I asked the customer three questions, and they only answered one, as if the others didn't exist. I need answers to all those questions. Frankly, I find it a little rude that they didn't read my email and give me a thorough answer, so I don't trust myself to not come across as rude in response. Is there a "correct" way to point this out and re-ask my questions?

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    I'd say to write out what you want to say, then practice saying it, out loud, until you can say it with no ill intent. Then call them. – Brian Apr 21 '15 at 21:16
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    You can also take a look at the 5-sentence email: entrepreneur.com/article/226581 – Mallow Apr 22 '15 at 11:25
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    +1 for calling them. In my experience there are "phone people", "Email people" and "Instant Messaging people". I'm an email person by nature, but if my client or colleague is not, I'll try the email route first, but if unsuccessful just ask "Hi, I have a few issues we need to discuss that should only take 15 mins on the phone. Can we set up a quick call?" – Laconic Droid Apr 22 '15 at 13:49
  • +1 for calling as well. In my experience when someone is unresponsive to emails (in general or in relation to questions) it's because they prefer direct communication. – thanby Apr 22 '15 at 16:04
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    Stop suggesting that he calls. In corporate environment having a paper trail is almost always mandatory, and just having the customer answer by phone is most probably not viable strategy. – Davor Apr 23 '15 at 11:09

11 Answers 11

I had a customer once that was like this, no matter how many questions you asked they would only respond to the first question.

You have 2 options send the email back asking for answers to all the questions or, knowing this is an issue, send 5 different emails if you need answers to 5 different questions. The response really depends on how important to the company this client is.

The route we went was 5 different emails because it was simpler for us to adjust than trying to change some one else. We decided that client was big enough to be a special snowflake that must be handled with a little additional care. Once we started this, we had to let new team members know the policy. At times it actually saved us time because a question we might have asked in a follow up was answered in the individual replies.

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    I'm a big fan of the 1 question per email method, as a means of avoiding this confusion – amphibient Apr 21 '15 at 21:21
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    I have a tendancy (and its a bad tendancy) of doing the exact opposite of what the OP describes. If I can answer 4 out of 5 question now but I'm not sure of the 5th I will delay the whole email. 5 individual emails might get 4 responses immediately (and a 5th in a few days) so it's probably a good idea for everyone – Richard Tingle Apr 21 '15 at 21:39
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    This is a good way to ask questions (and is one I use frequently), but you still do need to politely remind them to respond to the ones they did not :) The question is more about how to get the ones they didn't answer, not how to ask multiple questions :) Having said that I completely agree with you! – Jane S Apr 21 '15 at 23:43
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    I'm a big fan of one question per e-mail because modern clients thread messages. This keeps the discussion pertaining to any given issue in one thread and easier to find in the future. – Loren Pechtel Apr 22 '15 at 1:03
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    5 different e-mails results in 5 different "threads" which causes problems and/or confusion on it's own. What I usually do is ask my questions in a numbered list (Example). This conveys clearly that there is more than one question and invites a response in the same numbering (or, at least, a response referring to each question number). See also this answer. In my experience this works best of all given options so far. – RobIII Apr 22 '15 at 10:06

I would respond with a "Thank you for answering question x. Before I can commence work, can you please clarify y and z?"

That way you are acknowledging his response, but that you really need the other information without being contrite.

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    Then when (with tiresome predictability) they respond with an answer only to y, repeat for z :-) – Steve Jessop Apr 22 '15 at 8:39
  • @SteveJessop LOL, yes they do! :) – Jane S Apr 22 '15 at 11:31
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    I think "contrite" is not what you mean. I would have just edited, but I wasn't sure what nuance you wanted. Maybe 'contrarian' ? Confrontational? google.com/… – msouth Apr 23 '15 at 14:38
  • @msouth I'm a girl, and on occasion I have been known to respond contritely :) – Jane S Apr 23 '15 at 20:59
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    @JaneS I believe that you have done so, but the OP was asking about how to avoid coming across rude, which is more or less the opposite of contrite ("feeling or expressing remorse or penitence; affected by guilt."). That's why I thought you might have meant something else. If not, sorry for intruding on your answer! (I say contritely :) ). – msouth Apr 24 '15 at 21:13

This might help:

My friend had a boss who was like this and the solution they found was to enumerate each question. If all the questions are in a paragraph form, people who like to just skim won't really read the content. However if you format something like the way I'm formatting this answer.

  1. The person on the other end probably didn't read the question above.
  2. What did you do on proposition x
  3. What are your plans on this and this issue?
  4. How many hello kitty dolls are we buying this season.

My friend's boss would then reply something like

  1. Yes
  2. Nothing
  3. All in
  4. 50,000

So if your questions are buried in a paragraph it might not be semantically clear that you need a reply to this question. However it's kind of harder to ignore enumerated lists.

Granted be careful with this technique, I tried this with a provider and they got offended by my email. They interpreted the enumerations as "pointing out every little detail they were getting wrong" when in reality I just wanted clarifications on some issues we were having. So some people might see it as a form of judgement if you need to clarify problems in an operation. Keep that in mind.

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    I've had a lot of success with numbered lists and use them quite frequently; once customers get used to this 'style', they become comfortable with the pattern of addressing each individually. It's important to keep each number concise when you do this. The challenge is that many project managers get hundreds of emails a day, so they're constantly filtering and prioritizing what needs to be answered vs. what is a status update vs. what is random general company email vs. what you're just being copied on to 'keep you in the loop' even if it's only tangentially related to your job. – Dan Bryant Apr 22 '15 at 13:44
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    I agree with enumeration. Furthermore, if they only answer one or two of the question, you can simply reply back with, "Thank you for your response, could you also let me know your thoughts on questions #2, 3 and 4 please?" – n00b Apr 22 '15 at 15:50
  • It also helps if you start your email with "I need your input for those N questions:" – limdaepl Apr 23 '15 at 5:22
  • Dan's remark about keeping the number concise is very relevant. I would phrase it a bit differently: Make sure they can answer your numbered items in one go (in manageable time). If they can answer 2 items quickly but have to spend 30 minutes to answer number 3, chances are they will not answer all three or (more likely) postpone answering at all. In that case, put 3 in a separate email. You could mention in your 1st email that item 3 comes separately because it will take them more time. – Jan Doggen Apr 24 '15 at 14:50
  • Note that with the things mentioned in my previous comment you are thinking with the person you are addressing: if you make it easy for them to answer, they will. – Jan Doggen Apr 24 '15 at 14:50

I have found this behavior to be common. Both professionally and privately, people often only respond to the first question in an email. I try not to do it myself, but have accidentally committed the offense as well.

I think it stems from people focusing on the first question, and then forgetting to go back to read and address the rest. Or perhaps some people don't scroll down in their email readers.

When it happens, the easiest way to address it is not to be aggressive or even point out that the recipient made this mistake.

In your reply, first you should acknowledge the info they did provide. Thank them for it and possibly even recap it briefly. Next, ask the next most important question you need; the one that is most time-sensitive.

Repeat until you have the answers you need. But don't take offense; it is unlikely that they are intentionally not answering you.

The easiest way to not come across rude is to behave as if you think they are doing all they can to help,

So something as simple as

Thanks for your response to x

Please let me know when you have the answers to my other two questions
(i.e. very brief summary of y & z) and I can keep moving on the project.

As a side note, I wouldn't take offense from it if it doesn't happen repeatedly... You don't know what they were distracted by.

Ask again, with no acknowledgement that you already asked.

This is what I used to do when I had to deal with people that didn't answer all the questions.

So, the exchange would go something like this (email greetings and signatures omitted for brevity):

Me: Can you please provide a screenshot and let me know what browser you are using?

Them: Here is a screenshot. [attached screenshot]

Me: Thanks for the screenshot. What browser are you using?

If they notice that you already asked, they may say "Whoops" or "Sorry"; if they don't notice, they won't. Either way, you get the answer to your question and can move on.

You don't gain anything by telling the customer they aren't reading your emails. Yes, they are being irritating, but passing that irritation on to the customer is not the route to good customer service. The fastest and least offensive way to get what you want (an answer) is simply to ask again as if it's the first time.

Prevention

If you find you repeatedly have the same problem with the same customer, you can start to take pre-emptive countermeasures. For example:

  • Ask only the most important questions first, and no more than 3 questions. Extra information can be obtained in follow-up emails, and in the meantime you can progress with the info you have.
  • If you have numerous points/questions, bullet point or number them. Busy people find it easier to go through a list and answer point-by-point than to read a paragraph and suck the questions out of it. Plus, they're much less likely to skip Q2 if they've numbered their answers to 1 and 3.
  • If you have a service department who actually speaks to the customers, and you only deal with the information after that, brief the service department on the minimum you need from every customer report/request/whatever. For example, if you're a software developer, perhaps you need browser, version and a screenshot of the problem. Perhaps you want them to try clearing the browser cache before passing the report on. Getting the service guys to do the back and forth before it gets passed on to the people who have to investigate the bug saves everyone time.

My suggestion is that in addition to thanking them for their response to x, and asking them to follow up on y & z, that you also add in the reason that you need an answer to y & z. If you provide people the justification of the work you're asking them to do, they'll be much likelier to respond and ultimately they'll trust that you're not asking them questions that you already should know.

If it's true that they think you should know the answer to y & z, then you could easily add, "Can you please confirm, based on your previous guidance, y=a and z=b is correct?" They may want you to always answer 'a' for question 'y' and 'b' for question 'z' and you just need to get confirmation of this intention.

  • +1 for the "make it a yes/no response rather than a wall of text" :) – Jane S Apr 22 '15 at 5:28

@WindRaven's answer is great and I agree with that. However there's another approach if you like, but it can only be applied to some contracts.

You asked. He didn't answer. You point it out once that didn't answer all the questions. If he does it again, don't bother: you get to pick the answer you prefer, and go on.

If he changes idea later, no problem: you'll just bill him the extra hours.

This of course only works if you bill him per-hour, rather than per-project, and if you are not bound to a strict time limit (doesn't matter if he is bound to a time limit).

Needless to say, billing someone per-project without having an crystal-clear specification (or carte-blanche) beforehand is a terrible idea anyway and you should never do that for any reason.

I know this may sound a bit passive-aggressive, but you have to educate your clients, otherwise they'll keep treating you as their personal servant, and you shouldn't be.


If the client is actually interested in having you do X instead of Y, the very least you can expect is for him to tell you when you ask for it, instead of not answering and complaining later.

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    This sounds like self-sabotage. – Dorus Apr 22 '15 at 9:56
  • @Dorus it shouldn't. If the client is actually interested in having you X instead of Y, the very least you can expect is for him to tell you when you ask for it, instead of not answering and complaining later. (I'll integrate this in the answer). – o0'. Apr 22 '15 at 10:00

There are very few questions to customers that need actual answers, and usually they require docs, spreadsheets, files etc as a response. The vast majority of questions are either decisions (do x or y), or choices (red or blue). In these cases you drive it, ask the question and state your preferred answer as the way you intend to proceed, and then ask the customer to let you know if they want something different. For one thing, they will be more likely to respond if they disagree (as opposed to a straight choice), if they don't know the answer they are more likely to be swayed by your recommendation, and if they respond to one out of the five, you have your answers to the other four. If you need an actual answer to multiple questions (i.e. one you can't answer yourself), split them up so it's clear which one you are chasing/ one they are answering.

People who try to help others by answering their questions will often not particularly want to waste their time by answering questions to which the other person either has already found an answer or will quickly find an answer without further assistance. In many cases, when multiple questions are asked in an email, an answer to the first question may also effectively provide answers to others. That happens often enough that some people tend to assume a protocol of answering one question and then expecting that if the asker still needs assistance that person will ask another. Depending upon turnaround time, this approach may work well or poorly. Likewise some people may assume that if they receive multiple emails from someone, the most recent email will contain all issues which are still outstanding and assume that any issues which might have been mentioned in earlier emails but not the most recent have already been resolved.

I would suggest therefore that the right approach when using email alone is to have each email indicate what issues are still outstanding. If a response resolves some issues but not others, I would suggest dispassionately indicating that the unresolved issues are still outstanding. Avoid any conveyance of annoyance--merely note "Fnorbling the warblicator makes it work well, but we're still having some problems:" and list them.

Alternatively, using email and telephone together may sometimes yield much better results than using either alone. Use the email to ensure that the person with whom one talks on the phone will be qualified to answer the questions at issue, but use the live phone conversation as the basis for actually examining them. This will allow support person to answer quickly things that can be answered quickly, and identify things on which the asker will genuinely need substantial help; it will thus enable the support person to target his efforts where they're most needed.

Well, you can deal with unanswered questions in a multi-question email just like you would with any other unanswered question: Send a reminder after X days, possible send another (more urgent) one later, add a date where you absolutely need a answer before you take other actions, add sanctions and so on.


However, that does not deal with the underlying problem. The real 'problem' here is the workflow people have around email. Answering emails is a time demanding task, takes a lot of mental context switching, and let's be honest, when you receive 40 emails/day, you cannot spend 5 minutes reading every single one of them.

Reading emails quickly, sending a answer to those you can, moving emails that need more work to a work folder, and most important, archive anything you no longer need to look at is the standard workflow for most.

To quickly vet a email, people often only read the first (few) line(s). Good email etiquette involve making the vetting process easier for the recipient:

  • Use a good subject.
  • Put only one question/topic per email.
  • Do not combine tasks that can be answered right away, with things that take more time.
  • Do not combine questions that need to be answered by different people.
  • Etc. etc.

You can sometimes combine multiple questions, when they are on the same topic or otherwise closely related, do make sure you put the questions close together, or make a few bullet points, add reminders like 'please answer the following three questions', or put the together in a attachment and ask the user/client to complete the survey. Otherwise just send multiple emails.

When sending a email, it's important to keep the receiver in mind, do not assume your clients have superhuman abilities to answer 4 questions at once, are smart enough to figure out a poorly written email, or have a lot of time to look up all that information you left out. The contrary is true: Your clients will often be very busy, are thinking about 3 other things while reading your email, and have 15 more emails pending to deal with in the next 5 minutes.

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