back to you by the next-next business day, you put "THIRD REQUEST" in the subject, and cc their boss. You might wanna check that they are not on leave before you do this :)

If that doesn't work, then you should probably stop working with that company.

This is what we did at my old company, and it worked well.

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This might have the opposite effect of pissing people off. If a external consultant did this to me, and his work was peripheral to mine, I might decide to ditch his emails after this kind of treatment. –  Olin Lathrop May 25 at 14:22

Certainly someone above you would like to see these projects finished, but they have not felt the need to make sure people do their jobs.

You need to let those in charge know what the status is on all projects. If they are aware that the people who haven't responded are too busy, there's nothing you can do about it. They'll get back with you when they can.

After multiple prompts, I would like to think I would reply with some sort of short message explaining that I cannot address the issue at the moment. Hopefully, I would have an idea when I could, but that is not always possible.

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At the end of the day, the lack of communication isn't the problem, it's that you don't have the information you need. If your requests for information are being ignored, I would venture that this sort of issue almost certainly has to be addressed in a top-down manner. Almost all projects have timelines of some sort. You should have those in management positions, including your own manager, help enforce the deadlines. If this requires the managers talking to their staff to ensure you get your data/whatever, so be it; that's what managers do.

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-1 "At the end of the day, the lack of communication isn't the problem, it's that you don't have the information you need." Communication is the process of transferring information. –  Mark Bannister Aug 11 '12 at 13:17

You're using email for your project tracking, right? The problem here is a lack of visibility that you are blocked waiting for response or that you have completed a work item.

I recommend setting up a project tracking tool (if the org. already has one, that's great) and keeping your state of play up to date on that.

Then if someone wants to know the score they just need to check your board and here's the easter egg, your board has history so you can quite clearly (and embarrassingly) refer people back to a query you sent 2 weeks ago for a task that they have suddenly marked as urgent.

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In general, how should one deal with situations where people don't communicate?

It depends on the culture. And honestly it might not be a solvable issue. In some cases, face-to-face meetings solve the issue. Perhaps face-to-face meetings with e-mail followup. But perhaps also 100% nothing can help.

I have consulted at gigs where the scenario is a week-to-week overlapped with a month-to-month version of the film Groundhog’s Day. Just an endless cycle of the same issues, same crisis, same solutions, same agreements… That then get lost in some time-warp I was not made aware of and then guess what? Same issues, same crisis, same solutions, same agreements…

The reality is in work situations like this—and heck even life situations like this—you need to step back rationally & see following:

  • What is really needed?
  • What falls on you?
  • What falls on others?
  • How will the task or project be affected?

And then play it by ear from there. I work in I.T. and there have been cases where I have clearly stated that a physical device will actually just die if actions are not taken. And guess what? Since I am a consultant & it’s someone else’s job to deal with the physical aspect of the device, days, weeks, months pass… Then it literally dies. I get called to explain what could be done. The discussion is basically, “Ounce of prevention better than a pound of cure…” which often falls on dead ears.

It comes down to the reality that many work environments, clients & organizational structures are just barely functional. And you just need to figure out how to best work in such an environment.

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I am making an answer that avoid the communication problem, but that doesn't solve it.

In many software projects, there is so much emails that circulate for tasks completion that we don't use email anymore for reporting. Do you have a dashboard mechanism that you share with the organizations you are working with? If you start working using these dashboards, you can have a best practice that consists in updating the dashboard, and using email only for questions that needs an answer. This is the responsibility of the project manager to check the dashboard to make sure that the work has been done.

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No problem with the downvote, but why? This is an answer based on what is used in many big companies where I was a project management consultant, so at least give an explanation, this could be useful. –  Sylvain Peyronnet Aug 11 '12 at 11:22
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Reading one of the comment I now understand that the OP mentioned that "don't use email" is not a solution to him. My bad. –  Sylvain Peyronnet Aug 11 '12 at 12:59

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