Three Connective Ways to Use an Out of Office Responder

Out Of office

This post was inspired by a Google+ thread I started a couple of days ago. In it, I asked:

Out of office or "I'm too busy to answer" email forms – what's your take on them? I don't use them. After two strikes with someone I'm done (because, frankly, we're all busy). Curious as to your approach.

That question felt a bit like a cop out, though. Because there are times when I've had to use an auto-responder.

For example, when I knew my company slow VPN would be too slow and not work from a specific place I was on vacation. Rather than let a customer down with me, I preferred to connect them to a team member who could help them right away.

What if you don't have a team? If you work alone, or wear many hats, you know too well you don't scale. Spend an extra hour helping a client or say you're traveling, and you won't be able to answer an email right away.

What if the email you got look a bit spammy? And yet it could be a legitimate attempt to connect, just poorly executed.

I thought the topic would warrant additional conversation. Since this is a site where we tackle how we think about what we do, here are some executions for consideration and discussion.

Three connective ways to use and "out of office" responder

Many of the reactions in the G+ thread also indicated an auto-responder is a turn off, which means the first connective option is:

#1 To actually respond

It could be just one quick like that acknowledges the email and sets expectations on when you'll be able to deal with the request, or why you will not.

You can be nice about it. DJ Waldow suggested something like "it may take me a bit longer than normal to bet back to you…" say you're on your way to Australia. You will miss a day on the way over.

Also think about how to construct your "sorry, no" response in a way that is kind to the person even as you're turning down the request and want to make sure that comes across clearly.

Think you're too busy to answer? Some of the best responses I received, even best "sorry, no" messages, are from very busy C-level people and entrepreneurs.

A note to those initiating the email send — think about the person on the receiving end. Your response rate depends on the type of message YOU send as well. Your message is connective when it's relevant, timely, and it shows you've done your homework.

#2 To make it useful

If you must have a message, include useful information as a gift for the person receiving it.

Here my goal is to take a look at adjusting the execution so that the message comes across as connective instead of dismissive.

The typical corporate message, based upon Outlook or Lotus Notes templates, usually reads something like this (I made all the info up):

I will be out of the office starting  01/30/2012 and will not return until 02/06/2012.

If need be, please call my assistant Mark Kent at 1 646 000 000 or Corporate Director Suzie Smith at 1 646 111 1111 (Note: I will have limited or no email access during most of this trip)

Well, you know who to call "if needs be". I've also seen "your message is important to us", which is an innocent expression used inappropriately so many times that it now basically means "forget about it". Is that the message you want to send?

How could you take it up a notch? Here's an example from Christopher Penn:

There is nothing wrong with your email program. Do not attempt to adjust your inbox. I am controlling transmission. If I wish to make it louder, I will bring up more email. If I wish to make it softer, I will archive your old messages. I will control the horizontal. I will control the vertical. For the next few days, sit quietly and I will present all that you see and hear at the Blue Sky Factory Email Marketing Conference. I repeat: there is nothing wrong with your email program. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… my out of office message.

If you need assistance with either Blue Sky Factory business or personal business of mine, please contact:

Interim Marketing Manager
[michelle's email here]
[phone number here]

Christopher S. Penn

#3 To make it fun

Another way to be connective is to write an engaging message. You can get creative without sounding like you're trying too hard.

For an example of fun auto-responder, I'm hoping I can update with one from Ann Handley later today.

I want to make something really clear here — even with a fun auto-responder (or one filled with useful links from #2), this is not a response.

As we said in #1, your response doesn't need to be too wordy. The intent is to acknowledge the person writing to you.


Have you see some good examples of "out of office" responders you found useful? How about fun ones that actually gave you a nice feeling about the person you were contacting?

Have you considered one liners as sufficient response/acknowledgment, or do short emails feel awkward to you?


UPDATE: As promised, here is an example from Ann Handley. As she said in her note to me:

My goal with auto-responders:

Short, informative, but also fun. Auto-responders are an opportunity to connect and show some personality; "auto" doesn't have to equal "bot wrote this."


Q: Is it worth setting up an auto-responder for a single day off?

A: Have you seen the volume of email I get?

Q: What kind of answer is that? Can you please form your answer as a declarative sentence?

A: Sure: Yes, it is worth it.

I'll talk to you tomorrow, or as soon as I can.


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Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer



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