Is your agency full of email non-responders? Commentators? Forwarders? If so, your agency probably has employees that are very busy but don't get much done. It does not bode well for staff, clients, or long-term success. Here’s how I know:
I work with agencies to help them keep and grow business. My work requires a deep understanding of an agency's culture. I rely on all sorts of data to get to know an agency, including employee and client interviews, satisfaction studies, HR and financial data, and believe it or not, emails. Granted, email practices and patterns can be a bit more subjective, but I find them highly indicative of how an agency works.
These six email personas are a sign of trouble:
1. The non-responder: Does not reply to emails. I am not talking about responding to your long-lost cousin in Nigeria who needs your bank account information. I’m talking about not responding to colleagues and contacts (the non-responder usually treats clients differently). More junior non-responders are often poorly trained or over-whelmed. Senior-level chronic non-responders want to control attitudes, activities, and accountability. By not replying to emails, the non-responder is communicating—that they are busy and in-demand, that your request will have to wait. They put the burden on the sender to follow up. And because non-responders allow a decision to pass, they have no accountability. If someone else makes a decision, one can only hope it goes well because the non-responder will remind everyone that they "never approved that."
2. The late responder: Takes days or even weeks to reply. I am not talking about someone offsite or knee-deep in a presentation, which could explain an occasional lapse in timeliness. I am talking about chronic late responses. This behavior could be due to lack of organization or discipline—or, as with the non-responder, a control issue. And don’t be surprised if this practice reflects a larger agency concern, because behaviors spread. If the late responder is never penalized, or worse yet, gets promoted, people figure out: this behavior is acceptable.
(A word about prompt responders: I’ve found that well-run and successful agencies usually have leaders who are highly responsive to email.)
3. The forwarder: Unlike the non-responder, the forwarder replies to every email, explaining that they can’t help but will forward your email to someone who can. The forwarder has little authority. They can't decide or advise. Sometimes the forwarder isn’t the problem, but a sign of a bigger problem—a hierarchical, bureaucratic agency where only a few people can make decisions. And if the forwarder’s emails end up with the non-responder—you guessed it—nothing gets done.
4.The cc’er: The cc’er includes lots of people in an email, and everyone is confused. Is everyone required to respond? Is 100% agreement needed? Does not replying equal agreement? I am all for soliciting different points of view and keeping the team in the loop. Broad email distribution requires thoughtful writing—addressing key team members, so everyone knows “the decider," “the advisor," and, most importantly, the person who needs to act next. Unreformed cc’ers can delay decisions as various people weigh in. Excessive cc’ing is often a sign of CYA. Agencies with many cc’ers will claim they are a family, and I agree, a dysfunctional family.
5. The attacher: The attacher likes to cross things off their list without considering the impact. Ask the attacher for a budget update, and you will get nine project estimates, four revised estimates, and three emails on the merits of the original budget. Except you requested an update, not the information needed to prepare the update. Rampant attachers are a sign of team members who are either overworked or poorly trained and an agency that is not client-centric.
6.The commentator: The commentator is usually a very senior person. They reply to all emails to appear engaged, except their comments don’t add to the discussion. Instead of offering advice or help, they respond with statements such as "interesting," "too bad," or "disappointing." The commentator leaves recipients wondering what they mean or how to respond.
To sum it up, these email personas are not conducive to success. If you are considering an agency exhibiting them, think long and hard before joining. If you work in an agency and recognize you or your colleagues in these personas, start by changing the email etiquette with your team. Establish clear guidelines about sending and responding to email (such as a 24-hour rule); call out staff who don't comply. After a while, the email behavior will change, and the shift will have a positive impact, keeping people and projects moving forward. And movement is what emails are intended to accomplish.
Stacey Singer is a client retention and growth specialist. She can be reached at email@example.com and promises to respond to all emails.