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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Get an Answer Already! How to Deal With People Who Won't Respond

Do you ever feel like you’re shouting into a black hole when you send an email or leave a voicemail for someone? You put your request out into the universe—and then sit at your desk with your fingers crossed, hoping for a timely response.

Thanks to my job in the PR world, I’ve seen it all when it comes to unanswered messages. I’ve managed correspondence with CEO clients (a.k.a. the perpetually busy ones), the executives and legal teams of my clients’ clients (a.k.a. the ones who think I’m not important), and the media (a.k.a. the ones who don’t want to deal with PR people). And along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how to get answers when you need them.

No matter the cause for the delay, here are some tips for getting those busy (and yes, annoying) slow responders to pay attention.

Make the Connection

First and foremost, when you connect with another person, you must give him or her a reason to want to help you.

Start by avoiding mistakes that instantly disconnect the receiver. Spelling his or her name wrong is a good example: I know it’s basic, but I can’t tell you how many emails I get for Ashely or Ashleigh—and when I do, I find myself instantly annoyed and less likely to respond quickly. Also, try not to sound like a sales pitch (for example, “I’d like to talk to you about…”)—no one wants to deal with that.

Instead, grab your contact’s attention by making everything relevant to him or her. I like to word everything possible with “you”—for example, instead of saying, “I need you to look at these forms,” say, “Your client needs approval on these forms.” It’s a simple but effective trick.

You can also appeal to people by playing to their personality or hot buttons. For example, someone who has a bit of an ego will likely respond best to an acknowledgement of how important he or she is (e.g., “I realize the importance of your time, so I suggest we get on a 10-minute call to discuss the case study.”).

Make it Easy to Answer Quickly

Even if your contact is interested in helping, someone who’s busy won’t have time to weed through a convoluted email or listen to a long, rambling voicemail. So, make sure you to streamline your message and make it easy for him or her to respond quickly by using the following tactics.

Have an Informative Subject Line

Use your subject line to indicate your need right away and help the receiver prioritize your request. Starting with something like, “For Review,” “Requires Feedback,” or “Please Respond by Tuesday,” is a quick way to make your expectations crystal clear from the get-go.

Get Straight to the Point

Don’t spend a lot of time in your message with non-relevant information or niceties. Be polite with a quick, “Hope this morning is treating you well,” then dive into the introduction and reason for contenting the receiver. Keep this simple as well (e.g., “Your client X and I work together on Y, and I was informed that you are the best contact for Z”).

Give Assignments Deadlines

To prevent your email or voicemail from being put in the pile of “whenever I get to it,” ask specific questions or give action items, and provide a timeline for when you’d prefer a response. With certain projects and clients, I’ve found success with stating, “Please provide feedback by Friday. At that time, I will be updating and sending this document to the rest of the team for review.” It’s a nice way to imply, “If you don’t get to it in time, you’ve lost your say in the matter.”

Provide a Recommendation

If you’re looking for an answer to a question or a resolution to an issue, always provide a few different options and your recommendation. By doing this, the person you are contacting has to think through it less and can respond with a quick “Yes, your recommendation is fine,” or “Let’s go with option #1.”

Follow Up Smartly

So you’ve made it easy for your recipient to respond, and you still aren’t getting an answer. Now what? It’s time for the follow-up. It can be tricky to balance being helpful and being annoying at this stage, but it’s possible by following the correct line of communication.

After your initial email, time a quick follow-up that makes sense according to your deadline. This email should include your original email with a short sentence at the top reminding your contact of the original request and deadline. Also, be sure to reattach any required materials.

A second email and you’re still not getting a response? Time for a phone call. (Wait at least 24 hours after sending the follow-up email, unless you absolutely need something sooner.) Whether you get the person on the phone or leave a voicemail, be brief. Remind him or her of the original email, who you are, and what you need.

Regardless of how you follow up, always leave with the next step being in your hands—“I’ll follow up again tomorrow,” or “If I don’t hear back from you by the end of the day, I’ll be incorporating the rest of the team’s feedback and sending to the client.”

And make sure to keep track of all attempts to contact the person—referencing them can help indicate your urgency and can prove useful if you’re forced to bring in back-up to help you out.

Loop in Someone Who Can Help

On that note, if you’ve tried getting in touch with someone multiple times to no avail, try copying other parties on your requests. Reply to your original email (again), add a “Just wanted to check in on the below email. Have you had a chance to…?” and copy your boss, the client, or whoever else you think will spur him or her along. It’s not my favorite thing to do, and you may irritate the receiver a bit, but it will definitely get you a response in a pinch.

Your final option is to find another contact that can answer your question or push the original receiver to respond. This could be an internal contact with whom you have a good relationship or someone with more power. Caveat: When reaching out in this situation, you never want to blame the original contact. Instead, just frame it as, “I need to get this moving ASAP—can you help me?”

Who knew an email or voicemail could be so complicated? No matter what industry you’re in, correspondence with others is almost always a necessity and, unfortunately, slow pokes will always exist. But with these tips, you should be able to get the responses you need in a timely fashion (or, at least, at some point). Now get out there and get some answers!