It is pretty easy to get an email address these days. Almost too easy. Yahoo, Google’s gmail service, and MSN all offer free email addresses. Almost everyone has one even if they use another one as their primary address. Recently, I’ve dealt with about a half-dozen people, both in my personal and professional lives, who seem to think email is just for receiving. They either let email pile up and respond at a later day, or more often, never respond at all.

I’m going to say something here, and I hope you listen, especially if you use your email address as part of a business or if you represent or are affiliated, in any way, with some group or organization: Your repsonse time indicates your maturity level. Standard response time for email is 24 hours. I hate it, too. However, if you are going to be on vacation, or spending a long weekend away from the computer, or just need a “time out”, be sure to set up an “auto-responder” to tell people you are away from your computer until X day and that you will attempt to respond upon the day of your return. In decades past, email was just another way to leave a message with someone. It is no longer. If you’ve been living in the past, you really have two options if you don’t want people to think you are irresponsible, neglectful, or worse, uncaring.

1. Get rid of your email address. Just shut it down. If you must have one for other reasons, simply don’t give it out. Remove it from your business cards, web pages, etc. That way, people will have no choice but to call or send a letter. People assume that if you publish an email address in any form that you are open to communication on that channel. Your failure to respond isn’t going to change our e-culture. People may think you’re eclectic or odd if you don’t have an email address these days, but it is far better to be thought of as an “old-timer” (even if you are only 21), than to be thought of as rude or incompetent.

2. If you infrequently respond late, make sure you identify your tardiness openly. Apologize upfront for the delay in responding. Let people know that delayed responses are uncharacteristic for you. Simply responding as normal a week later sends a certain message: that you can’t be relied upon for timely communication (or, depending on the email subject, that you are perhaps shirking or “testing the waters” before responding). Don’t be caught leaving that impression just because you don’t manage your inbox well.

3. If the above two options don’t work, respond with something. See if you can put the ball in the other person’s court. This is still unprofessional. When someone sends you a five paragraph update on an event that you are involved with and you respond with “Thanks. Hope to see you soon”, it seems as if you lack basic reading comprehension skills. The sender (assuming it is a personal email, not spam) is writing to involve your heart and mind in a matter. Have the basic courtesy to write something more substantial back. If time simply won’t allow a more in-depth response, flag the email for further study, but respond with something genuine: “I’ve been hit with a lot of emails today, Jim, but I really like what you’ve taken the time to send me. If it is okay with you, can I get back to you later in the week? I’d like to take the time to write a response appropriate to the matter. If not, can we get together by phone later today or tomorrow? I’m available from 3 to 5pm both days”. That took me less than 40 seconds to type.

UPDATE - 5/04/06

Lifehacker pointed me to a great post by Itzy Sabo on his blog that has a great idea for those of you who most absolutely wait to respond beyond 24 hours.

Technorati : business, email, productivity

Posted in: Getting Things Done & Management