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Sometimes I send emails and need a response. While not quite as bad as not being able to find denvercoder9, it sometimes happens I get no response.

This presents a problem if the request is something relatively important to my work or my manager requested the contact in the first place.

My question is:

  • How should I follow-up on sent email when I receive no response?
  • 1
    I asked a similar question, but if you haven't established a deadline, I'm not sure how helpful those answers will be for you. – yoozer8 Mar 11 '13 at 19:14
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    Where I work, important messages must be delivered with a phone call instead of just email. And in fact, email is not even a guaranteed delivery system - messages can get lost for a myriad of reasons during transfers. networkworld.com/details/636.html – Juha Untinen Mar 13 '13 at 11:51
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+50

From my perspective, there's two things to do here...

  • Optimize for a response
  • Develop a response escalation cycle

The main idea being that there are good ways of organizing an email to increase the chance that you'll get a positive and useful response, but there's no guarantee, so it's good to have a backup plan that cycles through various ways of getting a response.

Optimize for a Response

The absolute best way to get a response is to have your first email be so clear and so easy to respond to that giving a response is easy, and the reader sees a driving reason to give you a response. A key element here is that it's quite likely that the reasons you want a response are remarkably different from the reasons the responder should give you a response.

Here's some tricks:

  • First and last in the email are what you need and when you need it. If you don't have "I need X by Y date" as both your first sentence and your last, you are likely to get missed by a harried responder. Bold, red text and other formatting are also helpful. This needs to stand out ... LOUDLY.

  • Make the response easy - yes/no is easy, giving a point of contact can be harder, approving something with budget or other big impact harder still. But one of the hardest is to write a reply that takes a lot of thought and effort. "Please describe", "please tell me why...", "please fill out this questionaire" are often likely to cause delays. If what you need is detailed conversation, offer to book a meeting, or tell them you'll be calling to follow up.

  • Know when you can create time bombs - The "unless I hear otherwise, I will assume" is GREAT when you know that this is a friendly contact and really it's just an FYI. When you know you are proposing a big change, that is likely to cause grief, don't set yourself up for flak this way. Realize that when you say "unless I hear by.... I will do..." that you have committed to two things - (1) that you will hold off doing whatever it is until the time specified, (2) that reasonably quickly after the time specified you WILL do what you said. It's a promise. That's not a bad thing.

  • Give a succinct priority in the reader's terms. They don't really care if you meet their deadlines, but presumably the need for a response is because you are causing something to impact the reader's world. State what you know and why the response should matter to them - as succinctly as possible.

Different readers may well need different terms. This is where knowing your audience is a major boon and if you need to repeat the effort, invest time in getting to know you responders and what they need.

Response Escalation Cycle

I think of this as gently shaking the tree until I get some fruit out of it. I don't advice pulling out an axe and chopping it down, but more poking, prodding, nudging, and occassionally even climbing around until you get what you need.

Here's some vectors for escalation:

  • Try a new medium - did you try email? Try phone. Try IM. And the really powerful one - if you are local or have a local confederate - try in person.

  • Show the repeat - don't obfuscate that you are repeating - if you mailed a request a week ago, attach your reminder to the original. Summarize and try different words, but attach the original. Some people need a guilt trip, and if you DON'T attack the original question, they may get confused on whether you are asking something new.

  • Escalate above and/or below - a real secret in any organization is that if you are mailing a manager, they may very well have a smart-and-gets-things-done person working for them. If you know this person, try nudging them. They may be in the position to get a low-flak solution. If that fails, escalate through your management or the responder's management. There are political ramifications here, so be aware, and it's worth a check in on where to escalate first.

  • Try a joint status meeting - be aware there are two ways to slice it. The polite way is "I'm trying to get an answer to X problem, I'm stalled until I can proceed - who should I ask." That leaves the option open for you to be completely wrong, and you may find the right person... it also obfuscates the fact that someone didn't respond. If, however, you know this person is the problem there's also the public shame route - "I'm trying to get an answer to Y, X person hasn't written me back... I'm stalled... need help!"

These are Power Tools

Like a power tool from the hardware store - they are great for getting a job done, but they can also cut off a finger.

Know your politics on some of these. What works well on a robust, chaotic, vibrant team may be a political taboo in a more formal setting. Here's some things to ask yourself before you try some of these:

  • Do I really need the response? Was this really an FYI disguised as a response. What is at risk from you making an assumption and moving forward?

  • Am I sure I have the right person? More stuff goes astray just from going to someone who can't really answer the question.

  • What will be the ramification for the other guy? - Both to not responding, and to being raised into a public light as someone who doesn't respond to emails.

  • Is there a reason why my question is loaded? - what could be the reason for a delay if you request is already clear and easy to understand?

Some of this involves being psychic, and these are really only the big gotchas. Alot of this comes down (over time) to working relationships and knowing how to get what you need from each person.

  • 2
    This is a great answer. Thanks for including advice on how to do avoid this problem (as well as setup a future followup)! – enderland Mar 12 '13 at 18:02
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    I strongly recommend using restraint on the bold red text and whatnot. Some people will think you are being pushy (yelling of sorts), and others will think you are assuming they don't read e-mail. It helps it stand out, and if the person in question is a serial offender it's a good suggestion, but especially for first-time requests (that aren't mission-critical) you may want to assume they can read e-mail and will respond in good faith. – jmac Mar 13 '13 at 0:48
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There are many different options, and which one(s) might work is highly dependent on the situation, the information needed, and the people involved. For the purposes of this answer, I'm going to refer to your colleague who hasn't responded yet as Jamie.

If you're located in the same place as Jamie, a quick hallway conversation is a potential method to address this. When you run into Jamie in the hallway (and this can include manufacturing a way to run into Jamie in the hallway; I've found inobtrusive ways to hang around somewhere where I knew I would eventually find Jamie), you can just ask your question again. When I do this, I generally don't reference the prior email at all (although I will acknowledge that I sent them an email if they mention it), I just ask my question. The less-casual version of this is stopping by Jamie's office/cube/desk/whatever.

If you're not located in the same place as Jamie, then try other non-email contacts to see if they work: phone, instant message, etc. I'll admit that I dislike the phone and so very very rarely call someone if I need information from them.

If you don't know Jamie very well, you could ask trusted colleagues if they know of a good way to get a response from Jamie. You might learn that Jamie just is not very good at responding to email but is highly responsive if you send an instant message. Or you might learn that Jamie is usually awesome about responding to mail, but tends to go silent on email when they're in the middle of a big thorny problem, so you'll need to resend your mail when that big thorny problem has resolved itself. You might also learn that someone else can answer your question, which resolves the actual issue (that is, getting the information you need).

If you're stuck with email for one reason or another, then you could respond to your original email to Jamie. When I do this, I tend to say, "Jamie, have you had a chance to answer this yet?" If it's blocking me on completing another task, or if I've asked because my manager has asked me this question, I'll add something to that effect: "I need this so that I can be prepared for the meeting on Tuesday." You can also ask Jamie if there is someone else who might be able to answer your question instead.

If you just need the information, and if your company is one where meetings are part of the corporate culture, you could schedule a quick 30m meeting with Jamie to get the information that you need. This is especially useful if the information that you need is detailed or nuanced. If I do this, I take notes during the meeting, and I send them to Jamie afterwards to ensure that I've captured everything that we needed. Also, if appropriate, I post my notes somewhere internal, so that anyone else who needs this information can find it without having to resort to scheduling a meeting with the one person who knows.

If you've tried to get this information from Jamie multiple times, and if Jamie really is the only person who knows this information, then I'd respond to my email chain again, this time CCing my manager. Depending on the organization, CCing a manager is an excellent way to get a response. If your organization is one where doing this will get a response, use this carefully and sparingly -- Jamie could perceive that you're trying to get them in trouble, and that's never good for building relationships and getting information in the future.

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I used the following pattern and almost got a response: 'Dear X,

Since I have not heard back from you, I have to assume your priorities have changed. Let me know if I can be of any help in the future.

[YOUR NAME]

If you don't get a response he is not interested at all. Usually in 80% of cases I got a response with different excuses. But at least I was able to close the case and knew the reason why the deal cancelled.

see step 5 here: http://millo.co/5-email-scripts-following-client-unresponsive-plus-examples

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I find it fairly simple:

1) Make the initial email polite but clear that a response is needed and the timeframe involved.

2) One follow-up email if the deadline is missed

3) After that I let my manager know and let them advise on the most appropriate action to take given the individual circumstances. Further contact might be additional emails or phone calls.

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bethlakshmi touched on this as well but. Having an intended path of escalation is important. If they won't respond, get their supervisor involved. If necessary, talk to your supervisor about not getting any traction and see if they can work through higher channels. Depending on your team's relation to the non-respondent, they may have other in-roads or familiarity with someone who does.

Some teams also simply don't work off emails so you may need to kick some tires with a call or a ticket to their group if necessary

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You could circumvent such situations if the deadline is approaching send a reminder. For example a day before the deadline you send another e-mail with the contents of the original and say something like "reminder of the following correspondence". Everyone I've dealt with enjoys getting reminders and I've yet to see anyone get offended by this.

  • 2
    I would get offended in a number of cases: - if I get a constant stream of "reminders" for different tasks when I am trying to actually get the work done, if I get a reminder for something you only asked me within a day or two (or I only received within a day or two because I was away, it was transferred from someone else etc) or if I always get a reminder from you when I have proven I am good at getting these things done on time anyway. I have even in the past had a "reminder" from someone when I have already emailed them the answer. – Dragonel Oct 12 '15 at 18:52

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