Persistent e-mail follow-up

The following dialogue was posted on ask(dot)metafilter(dot)com in March 2011. It gives insight into how Americans view follow-up.

Question: “What is the best way to word my persistent e-mail follow-ups with non-responsive colleagues?”

I work for an agency that employs about 180 people and the agency’s role is to regulate a technical sector. My role is to respond to the general public’s enquiries. I have to get exact legal/technical wording from other staff. I find staff will sometimes not reply to my enquiries for days and weeks. I’m near the bottom of the pile at the organization and so I have no authority to order anyone to help me.

I send my enquiries to staff over e-mail and need to continue to do so. I am not looking for suggestions about stopping into people’s offices in person or talking over the phone. The nature of the work doesn’t really allow for this option.

How frequently should I follow-up with people for their responses? How should I word my 2nd, 3rd and 4th e-mail follow-ups? What has worked for you when your work depends on the actions of a higher-up colleague, but you don’t want to be a pest?”


“If you can’t make phone calls or drop by the office, can you IM them? If you can’t IM, what I’ve found starts getting attention is cc’ing various people if the initial person doesn’t respond.”

“I’d send a follow up daily. Perhaps at different times of the day. Maybe people get swamped first thing in the morning and might respond better in the afternoon.”

“Every follow up after the first, cc additional people that might be able to respond or get things moving (whether it’s a supervisor or not). This will almost always get SOMEONE involved. But don’t cc a bunch of people from the beginning because often people will think someone else will take care of it if it’s sent to a ton of people.”

“Phone calling just really gets people’s attention. It will be more embarrassing for the person and demonstrate your seriousness and persistence in the way one email in a giant inbox with hundreds of emails on a non-urgent (to them) matter never can.”

“I have a colleague who isn’t shy about bolding key lines in a severe email, like ‘This is my third request. This response is needed by Friday at the latest.’ You can try this, but even so, it’s easier to ignore than a voice or face communicating directly with you.”

Ask !

In May 2014 John Barrows – a sales trainer for companies like Salesforce, Box, LinkedIn, Marketo, Zendesk – posted the following advice on follow-up in SalesHacker:

Question: How do you follow up effectively with a potential client without being annoying?

1. Ask for guidance on the best way to follow up with them while adding value and not being annoying. You know who does know how to effectively follow up with the client The client. Ask them.

2. Ask what their preferred form of communication is and if they will respond. This is different than asking them about the best way to follow up. This is about their preferred form of communication and getting them to commit to a level of responsiveness. I literally ask people – “what is your preferred form of communication moving forward here? Is it cell, e-mail, text?”

3. Make sure you always end each conversation with a clearly defined next step. It kills me how often I see sales reps get off the phone after a good conversation with a prospect without a clearly defined next step scheduled on the calendar. The easiest time to get a commitment on a next meeting is at the end of the meeting you just had.

4. Summarize your conversations and get written confirmation. At the end of every decent conversation, I always send an e-mail that summarizes what we talked about and asks for their confirmation.

5. Always have a reason to reach out and never just call to ‘touch base’ or ‘check in’. I am on a personal crusade to get ‘touching base’ and ‘checking in’ out of the vocabulary of sales professionals.

Add value. Don’t annoy.

Optimal e-mail frequency

Under the title Optimum Follow-up Frequency for New Leads Samuel Smith, a consultant and blogger on business and online marketing, posted the following advice:

„A good e-mail marketing effort doesn’t inundate your customers with hard sales pitches. Following up quickly is the first step. Schedule your first follow-up email to go out two hours after your customer submits his or her information.

From here, you may want to gradually slow your e-mail frequency and aim for about three content emails for one purely promotional email. Depending on your budget, you could aim, at the high end, for sending four emails a week, but with a smaller budget, you can send an email every two or three days and have similar success.

Once a potential customer has been receiving email from you for a couple of months, it’s okay to drop off the number of emails to once a week. The optimum e-mail frequency reminds customers several times over that your product has value to them.“

They’ll remember your product.

frequent follow-up

Interestingly, typing „frequent follow-up“ into Google leads to 179 million results. The first ten pages with ten results each all refer to healthcare:

Long-Term Follow-up of Asymptomatic Healthy Subjects. Frequent follow-up as data gathering and continued care. Colonoscopy Overuse A Result Of Frequent Follow-Up. Follow-up see eMedicineHealth. Is There a Benefit of Frequent CT Follow-up After EVAR?

The term follow-up in the medical space is about: care; staying on top of a problem; remaining proactive; constant monitoring; reacting to a changing situation.

Accept, Adjust

People are different. At one extreme are colleagues who are reluctant to enter into agreements, but when they do are highly reliable. At the other are those who enter into agreements quickly, and with the best of intentions, but are all too often less reliable. Most people are somewhere in the middle.

Follow-up allows people to account for, to accept, to adjust to each other, to the fact that some people are more reliable than others. Or, put more acceptably, some people need to be reminded more often than others that they have obligated themselves to do a specific thing, by a specific time.

It is an art form in the U.S. to follow up in a way which does not imply that the other person is unreliable: in a brief, informal email; with a quick phone call; “bumping into” the colleague in the cafeteria; always mixing a little small with big talk.

America is a nation of immigrants, perhaps all with their own understanding of what makes up an agreement, what it means to enter into, maintain and fulfill one, including how to know if the other party is “still on the ball.“

External Factors

Follow-up is the most common – and commonly accepted – form of checking a colleague’s reliability. In many cases, however, external factors determine whether an agreement can be fulfilled precisely. The parties to the agreement may have little to no influence on them.

The higher level agreement with the customer – whether internal or external – may have changed. This, in turn, changes all related activities down into the organization. Budgets and or resources can change, affecting what is possible. Management can alter priorities at short notice. Then there are factors unrelated to business: a colleague might become ill.

Follow-up allows the agreement parties to react to change. The faster, the better.

Still a Priority

An additional purpose of follow up in the American context is to signal to the other parties that the agreement is still of high priority. No or late follow up can be interpreted as a signal that the agreement is no longer important to the other party.

Americans place a very high value on flexibility, on the ability to respond to the needs of the market, of customers, of changing situations. Big decisions are broken down into smaller ones. Isolating individual decisions allows for rapid reaction as well as rapid revision. Up to the minute overview of agreements is essential.

Follow-up is omnipresent in American life. The preference setting of email programs, social network accounts, as well as information sources can be set so that information is pushed immediately to the user.

Most doctors offices send out reminders to patients of their upcoming appointments via traditional mail, email and even voicemail. When one turns on the television five minutes prior to the show they want to watch, one sees a reminder indicating that the program they are want to watch is about to be shown. Banks offer depositors the option of immediate notification via email or text message of any changes to their balance.

Follow-up is in many cases simply a reminder.

Six minutes late

In 2013, Denver Broncos football player Elvis Dumervil signed a three-year contract with a pay-cut and then had trouble sending in the paperwork. It arrived at the team headquarters six minutes late.

In those six minutes, his team managers, thinking that Dumervil would not accept the pay-cut, decided to remove him from the team rather than keep him at the higher salary rate. If he had just followed up with his managers, and let them know that he had signed the documents and was in the process of sending them, he would probably still have his job.

Follow up (verb): to follow with something similar, related, or supplementary; to maintain contact with (a person) so as to monitor the effects of earlier activities or treatments; to pursue in an effort to take further action. First known use was in 1767.

When follow-up is ok

Despite German reluctance to use follow-up, there are situations in which it is unavoidable: In order to stick to a well-defined plan; when the customer requests information; if work results are not delivered on time. The Germans prefer the term nachfassen – literally, after hold. Or nachhaken – literally, after-hook or -check.

Follow-up in Germany can be either negative or positive. Negative in the sense of control. Positive in the sense of support. Follow up – negative – questions one’s ability and willingness to produce good work results. At the same time – positive – it is essential to checking technical details, getting necessary information, verifying due dates.

Organizations which are time-driven rely on follow up. News organizations are just one example. Any and all forms of logistics is another. Timing is critical. Schedules need to be met. Employees are under pressure. Deadlines are deadlines.

Follow-up can be supportive. An older, more experienced colleague can inquire in a friendly way about the status of another’s work. A team lead who coaches her team well knows when and how to follow up by simply asking “How are things going? Can I help in any way?”

Follow-up by colleagues on a report, speech, or published article is positive. It means that they have taken sincere interest in your work. It also gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their competence by asking intelligent questions.

In German team meetings follow-up is the rule, not the exception. Open action items can be addressed directly. Team members establish a common baseline of information.

Finally, there is another very legitimate reason to use follow-up in Germany: If things are not going right, if an error has been detected, if the work is being performed improperly. In such cases there is only one course of action. Follow up, and fast!

Mistrust, a Virus

Follow up in Germany is a sign of mistrust, of doubt in one’s reliability, in that person’s ability to deliver what they have promised. For Germans typically only commit if they are close to absolutely certain that they can execute.

Germans are very sensitive about mistrust, and do not deal with it well. A fictitious example: Small team. The members have their individual tasks, but need to collaborate at certain points. They work well together. The team lead can pay less and less attention to them. A new team member, though, begins to take advantage of the lead’s hands-off management style by looking for personal advantage.

The other team members become a bit unsettled. A few others also begin to think only of themselves. Mistrust creeps into the team, the points of contact become strained, collaboration more difficult. Their boss sees the signs and reacts by scheduling team meetings more frequently, checking on each team member’s work. Then come the emails and phone calls going into more detail.

The increased follow up strains relations. Several of the team members begin to look for alternative jobs within the company. A top performer is gone within a month. Others have sent out their resumés. Follow up can lead to mistrust, a virus with potentially deadly results.