Posts

Out-of-office auto-reply: vacation necessity?

It’s summertime. Vacations abound, so you’d think that out-of-office auto-reply emails would be just as numerous. Think again. It seems as if they’re on the decline, just like the length of time that we see the sun now that we’ve passed the summer solstice. That’s frustrating for people like me. We could adjust our plans if the vacationers let us know that they’re away. Instead, we’re in limbo.

I’m not alone in my perception that out-of-office messages are less common. My LinkedIn status update on this topic attracted many likes and people saying that they’ve noticed this phenomenon. It also scored more than 2,500 views, which is huge for me.

What’s behind the out-of-office auto-reply’s decline?

I blame the decline of out-of-office messages on the rise of the smartphone. Now that people carry their email everywhere, they think they’ll reply from vacation. They may not plan to reply to every email, but at least to important ones. However, desire seems to collide with vacation-induced inertia—or the judgment that emails like mine aren’t important.

The smartphone may not be the only culprit. One respondent to my LinkedIn update said that some people lack the ability to set up auto-reply messages. Financial technology expert Blane Warrene says,

If someone is anchored to mobile only, it can be tricky handling out-of-office messages. Some accounts do not allow for the Automatic Replies feature in Outlook on mobile, for example, when they are not powered by an Exchange server. A little how-to prep can fix this, though. Even simple POP and IMAP accounts (for example, if you have a GoDaddy domain that also anchors your email accounts in a small business) offer web access to the setting that enables out-of-office responses.

In general, though, most mobile apps do allow for setting up mobile out-of-office settings. This includes iCloud, Gmail (free and professional), as well as the aforementioned browser access.

If this discussion of servers and domains confuses you, you’re not alone. There are people who struggle to follow instructions to set up auto-reply messages. I have one friend who relies on a helper to set up auto-reply messages. Some people may avoid setting up auto-replies because they don’t know how to create them.

Another potential culprit: the explosion of spam. Graphic designer Karen Coleman said in response to my LinkedIn update, “I don’t like auto-responders going from my email account. I don’t want it going to spam bots so they know the email is active.” She’s afraid she would receive even more junk emails if she used auto-reply messages.

Self-employed people are especially likely to worry that an out-of-office message alerts thieves to their absence. No one wants to advertise, “Hey, come break in!”

When do you need an out-of-office auto-reply strategy?

I don’t believe that you need to turn on your out-of-office message when you’re out of the office for only one day. But if you’re out for an entire week, it’s polite—and good for business—to let people know that you won’t be reading or responding to email.

Warrene agrees, saying, “I have found through years of both corporate work and starting and operating businesses, that the out-of-office message is woefully underused.”

Put some thought into your message. Sue Hershkowitz-Coore, author of Power Sales Writing, says:

With the expectation of an immediate reply, an out-of-office auto-reply can be quite helpful. The challenge is the message needs to be more than “Thanks for your message, I’m not here.” Beyond explaining when to expect a reply and an alternate contact, if available, it must also be on-brand. This is key to engagement.

A good out-of-office message will improve the quality of your time away from your email. Warrene says, “The out-of-office message can be used artfully (with well written and useful directions for correspondents) so blocked time can be used efficiently when on the road for business or pleasure.”

If you can’t or won’t respond to email from vacation, then set up a workaround. For example, you could ask a colleague to monitor your email. If you’re a solopreneur, you hire a virtual assistant to check email for you, as Coleman suggested in her LinkedIn reply to me. This gets around the concern that an out-of-office message will alert thieves that their homes are ready to be robbed.

 

4 reasons your emails don’t get results

Emails are essential to your marketing and client communications, but bad emails sap your effectiveness. I see four main reasons why emails fail. Once you recognize these weaknesses, you can fix them. By the way, you can jump-start your email effectiveness by asking your company or professional association to hire me to present “Writing Effective Emails.”

1. Your subject lines stink

A good subject line is like an airplane landing strip. Without landing strips, the pilot must survey the entire landscape, wondering “Is that a dangerous obstacle here? A gully there?” It’s exhausting when pilots don’t know where to head. The same is true for your email recipients when your subject lines don’t offer guidance. An example of a bad subject line is a simple “Hello.”

Good subject lines also appeal to readers’ interest in WIIFM (what’s in it for me), as  I discussed in “Focus on benefits, not features, in your marketing.” Readers decide whether or not to open emails based partly on WIIFM.

What else do readers look for?

  • Action items with deadlines, such as “Enroll by March 3 to save $400”
  • Personal connections, as in “Referred by Allan Loomis,” which I discussed in “Top four email mistakes to avoid when you have a referral.”
  • Entertainment—for example, my e-newsletter with the subject line, “Ssh, don’t tell my husband,” got an above-average number of opens

2. Your email doesn’t get to the point quickly

For the best results, start the body of your email with a summary sentence or paragraph. This may be all your recipient reads before deciding what to do with your email.

If you write a long, meandering email, you’re likely to lose your reader. Even if they skim the entire message, they’re unlikely to respond as you’d like.

Getting to the point quickly is one of the kindest things you can do for your readers. Why? Because you don’t make them work to figure out “What is the point of this message?” Getting to the point quickly also boosts the odds that you’ll achieve the results you desire.

3. Your email lacks a “call to action”

Almost every email needs a “call to action” suggesting the next step that recipients can take for their personal benefit. It could be something like “Click to receive a free e-book when you subscribe to my e-newsletter” or “Sign and mail your beneficiary form to Charles Schwab.”

4. Your email suffers from common writing problems

The best written communications achieve the three Cs. They are compelling, clear, and concise. Emails that lack these characteristics are likely to disappoint.

If you’d like to write better emails

Want help boosting your emails’ effectiveness? Your company or professional association can hire me to present “Writing Effective Emails.” I also offer email and e-newsletter critiques for a fee.

 Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One topic per email, please

Limiting every email to one topic is the best way to ensure your message gets across.

I’ve concluded this after some failed experiments in highlighting multiple topics. I list and number topics in my email subject lines. For example, 1) White paper draft; 2) invoice. This works most of the time, but not always. Some of my invoices have been paid late as a result.

Perhaps this technique would work better if I also listed both topics at the top of the email’s body. For example, I could start with the following:

Attached you’ll find:

  1. The draft of your white paper
  2. Your invoice

Alternatively, I could have discussed each topic under a separate heading. At a minimum, I needed to mention both topics in the body of emails instead of relying on the subject line to do all of my work.

Your solution for multi-topic emails?

I’d like to learn how you handle multi-topic emails. Please share.

Email writers, boost your effectiveness with this quote

Think about your reader if you want your communications to get results.

When you want the recipient of your email or letter to act on your information, heed the following advice from Lee Wood, as quoted by Kenneth W. Davis in The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course: Business Writing and Communication.

 

…give me the information in the order I can use it.

For example, don’t start by talking about the envelope you’ve enclosed with your letter.

Instead, first ask your client to read the form and then sign it in the spots you’ve marked with a big red X. Only then should you ask the client to mail it in the self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Be kind to your readers. It’ll pay off in better results and relationships.

Want to learn more about writing better emails and letters? Check out my presentation, “Writing Effective Emails.”