Nobody likes to receive an automatic response to their email. It's frustrating for anyone to take the time to craft a message and end up relegated to a computer script. That said, sometimes auto-responders are useful and have their place. Here's how to use them effectively so you get your message across without being annoying.
Avoid the Obvious
Your automatic response is going to be sure to annoy if it tells the recipient something they already know or could easily assume. Here are a few phrases you'll want to avoid:
- I have received your email -- This is, for some reason, a popular statement in auto-responses. First of all, it's not true because if you received it you'd have ignored it or responded by now in most circumstances. A computer has received it and will relay it to you once you have the time. Also, obviously that happened.
- I will read your email as soon as possible -- Unless you're providing a specific time frame and have good reason to do so, don't. As soon as possible is pretty much when everybody responds to emails. This is something you can leave out.
- Thank you for your message -- Unless you thank the majority of people who contact you for simply taking the time to do so, you should leave this out. Chances are you're not thankful at all, considering your inbox is so full you probably won't read half of it, and so this can come across as pretty disingenuous in an autoreponse. While it may seem nice, it's more likely to annoy right off the bat.
- Please expect a response within 24-48 hours -- This isn't always annoying. If you're a customer support team it's actually helpful. You are likely not, however, and so it's just kind of weird. It's good to set expectations but if you can respond in such a specific time frame you probably don't need an auto-responder in the first place. If you're overwhelmed, you also don't want to set expectations you can't keep. If you need to provide a time frame, it's better to be a little less specific (e.g. "it'll take me a few days longer than usual to respond").
Appeal to the Recipient's Good Nature
You wouldn't need an auto-response if you weren't so busy and desperate, right? So convey that and get people to understand your plight. If you're so overwhelmed by work -- or at least your inbox -- that you can't respond to email in a timely fashion, or sometimes at all, then say so. A message like this can be effective:
My inbox is very full at the moment and work is remarkably overwhelming. While I'm making my best efforts to respond to all messages in a timely fashion, I'll be slower than usual for the next few weeks. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
This is a bit formal, so if you're the more casual type then read on!
Nothing erases a bad feeling like a little humour. When you're feeling upset, frustrated, or any kind of negative, a good laugh or even a smile can cheer you up. That's why crafting an auto-response with a little humour can deter the hate it automatically inspires. Here's an example I came across in the comments on James Altucher's blog (from user mypaisa):
You have successfully reached me. I am, however, terrible at responding to emails. Rest assured, I have read your message, and you may or may not receive a response from me in the next day to decade. I realise that this could result in a missed opportunity for me. If you think this is too important for me to pass up, please email my wife, and if she finds the message important, she will not sleep with me until I respond to you.
This works because it's lighthearted and clever. It tells the recipient that your email volume is unreasonably large and you're bad at handling it while also (hopefully) making them smile. That's about the best you can hope for when employing a less-than-ideal tactic like an auto-responder.
Be Brief and to the Point
Concision is your friend when writing emails, and this couldn't be more true with auto-responders. When people are receiving a response they don't even want to read in the first place, you can take some of the pain away by making it short. The examples above demonstrate the amount of brevity you want. Basically, you're looking to write about three sentences that convey the following three things:
- That you're sending an automatic response
- Why you're sending it
- What the recipient should expect as a result (and what action they should take should you be, for example, on holidays and want them to contact someone else)
That's really all you need. If you accomplish that, you've done your job. It's already significantly less annoying thanks to its brevity. If you can appeal to the good nature or the recipient or make them laugh as well, then you might actually have an auto-response that someone nearly enjoys. While it's best to avoid using auto-responders whenever possible, there are times when you have to use them. So long as you take the care to craft a message that isn't obnoxious, they won't be so bad after all.
Bonus Tip: Set Up a Delayed Auto-Response
We've mentioned this tip before, but it bears repeating. Kevin Rose, who is undoubtedly inundated with emails, set up something he calls an email bankruptcy filter. Sometimes despite our best efforts, we miss messages we do are about. He suggests setting up an auto-responder that fires off this message (or something like it) after two weeks:
Your email (below) is now 14 days old and has not been opened. To minimize email buildup your email has now been placed in the archive. Should you still require a response simply respond back and you'll automatically be added to the priority queue. Thank you.
It's not the kindest auto-response in the world, as it's basically suggesting that the recipient's message may not have been important, but it's also a good way of apologising for missing a potentially worthwhile email as well as offering a means to rectify the situation. If you just can't keep up with the number of messages in your inbox, this may be a good way to handle the problem.
Got any clever auto-responses you like to use? Share yours in the comments!