I’m guessing we’ve all been in this scenario. You send an email to a client with some questions. He responds, but doesn’t answer everything, so you have to follow up with a reminder about the other missing information. Or you send an email giving someone two choices – would you rather do A or B? And she responds, “Yes.” So you have to reply asking which option she’s saying yes to. How about when you put all the details for a project into an email. You take the time to make it clean and organized so someone can reference it for everything they need. And then you get a text that says what time is this thing? And it’s the first thing on the list you sent. Eventually you end up wondering why you even bother spending your time crafting thoughtful emails when they’re just going to get ignored anyway.
I don’t know about you, but I find this incredibly frustrating. Most of the time, waiting for these answers slows everything down and you know that if they would’ve just answered in the first email, you could’ve both moved on and saved time. And we all know how important time is. But the extra back and forth actually creates more work for both of you. I don’t know anyone who wants more emails in their inbox. Most of us are trying to get rid of them.
Now, I’m not talking about when someone asks, “How are you?” or some other small talk question that doesn’t necessarily need to be answered. I’ve mentioned how I feel about that before, and if it’s in an email I’m not going to answer it unless it’s somehow relevant to the job. I also don’t mean when someone writes a novel and you genuinely don’t have time to read through everything. But even then, rather than giving a half-hearted response that makes it obvious you didn’t read it all, I think the right thing to do is to say something like, “There’s a lot of information here and I don’t have time to give it my proper attention today, but I will get back to you when I’m able. If there is anything pressing, please send the specifics to me separately.” That way you’re acknowledging that you’ve seen the message and managing their expectations about when they’ll hear back from you. It’s also a less offensive way of saying, “Hey, this email is way too long.”
I just did that today. I got an email from someone who wants to be a guest on the podcast and he sent me a ton of links to his bio, his podcast, interviews he’s done on other podcasts, and more. I don’t have time to research him yet so I sent a quick note saying, “I’m in the middle of a project so I might not be able to get back to you for a few weeks, but wanted to let you know I received it. Thank you for reaching out.” That took less than a minute to write and it accomplished two things – it showed that I respect the time he took to send me his pitch, and it spared me from receiving more follow-up messages asking if I had received his email or if I had any questions. And that was someone I don’t even know. But that’s how I treat everyone, whether it’s a client, a vendor, a friend… everyone gets the same level of respect because that’s important to me.
The details are there for a reason. If we’re asking, it’s likely because we need the answer to do our jobs properly. Most of us don’t waste our time putting frivolous questions in our clients’ inboxes. And if you do, stop. That’s not okay, unless it’s a humorous meme of some sort or something that will make someone laugh. Everyone needs that every now and then. But if you get an email, remember that someone took the time to write it for a specific purpose. So pay attention! You might have a deadline looming and you don’t want any distractions. You could be juggling a hundred different things and don’t realize that you’re not focusing on anything. But rushing through an answer and missing the important parts of a message isn’t good for anyone, yourself included. If you think you’re soooo busy and only have time to scan it, remember that if you miss something, you’re going to end up with another email to read. So take the time up front, read it carefully, and make it easier for everyone. Especially if the other person is trying to help you and your business succeed. Get out of your own way!
This is one of my tough love assertions that people sometimes don’t want to hear. And here’s my disclaimer: I know this isn’t always the case. I think it’s rarely the intention. But have you considered what message you’re sending when you don’t pay attention to the details someone took the time to send you? You’re basically saying that your time is more important than theirs. Now, before you get defensive, think about it. You’re not respecting the time they took on their end by giving the time on yours. You might not think about it in that way, but they might receive it that way. It’s important to remember that your time isn’t more important than anyone else’s, regardless of whether you’re paying them, they’re paying you, or any other reason.
We can consider this as it applies to working with clients, vendors, team members, and anyone else you are communicating with.
If you’re the client, you’ve hired someone to do a job for you. That person most likely needs information from you to do what she needs do. So she’s going to ask you questions, and your answers are what allow her to move forward and deliver what you need. So if you only give her bits and pieces, you’re holding up HER progress to meet YOUR deadline. And let’s not forget, she probably has other clients, too. And even though you want to feel like you’re the most important, imagine what it’s like when everyone is missing details and creating extra work for her. It’s no surprise freelancers have to deal with burnout all the time.
If you’re the vendor, your client has hired you to do a job for him. He is going to send you the information you need so you can do what you need to do. If you then ask a question, when the answer is in the initial email, it’s going to be frustrating for him because now he has to repeat himself. He might think that he’s paying you to make his life easier, not to create more work for him because you aren’t paying attention. There’s a reason that “attention to detail” is something a lot of people like to list on their résumés. It’s an important skill in business. Let’s not forget to use it!
If you’re on a team or otherwise collaborating with others, the same concepts apply. One person missing a detail can interfere with everyone else’s progress. You never want to be the one in the group slowing everyone down.
Look, nobody is perfect. We’ve all missed things in emails because we’re trying to get through them quickly so we can move on to one of the other many things we have to do in that moment. I know I’ve done it before, and I always feel badly when it happens. The idea is not to achieve perfection, but to be cognizant of how our actions affect others and their ability to do their work. And sometimes our own inattention to detail can delay things for us, too.
This reminds me of a discussion a bunch of us had last year about voicemail and how some people don’t use it anymore. I get that technology has changed the way we communicate and the younger generation especially finds voicemail to be tedious. They prefer texting or apps. And that’s fine – to some degree, we all need to be able to adapt or we’ll get left behind. I don’t particularly love voicemail either, but it serves its purpose. I don’t answer my phone if I don’t recognize a number, so leaving a message is the best way to let me know you’re a real person and not a spam call or wrong number. And it lets me know why you’re calling, so I can get back to you with the answers. And then I know if something is urgent or if it can wait until later. So if you took the time to leave me a voicemail, I will listen to it.
In this conversation, the argument against voicemail was that it was an outdated method of communication and people should just text. But then some people weighed in that they don’t like getting texts from people they don’t know, or for work-related things. Like with everything, we all have our own preferences so it’s not to say that one is right or wrong, just different. But I remember a client saying that if he takes the time to leave details in a voicemail, and then the person calls back without having listened to the message, he gets really irritated because now he has to repeat everything he already said in the voicemail. So he feels that his time isn’t being respected and that’s a red flag for him wanting to continue working with that person. That might seem like a bit of an overreaction, but I kind of get it. I think the solution there is pretty simple – if you are the type who won’t listen to voicemails, disable your phone from accepting them. Then you won’t have to deal with them and no one can get frustrated about you ignoring them. Simple.
With one caveat. At the same time as this discussion was taking place, I was hiring a fairly large crew for a production job in another state. Since it was in a location where I didn’t know anyone personally, I was having to essentially cold call people from the local film directory. It was pretty time sensitive and one of those situations where whoever was available first would get each position. The number of people I called who didn’t have voicemail, or had voicemails that were full, was surprising to me. I had no way to leave a message. I didn’t have an email address. And I didn’t feel texting was appropriate at the time. So a lot of people lost out on the opportunity to work a cool job at a good rate because they “don’t do” voicemail. So it’s something to consider from a business perspective if you want to be stubborn about your preferences or be a little more flexible.
Communication is so important in everything we do. We hear it all the time. It’s a necessary skill in business but also in life in general. The majority of the work we are all doing involves people and we have to be able to communicate with those people effectively.
I like to consider myself to be a conscientious communicator. I’m a big fan of brevity in business emails. I can be wordy because I like to offer explanations, so I often start with something that’s way too long. I get my thoughts out first, but then I edit before I send. I consider my client and what details they actually need, and I get rid of everything else. There’s a time and place for chit-chat, and business emails usually are not part of that. Sometimes there’s no way around a longer email because something requires a lot of detail. But usually I will send it all and include a note at the bottom that if it’s easier to chat through everything on the phone, feel free to call. I find that the email is helpful because it gives everyone a chance to review everything before speaking instead of throwing a bunch of stuff at someone when they’re not prepared. Plus, then it’s there to reference later, which is something that is often needed.
But when your style is different than someone else’s, what is the best solution? Communicate about communication! Seriously. When I’m working with someone new, I ask them if they prefer email, text, or phone. That doesn’t mean I’m always going to accommodate their preferences if they contradict my own, but it’s helpful to know that ahead of time and to make concessions when it’s important.
For example, if you prefer email and hate the phone, but your client hates email and prefers the phone, chances are you’re going to get annoyed waiting for responses if you email them. But if you just called, you could get the information you need and you’ll both be happy because you can move on. You can always follow up with an email confirming the details you discussed so you have record of it – I recommend doing this because it’s too easy for information to get lost on calls and via text.
I’ve also had conversations with clients about email etiquette. There are a lot of people out there who want emails to sound personal and friendly and so they fill them with long greetings and, for lack of better words, fluff before getting to the point. I won’t do that. I’m busy, my clients are busy, so I get right down to business. But every now and then I find myself explaining to someone that I’m not doing it to be cold or unfriendly, but to be mindful of everyone’s time. I save the friendly chats for later. I find that most people I’m working with appreciate that.
I also have one client who has flat out told me she can only deal with 3 things in an email. If it’s more than that, she’s not going to read it for a while. And that’s really helpful to know because if there are a lot of things pressing, I can prioritize the top 3 and send those first. Because we’ve had that communication, it eliminates the frustration that could come about otherwise.
In general, if you do have to include a lot of details in an email, make it simple for the other person to read. Use bullet points, spacing, bold font, underlines, whatever you can do to make it easier to digest, comprehend, and respond. Sometimes people see a lot of words in a big block and they instantly check out, so do what you can to avoid that. I can’t even tell you how many of my clients have commented on how helpful little things like bullet points have been in our communications.
Remember, the details are there for a reason. Slow down, pay attention, and help make sure everyone has the information they need to do a great job.