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About that email response you've been waiting for...

By Pete Reinwald School of Public Service

So I got an interesting email the other day.

An event coordinator invited me to present at an annual conference on public service. The email told me the date of the conference and details on the presentations, and the coordinator asked me to let her know if I’d be interested.

I told myself how good this sounded. I wrote down the date. I considered the information and experience I had on the topic. I told myself that I’d give it more
thought when I could.

So I did everything I needed to do. Except that I didn’t respond to the email. I didn’t give the event coordinator the courtesy of a response.

I present a fictional scenario here. I offer it to emphasize what I consider an overlooked concept in business and in public service — the simple, painless, feel-good act of responding to an email.

When it comes to email communications, especially among colleagues, some
professionals give no other factor more importance. I’m with them.

I care less about subject lines, greetings, salutations and whether this day finds me well. I care more about courtesy and, more importantly, effective communication. If you send me a personal email that includes information important to both of us, I want to let you know as soon as I can that I received the information. I might say, “Got
it!” or “Thanks!” or “Will do!” or “OK, I’ll let you know.”

Otherwise, you might think: What happened? Did he receive my email? Did it go the
way of junk?

As time goes by, you might think: Does he care about what I sent him? Does he want to present at the conference or not? And then you might think: What a goof.

Experts emphasize that our email habits, including the time it takes for us to respond
and whether we respond at all, says something about us and shapes our image in the minds of colleagues, supervisors and stakeholders.

“Think of the email relationship as a way to prove your competence and efficiency,”
author and journalist Dana Sachs wrote in 2013 for The Huffington Post. “If you are lax about your correspondence, people may rightfully assume that you are lax in other aspects of life as well, which may make them less inclined to hire you.”

The priority that we give to emails shows who and what we consider important. I ignore most unsolicited emails, usually from a person in a far-away place pitching a far-away idea. I thereby consider them unimportant, and I can live with that, even if the email sender considers me a goof.

But when it comes to personal emails from colleagues and from people I serve, I aim to let them know that I consider them and their messages important.

You know who’s great at this? Michelle Latka. She’s office manager at the School of Public Service. She could write a book about email etiquette, and I hope she does. She responds promptly, cheerfully and helpfully — and I suspect to every one of the dozens of daily emails that we send her.

I asked her about her approach to responding to emails.

“My approach to emailing in general is to write back within the same day as I get them,” Michelle wrote in a prompt email response.

She added: “I've been on the other end of the email spectrum where I'm needing an answer to something important and I never hear back from that individual (even after sending several emails). Which is frustrating and makes me feel stuck. So I try and
not put that feeling onto others.

“It's a mixture of being polite and getting the job done.”

Professor Joel Whalen, academic director of DePaul’s Center for Sales Leadership and
creator of the Effective Business Communication teaching method, says he considers 24 hours the limit of an acceptable response period.

“If you don’t respond within 24 hours, you’re showing yourself as less competent, less responsive, less caring,” he said by telephone.

He suggests patience with those who fail to respond. “I think everybody is inundated
with email,” said Whalen, author of “The Professional Communications Toolkit.” “Even
good-hearted, button-downed, responsible performers can forget. 

… I find that with everybody I work with, sometimes, I’ve got to send out the same email twice.”

Pete Reinwald is editor of the SPS quarterly publication. He’s also an editor on the Nation/World desk of the Chicago Tribune.