What are small businesses saying when they don’t reply to emails?

Wednesday, 14 October, 2015

Unanswered email or text messages are a source of considerable anxiety for many people. Why is the recipient seemingly ignoring us? Was it something we said? Did the message even reach them? Whose to know until they respond. If ever, that is. Now some think the phenomenon requires a formal title, Unanswered Email/Text Rage Syndrome, so distressing it potentially is.

The real question however is, what constitutes an acceptable time frame to respond within? Should we be a little more patient? Surprisingly, this apparently remains a grey area, even though people have been communicating via email for the best part of twenty years. As I see it though, the response time depends on whether the message is personal or professional.

A friend may not have replied to an email for all sorts of reasons. Their child is unwell, they’ve forgotten their email password, or they went away. And didn’t send you an email saying so. Business communications are another matter though, and any business owner should have a system in place to, at the very least, acknowledge receipt of a message promptly.

Or so you would think. But business owners are people also. Their children may also fall ill. They too can forget the password for their email account. Smaller operators may simply be overwhelmed by email volumes. I know how that can feel, as an independent online publisher, especially when everyone decides to contact me at the same time.

Sometimes though, it strikes me that some business people willfully choose to ignore some of the email messages they receive. It seems inconceivable that such a person, particularly one in their right mind, would risk triggering Unanswered Email/Text Rage Syndrome in a client, or potential customer, but perhaps the stratagem is a way in itself of offering a reply, albeit offbeat.

I don’t know the answer

That certainly appears to be one conclusion that can be taken from an unanswered email. Instead of coming out and saying as much though, the recipient would rather that a sender read between the lines, as it were, by taking no action whatsoever. It’s a brilliant ploy, and one that is bound to see much return business going the recipient’s way.

The answer is NO

In other words, I can’t help you, but it will be a cold day in hell before I say as much. No one wants to look bad by having to directly refuse a request, so attempt to mitigate the fall-out by saying absolutely nothing at all. Another ruse that displays class and foresight, as an operation that doesn’t say no, is surely preferable to one that actually says no. Do I have that right?

I can’t be bothered/I’m too busy

This is probably the first thought that a sender has once it becomes clear that the recipient is taking their time in replying. It’s another good look for a recipient, and really has to make a sender wonder why they’re in business in the first instance. It also leads them to wonder how long said recipient will remain in business, if they’re not interested in whose contacting them.

So what should I do?

Just because you can write and send an email message almost immediately, doesn’t mean a response will be just as prompt. We all know that. But being seen to be giving potential, or existing customers, the cold shoulder doesn’t bode well for a business either. If you need to buy a little time, make use of an email autoresponder, they’re not too hard to set up.

Try to categorise and prioritise incoming messages. Prepare a number of short, pre-written responses, that require only minimal personalisation. Something like “thanks for your message, we’ll reply to you in detail in X days time”. One person I know spends a certain time dealing with email every morning, be it one hour or four, before doing anything else that day.

You didn’t go into business, only to see yourself go out of business, because you didn’t have a plan for dealing with the electronic and text messages that are inevitably going to come your way. A reputation for not responding to client communications is not only worse than useless, it will also have people questioning your integrity and professionalism. That you don’t want.

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