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Adam Machanic

Adam Machanic, Boston-based SQL Server developer, shares his experiences with programming, monitoring, and performance tuning SQL Server. And the occasional battle with the query optimizer.

[OT] Auto-Responders: Making E-Mail Suck, One Reply at a Time

Do either of these look familiar:

"Suzanne is out of the office and will return December 12."

"Hi! I'm on vacation, and may not have access to e-mail. If you need immediate assistance, please contact ..."

Or how about this one (seen in December):

"I'm on vacation from July 3-7 ..."

Or the worst one I've seen recently, just three letters long:

"OOF"

Auto-responders are a nuisance, an annoyance, and destroy the asynchronous nature of e-mail that makes it such a useful communication mechanism. Here's why:

Too Much Information Disclosed

Does every single person who e-mails you really need to know where you are and what you're doing with your time? Get over yourself; no one needs to know whether you're on vacation or doing a seminar in China. It's information that doesn't need to be shared and, arguably, can be considered a violation of your own privacy and security. I don't know about all of my readers, but I get a lot of e-mails from a lot of people I don't know and have no reason to trust. What better time to rob your home than when you're off touring Machu Picchu? And what better way to communicate this fact to a complete stranger than via an auto response?

Are You Really That Important?

Is every single person who e-mails you sitting on the edge of their chair, repeatedly hitting the refresh button hoping that your reply will soon arrive? No, I didn't think so. And if you answered yes, get over yourself. If your reply is "delayed", no one is going to care. As a matter of fact...

The Asynchronous Nature of E-Mail

E-mail is, by its very nature, asynchronous. Which means that a reply will always be delayed. We send off an e-mail and expect a reply at some later date. If someone had something truly important to talk to you about, they would talk to you about it--on the phone. Or maybe start an instant message session. Did I mention that you should get over yourself?

As an aside, sending an auto response telling me that reply "will be delayed" has an interesting side-effect. It subconsciously tells me that if I don't receive an auto response from you, that I should expect a reply right away. So next time you wait before replying to one of my e-mails, I might just wonder why you're snubbing me.

Technology Obviates the Need for Auto-Response

I know that at least 75% of you have in your pocket, right now, an iPhone, Palm, Blackberry, or Droid. You can--and do--check e-mail no matter where you are. And you can--and will--pull it out while you're out of the office, on your vacation or anywhere else, and reply to any important e-mails that have come in. So forget about telling everyone that you're out of the office. Does it make you feel important? You need to ... get over yourself and quietly use that technology you've invested in, rather than wasting my time with pointless auto responses.

"But, but, but..."

I can already feel the wrath of my readers coming to bear as a result of this post. And there are a few (very few) valid reasons to use auto-responders:

  • Your employer has a rule that says you have to do it. Okay. Bad idea to argue with the person who pays your bills.
  • You really are going away, for a long time, to a place where you really can't access your e-mail.
  • You have an SLA or some other binding reason that a reply absolutely must go out after any e-mail is received.

Barring these reasons, you have no excuse. Sorry.

A Plea for 2010

Please turn off your auto-responders. Especially for e-mail addresses that are subscribed to lists. There's almost nothing worse than an auto response until you get auto responses from someone you didn't even e-mail (you know who you are). If you must use auto-responders, please follow some basic rules:

  • Don't tell me where you're going, or that you'll be on vacation. Just say that you're out of the office. Honestly, nine times out of 10, I don't care.
  • Don't use an auto-responder if you will be checking e-mail in any way at least once every 24 hours. Yes, this may be less than the 5-minute interval you usually work with, but no one knows that. A delay of a day or more is perfectly acceptable--and expected--for most e-mails.
  • Set your auto-responder to automatically turn itself off the day you return. That way you can avoid sending a response when you actually are back in the office, which makes you look like a total moron.
  • If you regularly provide "immediate assistance", set up an immediate assistance e-mail alias and have your customers e-mail you there. Then you can simply redirect those e-mails when you're not available. Problem solved, and no one needs to delete your auto responses.
  • Don't tell me that response will be delayed. I've already figured that much out.
  • Get over yourself. You're just not that important. Sorry.
Thanks to those who've read this far. I wish you all a fantastic 2010 (even those of you who use auto-responders).
Published Thursday, December 31, 2009 4:12 PM by Adam Machanic

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Linchi Shea said:

I think one needs to make a distinction between a personal email account and a work email account. For a personal email account, I agree there is absolutely no need to turn on the OOF notice. For an email account at work, it's a different story. And i'd argue it's good to turn on the OOF notice when you are out of the office in case people wonder why you don't respond to their work requests.

This is a good reason (among numerous other reasons) for separating one's work email from the personal email. If you limit the work email account strictly for the work-related matters, I don't think your coleagues at work would complain much about your OOF notice,or I hope they shouldn't.

December 31, 2009 4:13 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Hi Linchi,

I don't think it should be on even at work unless you either absolutely must do it due to work rules or you're truly going to be off the grid for an extended period and people need to know about it. Again, if someone actually needs a response right away, they can call or IM. Even in conjunction with an e-mail; for example, if I have something important that has an attachment (say, a spreadsheet), I'll send the e-mail and call a few minutes later to discuss over the phone. I realize not everyone does this, but I think that's a general misuse of e-mail. Just my personal take, of course, but I think the tendency is to go way overboard with auto responses, even if they are appropriate from time to time.

December 31, 2009 4:18 PM
 

Linchi Shea said:

Well, the OOF notice also can direct people to whom they should call or email in case they do need help in my absence. Plus, Exchange Server is pretty good at limiting the OOF notice to only once per email address. I think to help keep the operations going smoothly is far more important than the little annoyance of receiving the OOF notice. If a colleague receives my OOF notice and therefore knows who else to call, then this OOF notice has served its useful purpose. Also think about it -- in every company there are people who are very quick to complain about someone else not being responsive. The OOF notice can save you from having unnecessary conversations.

December 31, 2009 4:34 PM
 

Mike Walsh said:

Work policy dictates it in my case. Unfortunately people expect e-mail to be responded to in an urgent situation and they have issues with the phone, apparently. (One could say I encourage that behavior by normally following through with that expectation). My at work (day job) OOF reply lets them know who is my backup person or team. Nothing about having a high esteem of myself that I have to get over ;-)

Sure, I may (sadly) still check e-mail. I may also respond if I can quickly help a situation or give advice. Then again, I might be playing with the kids or out of range fly or ice fishing. If it is important, my auto responder directs them elsewhere and lets them know to not expect a response from me.

I wouldn't do it on a personal e-mail, my friends, family and consulting clients all have my personal cell. The few people that actually need to know when I am out of range are probably with me on that vacation (wife, kids, in-laws, etc) or get a quick note/phone call (consulting client, person taking care of my chickens/garden).

As far as running your own mailing list, filters.... Outlook, which is still a predominant corporate e-mail client, prefaces all of their auto replies with "Out of Office AutoReply:" seems to me that sorting through RSVPs could be easier with a couple filters excluding the majority of the auto responders.

I do agree with you that people misuse e-mail. If it requires an urgent response, call or IM. Don't expect an instant reply to every e-mail, etc.

December 31, 2009 5:17 PM
 

ThisIsMe said:

I do not completely agree with you. Autoresponses can be useful, but I think (and agree with you), there should not be any personal information in there (like where you are, etc.). But you can name your deputies. And, all this is only true for work email addresses - privately you should behave differently (I do agree, again).

Another point, against phone calls - if you are working for an international company, you are not always able to initiate international calls. But - and I do agree again - instant messaging is a good alternative. In our case, not every employee is using IM at all, so this is also not a perfect solution, when using this alone.

January 2, 2010 3:22 PM
 

mjswart said:

Totally agree and I actually signed in to rate this article (despite being OT) 4 or 5 stars. But what gives? I don't see any rating control. Is it because you're Adam Machanic?

Cheers (and happy new year).

January 2, 2010 8:05 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Hi all,

Thanks for the interesting and varied replies. I figured there would be some people who didn't particularly love my point of view, and in addition to what you see here I received a few interesting e-mails both, pro and anti with regard to my position. As long as I get a few people to at least consider whether or not they should use an autoresponder at some point, I will be quite pleased in attaining the goal of the post!

Michael: Thanks for the rating attempt. But I turned it off for my blog, and sometime soon it will be turned off for all blogs on the site. I've already disabled the ability to rate on the back end (i.e., ratings for blogs that have them turned on are sent to /dev/null). I realized recently that ratings harm the aesthetic of the site; it's not supposed to be about competition between bloggers, but rather about everyone sharing information for the greater good and interacting with readers. Ratings don't play well with that theme so I'm working to get rid of them.

January 3, 2010 10:30 AM
 

dan said:

I must say that I don't agree with you - OOF are very useful, and I like not being immediately contactible when I am on holiday.  

I would really, REALLY like it if my clients could work with one of my colleagues while I am away.  I just have to direct them as to which one.

As an aside, I do think that people's stress levels are increased by never going offline - remote email is intrusive, IM & Twitter are even worse.

I agree that it is annoying when people use their OOF as a proxy Facebook status, but that is an implementation issue...

January 4, 2010 5:01 AM
 

AaronBertrand said:

Yeah I've been getting several auto-responses today, from people who are in the office and have already sent me e-mail.  Seems like something that could either be done right when necessary, but usually not at all.

January 4, 2010 11:40 AM
 

Zack Jones said:

OOF replies suck, just as read-reciepts do (sometimes read-reciepts are handy though); however, both are company policy therefore I use both.

January 4, 2010 1:27 PM
 

bak said:

Maybe you don't like auto-responders, but it's often a necessary evil among very large companies.  I've worked for a number of Fortune 500's and can typical have communication with 10 people on a project.  I rarely know where all these people are and their vacation schedules, and I rarely send out anything to a large group I don't want them to read.  

So the, "Get over yourself" comment is a bit out of touch.  The out of office tracker isn't for those who would care less where I am, it is for those who do.  

January 4, 2010 1:30 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Bak: I hope that no one ever sends out e-mails they don't want someone to read.

Creating aliases for these large groups would eliminate the need for most out-of-office responders. Not always, but generally speaking, if you have a group on a project and one goes on vacation, someone else can fill in and answer questions while that person is out. I've seen this work quite well on a number of projects, including my current one. We have an alias set up for our six-person group and it's quite rare to get an e-mail about the project sent to me directly. No need to use an auto-responder.

January 4, 2010 1:47 PM
 

bak said:

Aliases= Another name for a black hole.  I can agree auto-responders can be a bit off the mark; eg. "My wife and I are in Hawaii!!!   ALoha!!"  I wish them well.  But I'm not dealing with potato chips.  I'm usually dealing with critical systems that mean Millions of dollars in lost revenue if they're down.  So yeah, I want to know that the network admin is out within 30 seconds if I send him an email.

Sorry Adam.  Just gonna have to part friends with different opinions.  

January 4, 2010 2:48 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Aliases are only a black hole if that's what company culture has made them. Users who write to the alias for the group I'm on generally get a response within a few minutes--because that's the expectation that's been set.

January 4, 2010 3:04 PM
 

Alex K said:

Adam,

I applause the decision to turn off ratings. IMO ratings have very little in common with quality. Thanks.

January 4, 2010 4:41 PM
 

bak said:

Enjoyed the thought provoking discussion and counter points.  

January 5, 2010 8:51 AM
 

Matt Cherwin said:

I think it's less about getting over one's self, and more about the expectations that are set by the organization. In my firm, a response time on an email which exceeds 4 hours is cause for question, and possibly official reprimand. That's simply the expectation which has been set. In that context, the OOF is the mechanism by which days off can ever actually be days off.

Both here and with previous employers, it's not that I think I'm important, it's that the culture sees email as "pseudo-synchronous" communication.

I also find the OOF to be an excellent tool for managing expectations. You're right, in that if something really is important, I'll get a phone call irrespective of my OOF. But frankly, when I'm on vacation, I don't want to take a phone call, either. By letting the sender know I'm out, I believe it sets the bar for "important" higher. People are (rightly) more reluctant to call someone on vacation than they are to call someone they think is simply prioritizing their request lower. This means I rarely get calls when I'm out except when something is legitimately critical.

And of course, since OCS syncs with Outlook for presence, setting the OOF also covers the case of why I'm not replying to IMs in a timely fashion.

All that said, I certainly agree that it is inappropriate to list extraneous information in the reply. All I need to know is how long you're out, and who to contact if that's too long for my request to wait.

January 5, 2010 2:15 PM
 

tjay belt said:

I have always used a Yahoo account for my personal email.  Even for things company related, like downloading software.  This email address is me.  Not my company email.  My company email is for when I'm working.  I never give it out.  If you email me at work, I will respond from my yahoo account.  

So, when I'm on vacation, I set my work email to oof notification.  You will never see that notification.  No one will but coworkers.  But never do I set anything like that on yahoo.  I'm never away from that email anyway.  While on vacation, I will check that account, and even use it.  Its simply my personal communication device.

Work email is for that-work. Everything else can occur on my yahoo account.

I wish more people had themselves on a web presence apart from their company email.  They are no longer the same thing.  I have been able to continue using my yahoo mail even as I bounce from employer to employer.

my 2 cents

January 5, 2010 6:11 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

+1, TJay! I use a Gmail account for the exact same purpose. But many, many people I know only have one address, their work. And then when they change jobs, you get their new work address... And it goes on and on and on...

January 5, 2010 8:16 PM
 

Phil Brammer said:

Something no one has mentioned is that in Exchange you can set the OOO message to respond only to internal mails, and not send notification to those addresses coming from outside the organization.  With that said, internal OOO messages are quite appropriate and helpful.  Sending external OOO messages, not so appropriate and not so helpful...

Sending OOO notifications to outside addresses potentially exposes too much information to outsiders and should be considered a security risk.

January 6, 2010 1:55 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Phil: I didn't know that was even possible. I agree, this setting would eliminate 99.9% of my arguments against OOO messages while supporting many of the pro-OOO arguments we've seen in the comments here.

January 6, 2010 2:25 PM
 

KKline said:

Phil, that's exactly what I do and recommend to everyone.  I think external OOF messages are an especially bad idea because many spam robots can use -any- sort of response, including an OOF, as a method to verify that a real human exists at the OOF-owner's email address and then mount other types of attacks.

Adam, I think your recommendations are good, especially about dealing with lists and, if an OOF is absolutely, what information to put into the OOF .  But as the sages have long said, the tone of the message is at least as important as the message itself.  Your tone is, alas, not so lighthearted.  

June 19, 2010 2:41 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Hi Kevin,

Yes, the tone is a bit angry and indeed the post was written in anger. I'd just finished deleting over 150 OOF replies generated by a string of mailing list comments that happened to hit just before the first of the year when EVERYONE was out of the office. Straw, meet camel's back.

June 20, 2010 5:06 PM

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About Adam Machanic

Adam Machanic is a Boston-based SQL Server developer, writer, and speaker. He focuses on large-scale data warehouse performance and development, and is author of the award-winning SQL Server monitoring stored procedure, sp_WhoIsActive. Adam has written for numerous web sites and magazines, including SQLblog, Simple Talk, Search SQL Server, SQL Server Professional, CoDe, and VSJ. He has also contributed to several books on SQL Server, including "SQL Server 2008 Internals" (Microsoft Press, 2009) and "Expert SQL Server 2005 Development" (Apress, 2007). Adam regularly speaks at conferences and training events on a variety of SQL Server topics. He is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) for SQL Server, a Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP), and an alumnus of the INETA North American Speakers Bureau.

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