How to write an effective follow-up email

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If there is anything that’s guaranteed to send your nerves into overdrive, it’s sitting at your computer, figuring out how to follow-up on something you needed, well, yesterday. Much of business communication is conducted digitally, making it essential to develop smart tactics and effective strategies to make your job easier.

While there are certain benefits to having conversations via email, it also makes it more likely folks will drop the ball and miss a message. As executive career coach Elizabeth Pearson explains, data suggests that 70% of responses are generated by the second to the fourth email in a sequence. This means it’s likely your first note will go unanswered, so a follow-up is necessary.

Depending on the recipient, there are various methods and etiquette rules to be mindful of when writing a follow-up email. After all, asking about an overdue invoice is different than checking-in with your boss about the status of a project. Here, the pros provide the right outline for any of the ‘Just checking in!’ messages you need to send this week.

You haven’t heard back after a job interview

You made it through the online application, a first and second round of interviews, and you were convinced you’d get the gig. But now, it’s been a week and you haven’t heard a peep. Frustrated, defeated and on edge, you want to follow-up on their decision-making progress, but you aren’t sure on how to word it.

Career expert Wendi Weiner says it’s best to illustrate how enthusiastic you are for the opportunity and to end your email with a specific question. “You want to put the interviewer on notice that you are still interested in the role. You also want to put the ball in the interviewer’s court to reach back out to you and let you know if you are still in the running,” she explains.

So how do you end the message? Try something like “Let me know what additional assets you may need and I am more than happy to provide. If I don’t hear from you by [date], I’ll check in again for an update. Thanks!”

When a payment is late

Though there is an undeniable freedom in being your own boss, it also requires you to wear man hats that were never quite your fashion before. One of those is suddenly becoming an accounts payable liaison, requiring you to stay on top of invoices and deadlines. So when a payment is overdue? You’ll need to send an email to a delinquent client. In this case, Pearson says it’s best to be proactive and give your clients a friendly reminder a week before the payment is due. This will bring your payment to the top of their attention and give you a full seven working days before having to check-in again.

But if your grace period passes and they still haven’t responded? Pearson says you should continue to send follow-up emails — daily — until you hear a response. In some worst cases, hopping on the phone can expedite the process, too. “Confrontation is never easy, but the key to getting paid is in the tone and delivery of your message. It’s best to be both firm and polite — but, depending on how late the payment is or how unresponsive your customer is, your tone may need to be firmer,” she urges.

When your boss is holding up progress

Even if you didn’t sign up to be the middle man, if you have an executive ahead of you and a team to guide, there are plenty of times when you’ll find yourself in this sticky situation. Your manager may be dropping the ball because he or she is overworked and stretched thin, but if they are holding up everyone else from making moves toward a deadline, Pearson says it’s your job to speak up.

Though you may be tempted to apologize or to write nicieites in this message, Pearson says there’s nothing for you to be ‘sorry’ about — and being clear will get the job done. This means setting yourself (and thus the company) up for success by asking exactly what you need, when you need it, and why.

“The best way to garner a quick response is to make it as easy as possible for them to answer your question — which means you need to get right to the point without apologizing for ‘pestering’ them or clouding what you need from them with a bunch of unnecessary details. You know, the fluff,” she continues. “Always be sure to clearly lay out next steps in your email.”

You need a client’s input to move forward

At the majority of businesses, one of their values caters to putting the needs of the customer or the client first. Though this is an effective way to make an impact, move numbers and improve your bottom line, it also means that many professionals feel at the mercy of demands outside of their control. Maybe you pitched a potential lead and it went great, but now they’re ghosting you. Or, you have a client on board who is missing meetings and deadlines right and left that’s stalling progress. Whatever the case, a follow-up email is needed to keep the ball rolling.

Pearson suggests walking the fine line between persistence and annoyance. “Your best bet may be to pick up the phone and try to get them live because emails are too easy to get dismissed, buried, or deprioritized,” she explains. “Always check your junk or spam email folder to ensure you didn’t already receive a response before calling or sending an additional follow up email.”

Your subject line can also entice them if you want to keep communication digital. Try putting ‘ASAP’ or ‘Deadline today’ or ‘Quick question ASAP’ — to get ‘em to answer the message.

Your direct-reports are missing in action

There’s no crash-course in managing employees, making it tricky to approach each situation appropriately. Even if your direct-reports are generally dependable, everyone makes mistakes misses deliverables or has an off-day. Pearson says while it’s tempting to fire-off a strongly-worded email to a subordinate with the hopes of motivating them to do better, it’s a smarter choice to take a deep breath and choose your words carefully. And if you can, lead with compassion, rather than anger, which will only induce anxiety and make them less likely to feel comfortable around you.

“If you start by inquiring about what may be hindering them from responding to you, you’re much more likely to get an immediate reply. Ask them what you can do to support them in getting you the information you need or pushing through any logjams to the project you need completed,” she recommends. “If they have no request for your support then you can outline clear expectations and deadlines for when you expect to be updated on the project they’re managing.”