What do your email habits say about you?

April 15, 2013

If you can't manage your Inbox, Can you really manage your company?

Email is a fact of life in business communications and I don't see that changing. Many people now advise on their voicemail that for faster response, instead of leaving a voicemail, send them an email instead.  Some people are more blatant and state that they don't answer their phones and if you want to connect with them, send them an email and schedule a call. In fact, recently in an article in the Globe and Mail, it was suggested that leaving a voicemail is inconsiderate because it "wastes the recipient's time".Yet, I continue to encounter executives who appear to be incompletely incapable of managing their inbox, which leads me to question, if you can't manage your Inbox, can you really manage your business.

Here is a case in point. The company was a client. They asked me to develop and pilot a training program. It was successful and they contracted with me to run a number of follow-on workshops.  They then had a reorganization in their business. The new manager responsible told me that his boss wanted to be the liaison for the program. I attempted to contact this executive by both phone and email to schedule the workshop dates. It took 2 phone calls and 9 emails, sent approximately every 2 to 5 weeks between June and November before I escalated to the CEO to ask if they really were interested in continuing the contract or abandoning it. In July, I did receive a reply from the executive, apologizing for having been so busy and asking if we could get together in early August. I immediately responded with possible meetings dates and despite more follow-ups, he never replied.  

While this case is extreme, the situation of needing to send two or three emails over the course of a month or two in order to get a response is not uncommon. I could understand this if the emails were unsolicited but these are situations where I have met the person and they have requested the follow-up.

In another example, the CEO of a start-up is a prospective client. The CEO was referred to me by a colleague. We met for coffee in February and he was interested in using me as his coach. He had some issues he needed to resolve and we agreed to meet in early April. We set up a follow-on meeting,  which he had to cancel because of last minute issues and then he was traveling for a two weeks and asked me to set up a follow-on meeting  when he was back.  It took three emails in April and May before I received a response suggesting that we push out our meeting to July.  In July, he apologized that he was so busy and suggested that we meet in September. In September and October, I followed up with three emails (all unanswered) suggesting dates to get together.  I have now dropped this CEO from my prospect list because I have concluded that I couldn't add value to his business because there are bigger problems than a coaching assignment could fix.

I recall attending an AccelerateTO event a couple of years ago where a panel of VC's were being interviewed. One of the VC's talked about the importance of being email responsive. He anonymously referenced someone in the audience who had told him that he was so busy that he had 700 un-read emails in his inbox. The VC's comment was "that isn't cool".

I would go farther than that. How you behave in email is an extension of your persona that you create in the business world. If people perceive you as out of control, they aren't going to want to deal with you.  For a start-up, this could mean potential investors write you off.

This doesn't mean you can solve this perception problem by only being responsive to people who you deem as important.  People's impression of you travels through many back-channels in the tech community. Two years ago, a tech start-up person requested to meet me. We set a meeting time. He  then blew me off the day before because he had just got back from a weekend in New York City and was tired and wanted to take it easy the next day.  Based on this and how he handled it, I decided I really didn't ever want to meet this person. A few weeks later, one of my clients, who was interviewing for a VP, mentioned that he had interviewed this person. He saw the change in my body language and asked if I knew him. I told him the story and the CEO decided it was a yellow flag so started to drill deep into the issue of this person work ethic, lifestyle habits and so on. He uncovered more yellow flags and dropped the candidate from consideration. Once again, the axiom that "it is a small world" was proven true.

So be conscious of your email responsiveness. It says a lot about you.


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