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.

Email Keeps Us Hanging On

Adobe just released their Consumer Email Survey Report. And one line from it immediately jumped out:

“We’ve seen a 28 percent decrease in consumers checking email messages from bed in the morning (though 26 percent still do it),”

Good for you, you 28 percent who have a life. I, unfortunately, fall into the pathetic 26 percent.

So, what is it about email that still makes it such a dominant part of our digital lives? It’s been 46 years since the first email was sent, from Ray Tomlinson to himself. Yet, it’s never gone out of vogue. In fact, according to this survey, the majority of us (about 85%) see our use of email staying the same or increasing over the next two years. Even the rebellious Generation Z – the post-Millenials who are rewriting the book on tech behaviors, color inside the lines when it comes to email. 41% of them predict their use of email will increase at work, and 30% of them foresee themselves using email more in their personal lives.

Email is the most commonly used communication channel for work – beating actually talking to other people by a full 11 points

What was interesting to me was when and where email was used:


From Adobe’s Email Survey Report, used with permission

This suggests some interesting modality variations. I’ve talked about modality before, including a column a few weeks ago about devices. Personally, as a UX geek, I find the whole idea of modality fascinating. Here’s the best way I can think of to understand the importance of modality as it applies to behaviors. You have to stay late at work to fire an employee that has become a train wreck, becoming increasingly hostile to management and bullying her co-workers. It does not go well, but you get it done. Unfortunately it makes you late for your 10-year-old daughter’s birthday party. Consider the seismic shifting of mental frameworks required so you don’t permanently traumatize a roomful of giggling pre-teens. That’s modality in action. It becomes essential when we’re talking about technology because as we step into different roles to accomplish different objectives, it seems we have pre-determined technologies already assigned to the tasks required.

Email seems closely linked as a communication channel perfect for certain behavioral modes: If you want a quick update on a project, are delivering feedback or asking a brief question, email is the preferred communication channel. But for anything that requires more social finesse – asking for help, pitching a new idea, letting your boss know about an issue or even calling it quits – there’s no substitute for face to face.

Here we see why email has not faded in popularity – it’s Occam’s Razor of factual communication. It does just what it needs to do, without unnecessary complication. It allows both the sender and receiver to communication on their timelines, without disruption. It provides an archival record of communication. And it’s already integrated into all our task flows – no extra steps are required. Many start-ups have promised to abolish the in-box. So far, none have succeeded.

What Email doesn’t do very well is convey emotion. Emails have a habit of blowing up in our faces in delicate situations, for all the same reasons as stated above. But that’s okay. We know that. That’s why most of us don’t use it for that purpose. (Note – even for delicate situations, email is still usually the next most popular choice after face to face. 11% of survey respondents would still choose email to tell their bosses to take a flying leap).

As email approached it’s half-century birthday, logic tells us that someday it will become obsolete. But it’s outlasted VCRs, fax machines, 8 tracks and a veritable junk heap of other discarded technologies. In fact, it’s hard to think of one other thing that has changed so little over the decades and is still such an integral part of our lives. Say what you want about email – it does appear to have legs.

The SEM Hierarchy of the E-mail Inbox

First published September 14, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Into each social structure, a little stratification must fall. As our society takes a decidedly virtual turn, I’m finding that my Outlook inbox is the latest place where a class structure is taking shape.

Of course, you have the standard spam vs. non-spam sorting, but this doesn’t really count. That happens pretty much transparently in the background, and every day or so I wade through the muck in my deleted spam folder just to make sure a vital piece of communication didn’t get waylaid. For instance, today an e-mail from my lawyer went there. On second thought, perhaps the filter knew better than I what should be deleted.

No, it’s the e-mail that survives the cut that is subject to endless classification and sorting, as I haplessly try to wrap my priorities around an ever-expanding inbox. At first, I thought the six different flags supplied by Outlook would do the trick, but I quickly realized my complicated world needs much more than six classifications.

So in an attempt to ease the daily burden of countless search marketers, I offer the following suggestions for an SEM Custom Rules plug that would automatically take the following actions in Outlook’s inbox.

The “Anything from Google” Rule

It doesn’t really matter what comes in with an “@google.com” on the back end, you’d better open it right away. These go on the top of the list. If it’s from Matt Cutts or Tim Armstrong, perhaps a siren and flashing red light to draw further attention. I don’t get e-mails from Eric, Sergey or Larry, and I suspect the same is true for most SEMs, but if I ever did, I would like a heavenly ray of light to shine gently on me as a choir of angels sing the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

The MSN Beta Invitation Rule

This could dramatically reduce the manual sorting required by automatically signing up for beta test groups for MSN’s new adCenter products, including the Targeting by Presence of Facial Hair Platform, the Visitors You Wish You Got Report feature and the Integrated adCenter/Xbox 360 Console, which drops you into a virtual 3-D world where you can walk up to leads that didn’t convert and slap them for being stupid.

The “Hey, I Got a Speaking Gig” Rule

This would (until recently anyway) include e-mails from Danny Sullivan, Chris Sherman and Brett Tabke, indicating which panel you’d be speaking on at the next big show. These e-mails have to be referred to quickly so you have time to book hotels and flights, and then start e-mailing to see who else will be at the show, who was going to what after- hours function, if you could catch a ride with them, who else was on your panel, and when is the deadline for getting the presentation done (no, not the official deadline–the “real” deadline).

The “Why the Hell Did I Sign Up for This?” Rule

The average search marketer signs up for approximately 6,428,943 newsletters, 194,597 Google news alerts, 963,693 forum post notifications–and that doesn’t include RSS subscriptions. This is all done in the hopes of gaining some vital piece of information that would give them the leg-up on the competition, who are of course all subscribing to the same things. This rule would scan everything for the 1 in 159,975 chance that there’s a useful tidbit in there somewhere. The one exception is the Search Insider–naturally.

The SEMPO Board Communication Rule

Admittedly for a very small market, this would be nonetheless essential for those who serve on SEMPO’s board. It would be able to detect the difference between the 9,543 e-mails a day you get just because you were part of the e-mail alias, a 12-page-long cc list, and the messages requesting you to get off your butt and do something.

The “Rocket to the Top of the Search Engines” Rule

Although these e-mails are technically spam, I like to read them every so often and feel smug about how superior and morally pure I am, and how far my company has come since the days when everyone tried this marketing tactic.

The “Arrange a Meeting/Teleconference” Rule

Why don’t we just accept the fact that it takes 3.6 months and 112 e-mails back and forth to arrange any type of call or meeting, so we should just automate the process? That way we can still feel good that we’re trying to facilitate the phantom meeting by generating reams of e-mails and invitations, while saving us some time. In the end, it will automatically revert to the original time and date proposed, as it turned out that it was really the best for everyone, anyway.

The “Loved Your Column” Rule

Okay, seriously, these e-mails, when they come in (and yes, I have got a few), are the highlight of my day, and they’re the first I respond to. Of course, don’t take this as a hint or anything.