Well, here we are again. You need something from a colleague, but haven’t received a response yet. It’s time to follow up. You pull up the thread, click “Reply,” and have the urge to start typing, “Do you have those answers for me? Per my last email, the deadline was this morning.”
But here’s the thing: You know that phrase, “Per my last email,” can come off as passive aggressive. (If we’re being totally honest, that’s probably one of the reasons you’re considering whipping it out in the first place!) It can leave your co-worker feeling called out, and in general just rub people the wrong way.
Of course, the best way to avoid having to go down that road is to set your expectations clearly and concisely in your initial message. Lead with the most important information; include a call to action; create accountability by adding a due date; and, if there’s a lot of relevant background information, include it below and alert the reader it exists.
Unfortunately, regardless of how obvious you think your request is or how comprehensive the information you share, you may need to follow up to get what you need or repeat yourself until everyone’s on the same page. (Isn't it frustrating when someone asks you a question they’d surely know the answer to—if only they’d actually read your previous note?)
It can be infuriating, but letting your frustration take over probably won’t be very productive. So what do you do? Here are five better ways to follow up than saying, “Per my last email…”
1. Be Direct
Sometimes the best approach is simply to point someone right back to the original request, minus the passive aggressive phrasing. The call to action, in other words, is to read and respond to the original email. In these instances, reply to the thread—so that the original is easily referenced—and be direct and concise. You could try:
- “I’m following up on the below” or “Following up on this [request/question/assignment]”
- “I’m circling back on the below” or “Circling back on this [request/question/assignment]”
- “I’m checking in on the below” or “Checking in on this [request/question/assignment]”
- “I need your input on the below by [date/time]"
2. Restate Your Request
In some cases, pointing your colleague back to the original request won’t feel like quite enough. Maybe you want to emphasize exactly what it is you’re asking for and why.
So reiterate your request in one to two sentences. Pull out the most important point along with the deliverable you’re waiting on and the deadline, directing the reader to the original email for more information.
For example, you might say: “Here are the design proofs for your review. We need your edits by the end of the week in order to move forward. Please see below for additional information.”
You can also combine these first two approaches with something like: “I’m following up on the design proofs. We need your edits by the end of the week in order to move forward. Please see below for additional information.”
This tactic can be effective for readers who don’t always take the time to read all of the information, and can be a softer approach than jumping right to, “Can you look at my last email?”
3. Pose a Question
Start with a question to get the reader’s attention and, if needed, use it as an opportunity to change tactics, timelines, or expectations.
- “What do you think about [the project or question at hand]?” as in, “What do you think about the design proofs?”
- “Do you have time to [complete the task requested]?” as in, “Do you have time to review the design proofs?”
- “Are you able to get me [the deliverable] by [date/time]?” as in, “Are you able to get me your feedback on the design proofs by Wednesday at noon?”
- “Want to jump on a quick call or meet up to discuss [project or question at hand]?” as in, “Want to jump on a quick call or meet up to discuss the design proofs?”
4. Pick Up the Phone
Have you ever started drafting an email and thought to yourself, This would be so much easier and faster to explain over the phone? Your colleague’s silence might stem from the same feeling—that sitting down to draft an email with all of the requested information will take too long. So pick up the phone, especially if you’re in a time crunch and need a quick answer.
If you get the person live, you can say something like, “Hey Sarah, so glad I caught you, do you have a few minutes to discuss [the project or question at hand]. I’d love to figure out [the deliverable], and thought it would be easier to do over the phone.” Then restate what you need clearly and concisely.
If they don’t pick up, leave a quick voicemail, something like: “Hey Sarah, I was calling about [the project or question at hand], I thought it would be easier to discuss over the phone. I’ll send you another email, but please feel free to call me back to discuss.”
Send a follow-up email as a reply to the original thread (not least because nowadays there are some people who never check their voicemail at all). You might write something like: “I just left you a voicemail about [the project or question at hand], if it’s easier for you, please give me a call back to discuss. Otherwise, let me know via email about [the deliverable]. You can find additional information below.”
5. Drop By
This is probably my favorite tactic because I like to read expressions and body language, and I like to create opportunities for spontaneous ideas that can emerge from face-to-face conversations.
Has it worked? Absolutely. Has it backfired? Yes! When you spring your follow-up on someone, you run the risk of getting a distracted, half-baked answer because that person isn’t able to give you their full attention (and you might irritate them by interrupting them). You have to know your audience and respect the way they process information and approach their work. Plus, it can be tricky to find an ideal time to drop by when everyone’s busy running in and out of meetings. So use this tactic when there’s time and when you’ve developed a solid rapport with your co-worker.
And if you speak with your co-worker over the phone or in person, send a simple email afterward so there’s a record of what you decided. Your note can start with, “Thanks for your time,” or, “Glad we got an opportunity to speak about X.” Then, “Just to put it in writing…” or, “Confirming via email that we decided you will do X and I will do Y by the end of next week.”
At the root of a follow-up message is the fact that you need something and getting it is likely going to benefit everyone involved in the long run. So avoid stirring up unnecessary and counterproductive resentment. Instead, be patient and positive. Keep your language direct and to the point, set clear expectations, highlight the pertinent information, emphasize a specific call to action, and hope that this time around you get the response you need.