Email is a HUGE problem. There were 205 billion emails sent per day in 2015, and the number continues to grow at about 3 percent per year. Email consumes a disproportionate amount of time to manage, as last year the Huffington Post reported that the average American spends 6.3 hours per day dealing with email. Earlier this year, The Economist reported that the average midsize business spends over $1 million is processing email with the labor cost associated with doing so average about $.95 per email message. These shocking statistics all highlight the same problem:
We spend WAY too much time dealing with email.
Much of this cost comes from writing ineffective emails, as multiple messages are being sent back and forth between recipients before a conclusion is finally reached. We call this extremely inefficient approach “email ping pong.”
Here’s what a typical email ping pong thread looks like:
- Mike —> Thanh: Here’s the file
- Thanh —> Mike: Ok, what do you need from me?
- Mike —> Thanh: Let me know your thoughts
- Thanh —> Mike: I like it
- Mike —> Thanh: Any improvements?
- Thanh —> Mike: Yeah, make the logo bigger
- Mike —> Thanh: Like this?
- Thanh —> Mike: No, that’s too big
- Mike —> Thanh: Like this?
- Thanh —> Mike: Yeah, that’s better
- Mike —> Thanh: Ok, anything else?
- Thanh —> Mike: Nope, but get Zack’s thoughts too
Hopefully you can see the problem with this approach pretty clearly – this email chain is already TWELVE messages long, and now I have to start all over with Zack!
The bad news is this happens a lot, but the good news is that it’s easily avoidable. Here are four tips for limiting the amount of back and forth required when dealing with email.
#1: Be Crystal Clear
The best way to eliminate email ping pong is to be absolutely clear about your reason for sending the email. If it’s just to communicate something important to the team and you don’t need a response, indicate that in the email (or better yet, in the subject line using an abbreviation). If you need the recipient to take a specific action (like reply with a certain piece of information), make sure you explicitly state that in the email. You can’t assume that people will understand your tone. If you need them to do something, make sure to tell them.
Remember, email is a one-sided communication medium at the time the recipient is reading your message. There is no opportunity for them to ask for clarification without creating an additional message, so try to anticipate this and answer any potential questions with clear intent. Try to be concise, but make the message as long as it needs to be in order to include all the information the recipient will need in order to take action on the message.
#2: Be a Problem Solver
Instead of just responding in order to clear your inbox, take a little extra time to think about the logical follow-up questions or steps. Try to anticipate any additional information the recipient might ask for. In other words, you want to not just clear but resolve. By doing this, you can eliminate many follow up emails and drastically reduce the amount of email ping pong require to close the issue.
One way to do this is to use “If… Then” statements. For example, in the above scenario where Thanh and I were going back and forth on the file I sent over I could say something in my original email like:
Please let me know your thoughts on this new design. If you don’t like it, then let me know what improvements or changes you’d like made. If you do like it, then pass it along to Zack so he can start using it in his documents.
Start looking for places to use these “If…Then” statements in your own emails anywhere you ask a question (i.e. “Does 4pm work for you? If not, please propose a different time to meet”).
#3: Be Selective
One of the most over-used features in modern email clients is the Carbon Copy feature (cc). A general rule when it comes to email is that “the more you send, the more you get.” The carbon Copy feature (and the Reply-All feature) are an instant multiplier of the number of messages that you send and WILL increase the number of emails you get in return. Fortunately, you can short-circuit this by being selective who you respond to.
For example, if you want to thank someone in an email thread for sending you the assets you needed or jumping in to contribute some work, reply to them only. You don’t need to notify the other 25 people on the email chain that you appreciate that one person’s contribution.
#4: Be Proactive
One of the most common scenarios for email ping pong is the never-ending email thread. The replies to this type of thread just keep coming as each person has to add “just one more thing.” When you see an email thread that starts to go off the rails, jump in and address the issue. For example, rather than go back and forth ask the person to call you so that you can get to the bottom of the issue more quickly and you can move on.
Another thing people do with email frequently is using it as a way of passing responsibility. It’s like they are playing tag and by sending an email they are saying “you’re it!” When this happens, you can often get to the bottom of the issue faster (and avoid future situations) by calling the individual directly and explaining the solution in person.
More Email Tips
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Thanh Pham, thanks for sharing this guide, it has helped me resolve a lot of issues.
I guess being crystal clear can take you far. I hate the back and forth email Ping Pong too.
Hi Mike, Thanks a lot for this great article! Just stumbled upon it by looking up “email ping pong”.
I used to work in the creative business and needed to discuss media projects with clients and co-workers on an every basis. In most cases we ended up playing email ping pong.
I always thought this has to be easier, so I founded Filestage. Filestage is a software that allows you to share, review and approve videos, designs and documents online. So instead of sending emails back and forth you just annotate feedback online direclty within the file.
I thought this might be useful for all readers here. What do you think? I look forward to your feedback.
Great idea regarding using the IF Then statements with in the email to give direction to what usually turns into email chaos and disorder. People can rarily focus on what is important such as their career management plan, which is touched on at:
Thanks again for this post
Alas, this doesn’t always work. I’m always crystal clear. I put in everything they need to know–and they don’t read it. Five emails later, I get asked exactly the same question and have to say, “It’s in the email below”–probably because the person is trying to get me to do it for them.