If you’re going to set an autoresponder – make it like these ones

by Ivan Mazour on January 30, 2016

CXeD6iPWkAAYh5YLife doesn’t typically run on your terms. It’s not like you can say “oh hi illness, no I’d like you to not suddenly arise today – I’d like to take two weeks out where nothing disturbs me, so please come back then”. I’ve always lived my life knowing that I had to deal with things as and when they arose, and that they would arise all the time. There are no breaks.

Now that has meant I’ve always had to be careful of burnout, and have had to monitor and prepare myself for it. It has also meant that I’ve had to devise a communication protocol that would allow me to always stay on top of things, constantly, on an ongoing basis. And, finally, it has also meant that I have always massively disagreed with the concept of auto-responders.

Given my carefully considered communication protocol is focused on email being the most efficient way of managing conversations across multiple priorities, and staying on schedule throughout, the whole idea of simply letting emails pile up was truly terrifying. If I don’t clear my inbox by the end of every evening, I won’t be able to sleep properly. By clear I don’t mean answer everything, but I do mean make a decision about each message in there. So I might leave a few to be answered the next day, but either way, I’m aware of all the information that I need to be aware of, and I know the actions I need to take whether now or later.

Coming back after a two week break and battling a 1000-strong mailbox seems truly absurd. Half of the things in there will be out of date, and you’ll have missed your chance to act and influence the outcome. The rest will be relevant, but will lead to a massive prioritisation headache, and even worse will most likely lead to fatigue-influenced decisions of “screw it, let’s just archive it and hope someone else has sorted it out”.

I’ve always thought that people who use autoresponders just don’t care enough about their job, or the people who are likely to contact them. If you’re a low-level employee at an estate agency, then sure, you’re taking some time out and you really don’t care that some person isn’t going to be able to rent a flat that you’re responsible for. I speak as someone who ran an estate agency for six years, before recently shutting it down. But if you’re at a tech startup, then the whole point is that you’re trusted with huge responsibility, whichever role you have, and so just disappearing is totally unacceptable.

So I have never used an auto-responder. Instead, whether I’m on holiday or not, I’ll always allocate an hour each day to stay on top of things. Now I’m aware that this means I never really totally switch off for a prolonged period of time, and that I may be missing out on something amazing that comes from that. So I’ve always wondered whether I’m wrong about my approach.

At the end of each year, just like any other CEO, I send an update about Ometria‘s progress to a select group of people – people who are friends of Ometria, who have helped us, who might have considered investing in us, or who just simply care about our success for no other reason. I don’t do it with a Mailchimp list – that’s too generic and “easy”. Instead I run a mail-merge which pastes the main update into an individual message for each person, direct from my personal Gmail account. I want each one of those emails to turn into a conversation – I want those people to reply, because I value their opinion and enjoy speaking with them.

Over the Christmas break, I sent just under 200 messages, and, of course, was immediately bombarded with auto-responders. So, as any geek would, I decided to do some analysis on them. So get ready..

Of the 200 messages, 30 bounced back with auto-responders. 15%. Based on this, I’m right about my thoughts on auto-responders. It seems the majority of people also don’t like them. Or, alternatively, they don’t know how to set one up. I’m going to discount the second option as the people on my list are all in tech.

19 of the 30 came back with a completely generic email title saying “Automatic reply: A (short) Update from Ometria”. 6 more came back with the other totally generic “Out of Office Re: A (short) Update from Ometria”. Clearly not much care is taken when setting them up.

2 people had left their roles so the auto-responder wasn’t holiday related – one left personal contact details for how to get in touch, and the other left contact details for their replacement at the firm.

1 email just plain bounced. I particularly liked this one – it was a junior at a VC fund who was epically rude to me during our latest fundraise. Rude to the level that I had to forward his email back then to a few of my CEO friends just to see if they had ever seen anything like it. He’s clearly no longer at the fund, and I can see why.

And the final 2 had a custom email title. Nothing fancy – one said “Stateside until..” and the other said “[Company] office closed until 4 January”. But a nice touch nonetheless, especially in the sea of generic ones.

12 people, or approximately half of the sample, put that they had intermittent, or limited, access to emails. This was a tough one, as I couldn’t decide which half were right. If you have an auto-responder, it seems a bit of a tautology to then go and explain that you’ll have intermittent access to emails. That’s kind of the point. But then if you have an auto-responder and don’t actually say what your response plan is going to be, then that leaves people confused.

2 people put that they were totally off-grid, and had no access to emails. One put it in capitals. And amusingly, they both worked for the same fund. I’ve heard tales of their skiing trips.. Those guys know how to party.

Only 3 people left no indication of how else to contact them. 13 gave details of their assistant, and 12 said to contact them on their mobile. This was pretty shocking – if the whole point is to take some time off, the last thing I’d want is people calling me on my phone. That’s why my phone doesn’t take incoming calls. That sort of interruption is much worse than occasionally checking some emails. Two asked to specifically be texted rather than called, which is better. But not by much..

But it wasn’t all bad and generic. If the above had been it, I would have ended this post saying that, conclusively, based on this analysis, auto-responders are a total waste of time. But now we come to the saving grace. There were three auto-responders that genuinely made me smile – messages that I was truly glad to have received and read.

One amusingly explained that their family asked for “time with me” and that they were going to try and ignore their workaholic tendencies. They also asked to be contacted via FB message or Whatsapp. Totally on my wavelength when it came to their communication protocol.

Another said “for any urgent matters, please email me incessantly”. Not sure that’s an effective way of communicating, but it definitely made me smile. I might send him the update a few more times..

And finally, one just said “it turns out that data is £5/MB in Morocco! Please text if it’s important..” followed by some Christmas emojis and “ho, ho, ho”.

hohoho

These three people have made a genuinely positive impression on my holidays with their messages. I will remember these messages, and I will remember these people, as I go into this new year. This small element of personality they put into their auto-responder has led to a genuinely positive outcome. Unbelievably, only 5 people actually put something along the lines of “happy holidays” into their auto-responder, all three of the above included of course.

Oh and one final bit of data. 19 people put the exact date they were returning. The unanimous winner of the longest holiday award was the person who was returning on the 18th (keeping in mind that the original email was sent in 2015). 9 were returning on the 4th, and 4 were returning on the 5th, so those were the most popular days. And I’m guessing the people returning on the 5th were just saving the 4th to battle through their mailboxes. Or to see Star Wars.

So I now have a totally new view on auto-responders. I would still never use one in the traditional, generic way. But I might just use it as a way to make people smile. Next time I’m away, if I choose to do it, I’ll do the following:

Firstly, I’ll make sure that the email title is custom, and interesting enough for it to be opened.

Secondly, I’ll be very clear about exactly how I will be responding to emails – so I might put that I will respond only once a day, in the evening, or that I will be deciding about which emails will be responded to straight away and which will be left until my return, so if they don’t hear back straight away, then they will on a very specific date, which I’ll mention.

Thirdly, I would use this as an opportunity to write something that makes the other person smile – something memorable, and that’s part of my personality. And it would be this third part that would be the reason for setting up the auto-responder in the first place.

A genuine thank you to @NancyFechnay, @eschoenbach and @johnhenderson for making me smile with their awesome auto-responders. My best wishes to all of you for 2016!

Read my full story on the About Ivan Mazour page.

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chris January 31, 2016 at 11:23 am

Ivan – I am hoping I am in the cohort – ‘off the grid’ – its totally my go to auto responder and although a VC and do an annual corporate ski trip – I am semi retired when it comes to Partying. Unfortunately age has meant that i cant “party like its 1999” anymore! if you have any ideas on emoji’s for off the grid then let me know! xx

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Ivan Mazour January 31, 2016 at 11:30 am

Well spotted Chris! Definitely you and Paddy in that “off the grid” duet there.. I share your semi-retirement – even at the age of 31, I struggle to still be awake past 11pm. But I’m sure that skiing trip of yours is where the “semi” part comes in!

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Monty Munford February 1, 2016 at 10:41 am

Really excellent piece and has reminded me that I used to write great ‘out-of-offices’ (autoresponder is a bit US for me and sounds like a driverless car), but stopped being so louche when I allegedly became successful.

I’m going back to the old ways… thanks to this post. Pen is mightier etc…

Monty Munford

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Ivan Mazour February 1, 2016 at 11:25 am

Very kind of you Monty. I’m disappointed to have missed out on the out-of-offices of old..

But since I know that you’re away at SXSW soon, I’ll be testing out your commitment.

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