I had a conversation with a friend the other day about his job search that went something like this:
Friend: I wrote to him last week and still haven’t heard back. It’s so frustrating.
Me: Why not follow up and check in?
Friend: I don’t want to be annoying.
I understand the fear. No one wants to be annoying or bothersome to a professional contact, especially when you want a job, meeting, sales dollars, or something else very important from that person. But here’s the rub. The average person can get a few hundred emails a day. That makes it pretty tough to respond to all of them, and things naturally fall to the bottom of the list. If you don’t get a response, it doesn’t mean that someone’s ignoring you—it just may mean that he or she is too busy.
So, to the question: Should you follow up? Absolutely. In fact, it’s your job. And how often should you do so? My philosophy is: as many times as it takes. The important thing is to do it the right way. Or, as I call it, to be “pleasantly persistent.”
Here are a few tips on how to (nicely) follow up on that interview, sales lead, or networking contact—and get the answer you’re looking for.
Rule 1: Be overly polite and humble
That seems obvious enough, but a lot of people take it personally when they don’t hear back from someone right away. Resist the urge to get upset or mad, and never take your feelings out in an email, saying something like, “You haven’t responded yet,” or “You ignored my first email.” Just maintain an extremely polite tone throughout the entire email thread.
Showing that you’re friendly and that you understand how busy your contact is is a good way to keep him or her interested (and not mad).
Rule 2: Persistent doesn’t mean every day
Sending a follow-up email every day doesn’t show you have gumption or passion—it shows you don’t respect a person’s time.
The general rule of thumb is to give at least a week before following up. Any sooner, and it might come off as pushy; let too much time pass, and you risk the other person not having any clue who you are. I typically start off with an email every week, and then switch to every couple of weeks.
Rule 3: Directly ask if you should stop reaching out
If you’ve followed up a few times and still haven’t heard back, it’s worth directly asking if you should stop following up. After all, you don’t want to waste your time, either.
I’ll sometimes say, “I know how busy you are and completely understand if you just haven’t had the time to reach back out. But I don’t want to bombard you with emails if you’re not interested. Just let me know if you’d prefer I stop following up.” Most people respect honesty and don’t want to waste someone’s time, and they’ll at least let you know one way or another.
Rule 4: Stand out in a good way
I once had someone trying to sell me something that I was remotely interested in but that was nowhere near the top of my priority list. Every week, he’d send me a new email quickly re-explaining what he sold—as well as a suggestion for good pizza to try around the city.
Why? He’d seen a blog post where I mentioned I’d eat pizza 24/7 if I could, and cleverly worked that into his follow-up. It made him stand out in a good way, and as a result, we eventually had a call.
The lesson: If done well, a little creativity in your follow up can go a long way. (If you’re following up about a job, try Alexandra Franzen’s tips for giving the hiring manager something he or she can’t resist.)
Rule 5: Change it up
If you’re not connecting with someone, try changing it up. In other words, don’t send the exact same email at the same time of day on the same day of week. Getting people to respond can sometimes just come down to catching them at the right time. If you always follow up in the morning, maybe try later in the day a few times.
Remember: If someone does ask you to stop following up, stop following up. But until you hear that, it’s your responsibility to keep trying.