Why Are So Many Companies So Horrible At Responding To Emails?

I love email. I hate 62.4% of the people I email.

Sorry. That’s not quite right. I hate 62.4% of the people I email in the futile expectation of a response…sometime…in the next decade or so (I will get back to the specificity of the 62.4% shortly).  It’s you who suck.

You know who you are. You are the ones who never respond to emails, who force me to send email after email with an escalating tone of prickliness, imploring you to take a few seconds from whatever herculean tasks fill your day to actually acknowledge my existence.

It’s you who force me to continually set aside whatever I’m working on to prod you into doing your damned job! And — often — it is you who causes me to eventually abandon email in exasperation and then sink further into the 7thcircle of customer service hell:  voicemail.

Why am I (and trust me, I’m not alone) so exasperated with you? Allow me to explain.

From our side, when we send an email, we are making a psychological statement about how we expect this communication channel to proceed. We have picked this channel deliberately. It is the right match for the mental prioritization we have given this task.

In 1891, in a speech on his 70th birthday, German scientist Hermann Von Helmholtz explained how ideas came to him  He identified four stages that were later labeled by social psychologist Graham Wallas: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. These stages have held up remarkably well against the findings of modern neuroscience. Each of these stages has a distinct cognitive pattern and its own set of communication expectations.

  1. Preparation
    Preparation is gathering the information required for our later decision-making. We are actively foraging, looking for gaps in our current understanding of the situation and tracking down sources of that missing information. Our brains are actively involved in the task, but we also have a realistic expectation of the timeline required. This is the perfect match for email as a channel. We’ll came back to our expectations at this stage in a moment, as it’s key to understanding what a reasonable response time is.
  2. Incubation
    Once we have the information we require, our brain often moves the problem to the back burner. Even though it’s not “top of mind,” this doesn’t mean the brain isn’t still mulling it over. It’s the processing that happens while we’re sleeping or taking a walk. Because the brain isn’t actively working on the problem, there is no real communication needed.
  3. Illumination
    This is the eureka moment. You literally “make up your mind”: the cognitive stars align and you settle on a decision. You are now ready to take action. Again, at this stage, there is little to no outside communication needed.
  4. Verification
    Even though we’ve “made up our mind,” there is still one more step before action. We need to make sure our decision matches what is feasible in the real world. Does our internal reality match the external one? Again, our brains are actively involved, pushing us forward. Again, there is often some type of communication required here.

What we have here — in intelligence terms — is a sensemaking loop. The brain ideally wants this loop to continue smoothly, without interruption. But at two of the stages — the beginning and end — our brain needs to idle, waiting for input from the outside world.

Brains that have put tasks on idle do one of two things: They forget, or they get irritated. There are no other options.

The only variance is the degree of irritation. If the task is not that important to us, we get mildly irritated. The more important the task and the longer we are forced to put it on hold, the more frustrated we get.

Next, let’s talk about expectations. At the Preparation phase, we realize the entire world does not march to the beat of our internal drummer. Using email is our way to accommodate the collective schedules of the world. We are not demanding an immediate response. If we did, we’d use another channel, like a phone or instant messaging. When we use email, we expect those on the receiving end to fit our requirements into their priorities.

A recent survey by Jeff Toister, a customer service consultant, found that 87% of respondents expect a response to their emails within one day. Half of those expect a response in four hours or less. The most demanding are baby boomers — probably because email is still our preferred communication channel.

What we do not expect is for our emails to be completely ignored. Forever.

Yet, according to a recent benchmark study by SuperOffice, that is exactly what happens. 62.4% of businesses contacted with a customer service question in the study never responded. 90.5% never acknowledged receiving an email.  They effectively said to those customers, “Either forget us or get pissed off at us. We don’t really care.”

This lack of response is fine if you really don’t care. I toss a number of emails from my inbox daily without responding. They are a waste of my time. But if you have any expectation of having any type of relationship with the sender, take the time to hit the “reply” button.

There were some red flags that these non-responsive companies had in common. Typically, they could only be contacted through a web form on their site. I know I only fill these out if I have no other choice. If there is a direct email link, I always opt for that. These companies also tended to be smaller and didn’t use auto-responders to confirm a message had been received.

If this sounds like a rant, it is. One of my biggest frustrations is lack of email follow-up. I have found that the bar to surprise and delight me via your email response procedure is incredibly low:

  1. Respond.
  2. Don’t be a complete idiot.

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