Around this time last year, Lucy Kellaway wrote in the Financial Times that not responding to emails “breeds insanity”. “Grow up, no response is also a response,” one reader commented.
This may be true, but it’s no way to do business. Last year, I was engaged in advanced negotiations with a big management consultancy – until, suddenly, the firm’s talent development partner stopped all contact. He proverbially disappeared. “Leave it,” a friend at that firm advised. “He is frustrated that you call too much.” Is this some sort of a joke? What definition of professionalism does this man operate to? If no response is also a response, then by this logic we should not bother with explanations all around. Why cancel a meeting? If you did not show up, it’s clear that you were busy elsewhere. Or call in sick? If you did not come to the office, something more important must have come up.
This is not to say that the only way to be professional is to reply to everything. When I was head of investor relations at a large financial services company, my contact details were on this company’s website for the world to see. Each day, I received about a hundred emails and calls: people asking for telephone numbers, directions to the office, money, life advice. I simply hung up. This is what I also do with PPI cold calls and random LinkedIn contact requests. However, not responding to emails and phone calls from someone who reasonably expects an answer from you is equivalent to walking out mid-sentence during a physical conversation. It just should not be done.
The best thing that I have learned from my career in investor relations – apart from not putting the same banalities into the investor presentation one reporting season after another – is the importance of a “holding statement”. In other words, do not greet questions from the City with dead silence until you figure out what to say. Instead, acknowledge the interest and indicate when you are likely to answer. Otherwise, be prepared for a few routine queries to accelerate into an agitated barrage of calls and emails very quickly.
And this principle applies to any business interaction. Why leave someone in limbo, wondering and guessing, when it is entirely in your power to send a simple response? “We need another month to decide,” for example, or “we chose to work with someone else”.
And once left in limbo, how many times should you attempt contact again? This varies: one of my clients got annoyed when I followed up with her a year later; whereas another forgot about me two months after we had met and engaged someone else. “You should have reminded me earlier,” she said at the time. But in general, persistence works: my column in this paper would have appeared less often had I not been consistently wearing the features editor out; and many crucial business meetings that I managed to secure in my career were the result of trying again and again and eventually catching people at the right time.
And if someone at the other end – someone who had made you travel for an interview or write a proposal, or someone who enthusiastically shoved his card in your hand urging you to get in touch – does not respond and gets “frustrated”, it is really their problem. There are many quick and elegant ways to say “no” or “not now”, and dodging contact in this case is not a sign of being too busy – it’s cowardly and unprofessional.