Let’s start this article off with an exercise: Think about the all-time worst email you’ve received in your life.
Dig deep in the memory banks—go all the way back to those AOL and Juno accounts you had when the World Wide Web was still a sparkly fresh toy full of wonderment and auto-playing MIDI songs and not a cesspool of Nazis and semi-educated “experts” with a life hack for everything.
Maybe the worst message you’ve seen was an early phishing email from a foreign prince. (But maybe you should have started a conversation instead of deleting it and made yourself famous.)
Maybe your name is Brendan and an over-eager sales rep kept sending you messages addressing you as “Brynda” for two months.
As bad as the emails we get can be at times, I’d argue that there’s one email that stands above the rest for being the most meaningless and worthless example of the medium.
Yeah, I’m talking about the Out of Office automated reply.
Sure, the Out of Office serves a purpose. It lets people know you are literally Out. Of. The. Office! Who wouldn’t want to know why you won’t be responding to an email for twenty-six hours instead of six minutes?
Maybe it’s just me, but if you take a couple days to reply to my email, I’m probably going to be cool with it, even if you’re in the office.
I don’t expect everyone to live inside their inbox. It’s kind of crowded and stuffy in there, and it smells like old socks. It’s a place you pop in and out of, not a place where you stay.
The out of office reply is the biggest business juke of all time. You send someone an email, and then a couple minutes later you get that “ping” sound that sends adrenaline rushing you through your body like you’re a digital Pavlov’s dog—but then you see the only thing you’ve received is a message that effectively says “Hey, the point of this message is there’s no message, and there’s not going to be a message for another couple days.”
And that sucks, to be honest.
But the thing is, out of office replies don’t have to suck.
If you just treat every communication you have with other people like an actual conversation, out of office replies can actually serve a higher calling than to let people know you’re going to gleefully ignore their message while you go out eating deep dish pizza in Chicago during your next conference (like I’ll be doing).
So in this article, we’re going to talk about ways to make out of office replies suck less, and do more for you than get instantly deleted.
The Lies Told by Out of Office Emails
First up, let’s think a little more about the standard out of office email. The typical one goes like this:
“Thank you for your email. I’m out of the office on business until [insert date here] and don’t have access to my email, but I’ll respond to your message as soon as possible once I return.”
And then there’s typically a bunch of very corporate-y disclaimers about how the email is only for the intended recipient…blah, blah, blah and other words someone’s compliance department wanted in there, but no one reads.
The biggest problem with this example is that the standard out of office email is a lie. A straight up, bald-faced lie.
In fact, I can see three lies in only two sentences.
LIE NUMBER ONE:
Thank you for your email.
No one is thanking you for your email, especially not if they’re on vacation. In 2018, there were an average of 125 billion business emails sent each day, and the average office worker got 121 messages in their own personal inbox—every day.
People get lots of email. For many people, the idea of “inbox zero” where they have no new messages is some kind of distant, unreachable utopia.
LIE NUMBER TWO:
I don’t have access to my email.
This line is a holdover from the days before smartphones and for some reason, people just keep using it. Look, unless you’re scaling Mount Everest or taking a very off-the-grid camping trip, it is highly unlikely that you do not have access to your email (and if you’re doing either of those, your email is the last thing you should be thinking about. First thing? Survival).
I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have their business email on their phone these days—or who doesn’t habitually check it while they’re traveling for business.
Let’s just be honest and say “I’m not in the office, and because of the time constraints of travel and the fact that I’m not a robot who never sleeps, I won’t be answering emails while I’m out.”
There, we’ve improved the email already.
[Disclaimer: At this point, it’s probably a good time to mention I’m obviously not including situations like maternity or paternity leave or serious emergencies. We’re covering the run-of-the-mill reasons why you’d be out, like conference travel. If anyone ever makes you feel bad about not replying to their email because you were busy spending time with your tiny new human, you have complete freedom to retaliate for their awfulness in any way you see fit.]
LIE NUMBER THREE:
I’ll respond to your message as soon as possible.
This line is supposed to make the recipient feel assured. Your email is like a newborn child that needs constant love and attention, and I guarantee that I will provide the life and sustenance it so desperately needs.
But that’s not true. Some emails do need quick responses, but others don’t. And those will be shuffled off and forgotten about, or left alone until you email the person again with a passive aggressive reply that starts with “Per my previous email…”
So let’s ditch the lies.
In fact, let’s ditch the standard out of office reply altogether.
A New Way to Think About Out of Office Replies
Out of Office reply emails treat communication like a transaction. You send me an email, I don’t have time to read it right now, so I’ll send you back one letting you know that I don’t have time.
Mission accomplished. The transaction is complete, and no value is added to anybody.
When we take time to type out real responses to emails, we are participating in an act of relationship-building. Each email you send is a communication that can either build or tear down the relationship you have with the person on the other end.
An out of office email should be no different. But to change the out of office, you first have to change how you think about communication.
Communication in your business isn’t something that you turn off. It isn’t something that you chunk out into buckets of blogs, social media, email, website, etc.
Everything you do is some kind of communication. Every interaction you can have with another person is an opportunity to engage with them…or not.
So, stop thinking about your automatic reply as a way to ward off further emails, and start thinking of how you can still add value to someone else’s day even if you aren’t personally crafting a unique response.
Ideas for Out of Office Replies That Provide Value
If you take the approach that an out of office reply should represent meaningful communication, then you have a wide range of options for how to construct a message that adds value to the recipient.
Here are five simple ideas for how you can junk the standard reply and take things in an original, fun, and engaging direction:
Tell some jokes. If you’re going to tell people you’re not around, at least make them laugh while you’re gone.
Offer valuable content. You’re gone, and that’s fine. But in your absence, how about letting people know about that new podcast you just started, or the newsletter you’ve got going on? If they aren’t subscribed, they might want to! Be loud and proud about the good stuff you create.
Promote your social. You probably still have time to tweet when you don’t have time to email. Let people know what your social media profiles are and that they can grab your attention there instead, even if the conversation might be more limited.
Bring the cuteness. Maybe words aren’t your thing. That’s cool. Share a funny gif, or even better, share a cute animal. If someone doesn’t like the corgi pup you share, you probably don’t want to do business with them anyway.
Put some good back in the world. Put the focus on a favorite charity of yours and forget about yourself. Give everyone a link and a reason to donate, and your out of office email can play a small part to help raise awareness for a deserving cause.
I realize that some people are going to get to this point in the blog and object to this idea. You’re going to say “Bah, this is all a bunch of marketing fluff and baloney!”
And I understand that viewpoint. An out of office that tries to do something like offer an ebook in your absence can be misconstrued as you trying to get one more lead.
But this is where we arrive at the place where your character and your marketing chops intersect.
If you truly value people and treat them with kindness and empathy, your reputation will go before you. If you’re known for pushing for the next sale, though, then that will affect how people perceive your attempt at connection.
I know it’s difficult to legislate intent, but that’s why marketing for me always comes back to empathy. You have to check your heart before you can communicate well with others. It’s as true in business as it is in everyday relationships.
If you want to communicate well, you must always begin with an attitude of gratitude.
And as weird as it may sound, the Out of Office reply might just have a place in how you can communicate that perspective to the people you talk with each day.
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