Section 7.1

Automatic Replies

An automatic reply is the message a person sets up to go out automatically in response to any emails that arrive, often though not necessarily while he or she is out of the office. Auto-replies pose two key challenges:

ı. Many people compose them in a rush right before they go away on a business trip or vacation. It is very difficult to write a good email while rushing.

2. With most emails, you know the audience. With auto-replies, you are trying to anticipate all the people who might be emailing you and compose something suitable for a wide range of readers.

In one case, job applicants who submitted an electronic message to an email address on the website of a major U.S. financial firm received an automatic reply whose subject line assured them that their submission had been recieved (rather than received — the correct spelling). Unfortunately, basic misspellings, typos, and other mistakes are common in auto-replies.

In composing your auto-reply, ask yourself who might write to you. What do they need to know? What should they not know?

Below are some guidelines to keep in mind when you set up an auto-reply:

  • Compose it well ahead of time so that you are not too rushed to review it carefully.
  • Make sure your automatic response is turned off as soon as you return from your trip, or wherever you happen to have been. It is undesirable to have messages going out on December 20 announcing that you will return on December ı7.
  • Provide neither too much information nor too little. It is fine for someone to explain that she is out for a month on maternity leave. In other cases, people may choose to exclude the reason they are away from the office. As a general rule, keep the information minimal. After all, you don’t know who will be writing to you — and thus reading whatever message goes out automatically.
  • If relevant or necessary, you may want to explain how people can reach you in case of emergency. If you are still going to be checking your email every evening, consider saying so (unless you won’t have time to reply!). If you are not going to check your email at all but you will check your voicemail regularly, you might say that.
  • Generally you should not include a complete signature file in an auto-reply, especially if you are in a role where you regularly receive unsolicited messages from salespeople and other strangers. However, you should conclude the email with a kind of basic signature file that includes at least your full name and your company. You may also want to add your title or department. The idea is to include enough information to help colleagues and clients who try to reach you, but not so much that people you don’t know — and don’t want to know — will be able to collect information such as your phone number, fax, and so on.
  • Check your message for clarity and accuracy.
  • Check for spelling, grammar, and format.
  • Check for tone; the auto-reply should be polite.
  • Do not include contact information for others at your firm unless you are certain it is acceptable to do so. If you are providing contact information for people who work for you, you can presumably offer this information without asking permission, though you should tell them that you are doing so. Before sending out contact information for colleagues or bosses, however, make sure you have their permission to include this information in your auto-reply. You don’t want to flood unsuspecting co-workers with unwanted messages; you also want them to be prepared so that they can respond professionally to calls or messages normally intended for you.

Figure 15 • Auto-Reply

Figure 15 • Auto-Reply

Figure 15 offers an example of an effective auto-reply. The subject line is specific, meaning that the recipient, Karen Jones, won’t even have to read the message to know that the person she just emailed, Jack, is away from his office. When Karen does read it, she will know when Jack will be back and whom to call if she needs help before then. The message is clear, simple, and specific.

In addition, the signature file is abbreviated, omitting phone, fax, and other contact details. There is no salutation, simply because it is difficult to compose a greeting appropriate for the entire spectrum of potential correspondents. (An auto-reply is one of the few cases where the absence of such a greeting is broadly acceptable, but if you like, you may add a line at the beginning that reads Greetings.)

Finally, the tone of this auto-reply is professional and polite. In it, Jack Bard thanks any person who emails him during his absence. Now, under normal circumstances, you may not feel like thanking everyone who sends you an email message (especially if it’s a chain letter or an invitation to participate in what sounds suspiciously like a pyramid scheme), but that’s fine. You can simply delete those annoying messages when you return.

If you subscribe to a listserv — a mailing list program for communicating with other people who have subscribed to the same list — remember to unsubscribe before you set up an auto-reply. Otherwise, every time you receive an email from the list, other subscribers will receive an auto-reply from you telling them you are away. Imprecations have rained down on the heads of hapless vacationers who forgot to unsubscribe from listservs before departing for a week of skiing or sunbathing.