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Fixing E-mail

By on November 9, 20116 Comments

Is there a reply in there somewhere?

How many times do you send an e-mail message to someone and not get a reply?  Fairly often, I’d wager.

But how do you know and keep track of times when you don’t get a reply?

Sometimes I think back, oh, I sent an e-mail and so-and-so doesn’t seem to have replied.  When did I send it?  What was the subject?  Did I miss the reply?

When this happens, I first have to search for the e-mail that I had originally sent.  Sometimes that takes just a second, sometimes it takes a while.  Then I have to determine whether the question or issue is still important and, if so, what the next course of action might be.

I could send another e-mail but that could go unnoticed as well.  I don’t know if the recipient saw the first e-mail or even if it actually arrived (e-mail delivery is not infallible).

I can then resend it, forward it, or forward the e-mail to someone else who may be able to help me.  In some cases, it might make far more sense to switch communications channels altogether and make a phone call or send an instant message (especially internally).

Of course, this is all predicated on my being able to recall that a.) I had sent the e-mail and b.) that no reply had been forthcoming.  Much e-mail goes unreplied to and some of it is actually important.

In the meantime, some important issues go overlooked and much time is wasted.  I probably become aware of at least one unanswered e-mail each day and figuring out what the status of that message is, as well what actions are required can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes.  If every knowledge worker in the U.S. dealt with this issue on a daily basis, we would find we lose 12.576  million hours on a given day, at a cost of $264 million (this is based on 78.6 million knowledge workers and 10 minutes or 16% of one hour lost).

Of course, what could be even more costly are the ramifications of an e-mail message which has perhaps not been acted upon or read or replied to.  It’s impossible to calculate these costs but, in some cases, they can be significant, resulting in a loss of business, missed opportunity, or simply confusion and frustration for the knowledge worker who does not know if the e-mail was ever received and acted upon.

While there are several third-party Microsoft Outlook plug-ins and tools that address this issue, what we really need is an option in the out-of-the-box e-mail client (IBM, Microsoft are you listening?) that allows me to set a time period for receiving replies to flagged e-mail so that, when no reply is forthcoming within this timeframe, the e-mail client alerts me.  Sounds like an easy fix to me.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

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