Did you see this story? A lady in New Zealand put a message in a bottle and set it adrift in the Pacific Ocean. It was later found by a guy walking his dog on an island some 515 miles away…21 years later! He reached out to her on Facebook to let her know he received the message. Naturally, she was “chuffed“.
While the good old “message in a bottle” story is very cool, it can bear a striking resemblance to some of your E-Mail – which isn’t cool. You know the kind: you E-Mail a colleague because you need some information because you can’t finish a task or assignment until you hear from them. Maybe just a simple yes or no – but you need a reply.
Then you wait. And wait, and wait. Only to hear back 21 years later long after you forgot why you needed an answer and then realize YOU dropped the ball on another task because you were waiting on their reply (maybe a slight exaggeration, but you get the point).
Some organizations are trying to get away from using E-Mail for these types of things. That is great! But it requires a culture change and a strong effort driven from the top. For most people, E-Mail is a reality they must deal with.
So to those who must live in the E-Mail reality I have hope – there is a way to manage this. But first, some things to keep in mind:
- It is your responsibility – If you need information from someone to finish a task or assignment, it is your responsibility to get it. Most people do not look favorably on the “well, I sent them an E-Mail and haven’t heard back” excuse – so don’t use E-Mail as an excuse.
- Talk before type – If you can talk to the person, either on the phone or in person, do it! Not every organization can work this way and it is increasingly difficult to line up calendars the larger an organization becomes. But if the answer can be quickly given over the phone or in person, try that first.
- Thy priorities are not my priorities – Understand that most everyone is busy and they have their own set of priorities – very rarely do they all align. Simply be aware of this and assume a positive intent when you aren’t getting a reply.
With that, here is how you can keep track of E-Mails that are waiting on a reply without dropping the ball (or stalking people in a weird way). I use Microsoft Outlook, but most major E-Mail providers have these options.
Engage the Stalking folder in Microsoft Outlook
The first think you need to do is setup a Search Folder in Microsoft Outlook that will search for all E-Mail that you flag. Add the Search Folder to the Favorites for easy access and set the folder to show item count, instead of unread count (this gives you a quick look at how many items are in the folder waiting for a reply).
- Create a new Custom Search Folder and name it Waiting For.
- Under Criteria, select the More Choices tab and click Only items which: are flagged by me.
- Click OK. Make sure all folders are included in the Search Folder.
- Click OK to save the Search Folder.
- Right-click the new Search Folder and select Show in Favorites from the pop-out menu.
- Right-click the new Search Folder and select Properties.
- Select Show total number of items.
- Click OK.
Now that you have that setup, you are ready to go.
Track the E-Mail
When you send an E-Mail that you want to track for a reply, flag the E-Mail for Follow Up with No Date.
The E-Mail will show up in the Waiting For Search Folder, automatically creating a list so you can stay on top of things.
As part of my weekly review, I check my Waiting For Search Folder. If you have threaded conversations turned on (highly recommended), you can more easily track the whole conversation. When you get what you need, just check the flag as completed and it is removed from the list.
Adding this to part of a weekly routine (or more frequently if needed) is key to making the process work. I also added the To field in the Waiting For Search Folder so I could more easily see who I am waiting on for a reply.
I usually give people a week to reply but you can pick whatever timeframe works best for your organization. If after a week I haven’t heard from them, I simply reply to the original E-Mail with the line “just following up on this” in the body. Nothing fancy, just straight to the point.
What do you think, will this work in your organization?
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