Freelancers, Would You Use This E-Mail Auto-Response?

by John Soares on January 3, 2013

When and how should a freelance writer use an e-mail auto-response to potential clients? What are the possible payoffs and potential pitfalls?

Freelance E-Mail Auto-Response: A Real-Life Example

A few months ago I exchanged a couple of e-mails with another freelance writer. Immediately after I sent her the initial e-mail, I got an auto-response back that said essentially this:

I’m busy working on writing projects now, but I will respond to you within the next 12-24 hours.

Thank you,

Susan (not  her real name)

I quickly fired off another e-mail and asked if she always had that auto-response on. Of course, I immediately got that same reply.

But she did get back to me within 12-24 hours and told me that she always used that auto-response. She stated that the response delay would make potential clients think that she was very busy and thus in high demand, and that would allow her to charge higher rates.

I See Pros and Cons…

I think her strategy could work with some clients. And from a time management perspective, she doesn’t have to check e-mail very often, so her productivity is likely higher.

On the downside, if clients are in a hurry to find a writer, they’ll quickly start contacting others once they get that auto-response. And they may also think they may not be able to afford this writer because she apparently is so busy, when in fact they actually might be able to.

Your Take

I would only consider this if I had a large backlog of high-paying projects. What about you? In what instances would you use an auto-response?

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    { 39 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Cathy Miller January 3, 2013 at 5:04 AM

    Twitter: @millercathy

    Personally, I hate it, John. As someone who used to audit customer service units, this would not receive a passing grade in my book.

    It sends a message to the sender that they are not important – especially when it’s set to deliver every single time they email (assuming they would try again – AND that’s a big assumption). I think it backfires from sounding busy to rude or arrogant (my time’s more important than your time).

    I used to be a road warrior in my corporate days. I made a practice of always acknowledging an email personally even if I couldn’t immediately get to their issue. The only time I use an auto-responder for emails is if I am out of the office or on vacation.

    It would be better (in my humble opinion) to check email once during the day and acknowledge emails with something like I am currently away from my office. I will have the requested information to you no later than (fill in the blank). Will that work for you? I have never had a client come back and say no. Of course, you need to meet that commitment.

    Just my 2 cents, John. Can’t even buy a cup of coffee with that. ;-)

    Reply

    2 John Soares January 3, 2013 at 7:28 AM

    Cathy, I agree with you. I only use auto-response when I’m actually away from e-mail for an extended period, usually a day or more.

    I also like your quick and professional response when you don’t have the time for an adequate response:

    I am currently away from my office. I will have the requested information to you no later than (fill in the blank). Will that work for you?

    Very good!
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    3 Craig Adeyanju January 3, 2013 at 5:05 AM

    Twitter: @CraigSadey

    Hi John,

    This is a decent post, which in my opinion is important to every freelance writer.

    Here is my take on this subject.

    I like the idea of having an auto-responder, but like you stated, it can scare off potential clients, especially those that are in urgent need for a writer.
    Therefore, looking at it from a time-based perspective, it may not be the best. However, I think it would be much better if the time frame for responses could be reduced to within 3-5hours. Most clients would easily wait for five hours.

    Bottom line is you don’t really need an auto-responder when you’re not truly busy. If you’re truly busy, you sure don’t want to take on gigs that pay lower than those you already have. From this perspective, auto-responder will scare jokers off. Result-oriented clients with reasonable budgets will most likely wait out the specified 24-hour period.

    Regards,
    Craig

    Reply

    4 John Soares January 3, 2013 at 7:31 AM

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment Craig.

    I sometimes wait a few hours before answering an important business e-mail, usually because I need to think about my specific reply.

    And most potential clients are rarely in such a hurry that they need to hear back immediately (although this is occasionally the case in my specialty, higher education writing).
    John Soares recently posted…Why You Are So Slow Finishing That Freelance Writing Project

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    5 Rosa Lee Jude January 3, 2013 at 7:11 AM

    Great topic! In my humble opinion, I would classify auto-responders in the same category as “read” receipts and automated phone answering systems. If you are interested in providing a pleasant customer experience, don’t use them unless you have to, it takes away from the personal touch.

    Most business professionals will allow anyone at least a 12-24 hour response time to an email, so why annoy them with a response that tells them what they already know. I think sometimes we forget that in some situations, less is more.

    Reply

    6 John Soares January 3, 2013 at 7:33 AM

    Rosa Lee, I’ve also found that most editors at higher education companies are fine with a bit of a wait, but I always try to get back to them no later than the start of the next business day. Luckily I get up quite early, so I can usually do this even for editors in New York and Boston.
    John Soares recently posted…Why You Are So Slow Finishing That Freelance Writing Project

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    7 steeny lou January 3, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    I am almost always extremely busy, and there was a time a few years ago when I had to put my foot down and NOT answer every email immediately. I crafted what I thought was a polite and tactful auto-response email, letting the sender know I was very busy but would reply to them as soon as humanly possible. I did not give ANY information as to what I was doing.

    If I were so blessed as to be able to get paid for my writing, as many of the freelance writers in here, and I was truly so busy with writing projects that I was unable to respond immediately, feeling a need to set up an auto-responder, I still would not indicate that information. I would keep it short and politely apologetic, and then when I saw an email from a potential client, if at all possible, I would be sure to get onto a response with more apology!

    So, to answer your questions directly, no, I personally would not say what that person said in their auto response. And the instances in which I would use an auto response would have to involve more than just writing projects – it would probably also be combined with health and/or family issues, or unforeseen extra pressure in my life.
    steeny lou recently posted…They Who Feel Too Much

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    8 John Soares January 3, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    A key question is managing our time effectively, and e-mail can be a major cause of decreased productivity, both from checking it too often and answering e-mails that don’t need to be answered or answering them in more detail than necessary.

    Sometimes this means we should use a tactful auto-response when we’re extremely busy or simply away from e-mail for an extended time, which is what you’re indicating steeny.
    John Soares recently posted…How the Web Changes Your Brain and Hurts Your Life

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    9 Sarah L. Webb January 3, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    Twitter: @SLWrites

    Very interesting topic that I’ve never seen discussed on other blogs.

    I use an auto responder so that clients don’t have to wonder if the email successfully made its journey through cyberspace. My auto responder is also a Thank You note, rather than an “I’m too busy” message.

    I think it’s all about the tone of the auto response. The tone of the example above is off putting.

    I really like Cathy’s idea of sending personal emails explaining that you will get back to someone with the details.
    Sarah L. Webb recently posted…Django Unchained: Roots & Routes

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    10 John Soares January 3, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    Interesting concept Sarah: letting someone know the e-mail actually arrived. I wonder what others think about that.

    I’ve found that nearly all e-mails do get delivered correctly, but it’s possible that an editor could get the e-mail address wrong, or that the editor’s e-mail could wind up in the spam folder.

    I wrote a post last year about the latter issue and why it’s important for freelancers to check their spam folders.
    John Soares recently posted…The Freelance Writing Project Hiding in Your Spam Folder

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    11 steeny lou January 3, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    Speaking of not knowing if an email was received, and your email program doesn’t offer a “send receipt” option (which can so easily be ignored by the recipient anyway), you might want to try GetNotify. It’s free. I use it with my Gmail a lot.

    http://www.getnotify.com/
    steeny lou recently posted…They Who Feel Too Much

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    12 John Soares January 3, 2013 at 11:46 AM

    I’ll have a look at GetNotify Steeny. I wasn’t aware that such services exist.
    John Soares recently posted…The Best Freelance Writing Locations

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    13 steeny lou January 3, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    Let me know how you like it, John. Feel free to send me a test email to try it out.
    steeny lou recently posted…So, This Is “Christmas”

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    14 J'aime Wells January 3, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    Twitter: @JaimeAWells

    I’m envisioning getting this email EVERY time I contacted this writer. It would get old fast. I think if I chose to use an auto-responder, I’d have a separate email that existing clients could use to reach me. It might be okay to get the auto-response once for an initial contact. I wouldn’t want it to go to a client who was (for example) responding to questions that I asked about the project.
    J’aime Wells recently posted…Nine ways to rock your new year’s resolutions without “self-discipline”

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    15 John Soares January 3, 2013 at 12:28 PM

    Good point J’aime.

    Often I have a quick flurry of e-mails with an editor about the details of a project. Each time she sent me an e-mail she’d get that auto-response. Annoying!
    John Soares recently posted…The Best Freelance Writing Locations

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    16 LisaP January 3, 2013 at 2:58 PM

    This was my impression. How do you form relationships with clients..or anyone… if you’re always auto-annoying them?

    Reply

    17 John Soares January 4, 2013 at 7:17 AM

    I agree Lisa. Every e-mail in my inbox takes at least a bit of my attention and time. Opening an e-mail just to see it’s an auto-response is definitely annoying.
    John Soares recently posted…When Is the Best Time for You to Write?

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    18 Cathy Miller January 4, 2013 at 9:02 AM

    Twitter: @millercathy

    Auto-annoying :-D I love that, LisaP!
    Cathy Miller recently posted…Posts in Friday Lite Ring in New Year

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    19 Sharon Hurley Hall January 3, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    Twitter: @shurleyhall

    Interesting topic, John. Like you, I only tend to use autoresponders when I’m away for more than a couple of days. I’m intrigued by the idea of using an automated message as a way of acknowledging receipt of an email, but I’ll probably stick to the old fashioned way and just respond manually at set times.
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted…3 Things Every Freelance Writer Needs To Change In 2013

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    20 John Soares January 3, 2013 at 12:26 PM

    Sharon, one concern I’d have about the automated message acknowledging receipt is that it would just add to overall e-mail clutter without adding significant information.

    However, I do know there are times when I wonder if an editor received an important e-mail from me, especially when a lot of time has passed without hearing from said editor. I occasionally check my Sent folder to be sure I actually sent it. Sometimes I’ll forward the e-mail and ask if the editor had a chance to look at it yet — just a polite way to remind her to get back to me!
    John Soares recently posted…How to Get More Freelance Writing Assignments

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    21 Anne Wayman January 3, 2013 at 3:27 PM

    Twitter: @annewayman

    The thing I hate most about this is it’s almost always a lie. And if I don’t have time to respond in the moment or by the end of the day I don’t… I respond the next day…

    An autoresponder used this way, in my not very humble opinion wastes my time when I receive it… witness you getting it twice just trying to ask a question.

    Sigh, I get a slew of these every time I send an email, but most of them are letting me know folks are on vacation… which is of no interest to me in that context but might be for someone else.
    Anne Wayman recently posted…Bill Your Writing Client When You Spill Coffee? Maybe

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    22 John Soares January 4, 2013 at 7:23 AM

    As I said above, I almost always respond to a business e-mail by the beginning of the next business day, and I think that’s soon enough. There’s no need for the auto-respond in that case.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    23 John Soares January 4, 2013 at 7:24 AM

    And I only use a vacation auto-response when I know it will take me more than day to respond to e-mail. This usually only happens when I’m off hiking or camping.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    24 Jesse January 3, 2013 at 4:59 PM

    Twitter: @cajuncopy

    Great question, John.

    My take: I think it comes across as disingenuous, at best. If I’m going to respond within 12-24 hours anyway, how would an autoresponder help me?

    Plus, I want clients to feel like their project is the most important one on my agenda (which it is, while I’m working on it), and not just the ‘next” project on the schedule.

    Being “busy” isn’t impressive. Being a great writer that’s easy to work with is impressive.
    Jesse recently posted…You’re 3 Questions Away From Your Best Year Ever

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    25 John Soares January 4, 2013 at 7:26 AM

    Very good points Jesse. I think it’s common for people to fake being busy.

    Clients want to know that a writer will be able to get the work done, and often that includes timely replies to e-mails during the course of a project.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    26 Jenn Mattern January 6, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    Twitter: @allindiewriters

    Like most, I don’t like the idea of having this kind of autoresponder set on a regular basis. If you’re busy and in demand, you can respond to let them know when you expect to be available again. If you have to lie about it, you probably don’t deserve to be in demand in the first place.

    Other options would be to include an estimate response time on your email contact form or in your email signature. I’m setting up new signatures starting tomorrow, and they’ll highlight the fact that I’m only available four days per week. It’s unusual, and I don’t want people assuming a day off for me is a typical business day. But short of anything odd like that I don’t think you need anything. Shoot them a quick email noting when you can handle the project, or refer them to someone else. Helping the prospect is how you keep them coming back.
    Jenn Mattern recently posted…Free Blog Business Plan Template

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    27 John Soares January 6, 2013 at 6:24 PM

    I really like your take on this Jenn.

    And good for you for decreasing your availability to four days per week. I’m wondering if you’re shortening your work week or just creating distraction-free time to get your work done.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    28 Don Wallace January 8, 2013 at 3:24 PM

    Twitter: @SWCopywriter

    Hi, John,

    Nice topic.

    “I would only consider this if I had a large backlog of high-paying projects.” Bingo! That’s basically it. You do this if you don’t need business. Because you are disqualifying yourself automatically.

    It would actually be better to allow a huge delay between the initial message and your response than to respond with canned text.

    How I see it:

    Much (most?) freelancing is a “just in time” sale, to borrow a phrase from manufacturing and logistics. That is, you have value to many clients if you are available at the time that they need you. If you are unavailable, either because of real life events, or because you chose to artificially impose scarcity by rationing access to you, many prospects will move on to the next guy or gal.

    You have less, or no, value to them, if you appear to be hard to access.

    We’re in the personal service business. The reason that a prospect contacts any of us (freelancers) is usually because they like the idea of working with *us*, and not working with an anonymous person in some service bureau who needs some billable hours that month.

    Personal service means that business comes in over the transom once in a while.

    Having said all that, it’s best to leave emotions of disproportionate gratitude, relief, or visible excitement out of our contacts with prospects. I know that I have botched several situations simply by being visibly too appreciative of the possible business opportunity. Clients pick up on that as “not busy enough”. That is at the opposite end of the axis from using an auto responder.

    The point is, you need to somehow arrange to reply personally to every legitimate, non spam email. Even with a virtual assistant, who perhaps could be set up to reply to standard questions with prices of packages, data sheets, contracts, W-9s, etc.

    I personally think that any kind of auto responder for a freelancer is just plain bullcrap. If you want to hide from initial prospect contacts, then find a real job. It’s a silly rock star affectation. I react to the notion the same way as I do to these “poor babies” – I mean preening, overweening ego maniacs – who complain how their large Twitter or blog following is “draining their life blood.”

    At its heart, I dislike the idea because it’s artificial, contrived, phony, and it’s all about the ego.

    Unless – you are truly drowning in business.
    Don Wallace recently posted…Should You Use WordPress, or a “Real” Content Management System for a Web Site?

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    29 John Soares January 9, 2013 at 8:27 AM

    Great response Don. I really appreciate your no-nonsense approach to writing and marketing.

    The reality is that very few writers, even the best ones, are getting approached by potential clients several times a day, and you’re absolutely correct that a potential client that needs a writer now will keep looking if they get that canned auto-response I the post.
    John Soares recently posted…My Criteria for Keeping a Print Book

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    30 Don Wallace January 9, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    Twitter: @SWCopywriter

    I am still waiting for my methods to make me rich. :) Ah, maybe one day.

    Yes, I can think of some big names whom I have pinged by email who respond within the next day personally – no autoresponders there. If Steve Slaunwhite or Peter Bowerman can get back to an inquiry in one business day, with the inbound message volume that they each probably have, then surely someone less well known can do so, as well.

    I can’t even put myself in the frame of mind of wanting to isolate oneself from potential customers. Everyone in our kind of business needs a pipeline of new work. That’s exactly the kind of traffic that builds the pipeline.
    Don Wallace recently posted…Should You Use WordPress, or a “Real” Content Management System for a Web Site?

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    31 John Soares January 9, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    Yes, it’s so important to keep the pipeline flowing, at least by not doing anything to hinder it, like not replying promptly to e-mails from potential clients.
    John Soares recently posted…How the Web Changes Your Brain and Hurts Your Life

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    32 Lori January 9, 2013 at 7:14 AM

    Twitter: @LoriWidmer

    Not a fan of it, John. In fact, I don’t use out-of-office messages unless I’m gone more than a day. I’ve been in situations where the project is massive and the time fleeting. If an email comes in that requires a response (and all client emails require a response, in my opinion), I respond when I take a break. And I give them my availability if it’s something pressing.

    I think the automated response could create the illusion of dedicating time to one’s project that could appeal to some clients, but I’d much rather tell them personally that someone else has my time, but they’ll get my full attention when I’m able.

    Reply

    33 John Soares January 9, 2013 at 8:37 AM

    Great way to handle it Lori.

    One possible solution for when we’re really busy: a quick 1-2 sentence personalized reply that states that I’m under deadline right now and I’ll give this my full attention first thing tomorrow morning (or this afternoon).
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    34 Karen Anderson January 9, 2013 at 11:22 AM

    Twitter: @writerway

    I have a client, a marketing consultant, who uses a very polite auto-responder. Having worked with a number of his clients, many of them told me how impressed they were with the auto-response message on his website. It’s warm, welcoming, polite, and it includes links to pages that answer some of the most frequent questions he gets, as well as links to his blog and portfolio. I run a boutique practice, and don’t deal with volume, so I don’t use an auto-responder unless I were on vacation or at a very demanding conference. But, in practice, I can tell you that a thoughtful, strategic automated response can get raves.

    Reply

    35 John Soares January 9, 2013 at 11:35 AM

    Karen, thanks for sharing this.

    I can see how in some instances a well-written and very informative auto-response could be helpful, especially for someone who truly is busy.
    John Soares recently posted…My Criteria for Keeping a Print Book

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    36 Don Wallace January 9, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    Twitter: @SWCopywriter

    I had one more thought on this subject.

    The *real* distraction, delay, and/or mental effort that is associated with dealing with every inbound contact is the thought process and dialog that you must undertake in order to understand the prospect’s unique problems and to just discuss their needs with them. The initial contact is usually quite lightweight. A further contact is where mental engagement takes place.

    Yet one’s response to that first email from a prospect is all-important because it’s a first impression of you and your business. So, again, I consider an autoresponder to be a last resort type solution. You’re putting off a vital first impression which manually costs you almost no time anyway.

    If you can reply promptly to the initial email with a simple message that you would like to schedule a consultation and that you will be back with them in a certain time period, almost all reasonable prospects will be OK with that.
    Don Wallace recently posted…Grumpy About Social Media for Business? Read This.

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    37 John Soares January 9, 2013 at 4:14 PM

    I agree that quick and professional reply is the best way to go.

    In the comment just above this one, Karen Anderson shares the story of a consultant who apparently makes very good use of an auto-responder, but I think it’s a very, very busy consultant.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    38 Adam Connell January 15, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    Twitter: @adamjayc

    John, this is really interesting.

    I can see how this could make some people think “Susan” was in high demand.

    Personally it would put me off … but I have seen how it can work.

    A university lecturer of mine used to forward phone calls to his answerphone to give the impression he was in high demand. While some people would be turned off by this, some people offered him 4-5 times his going rate for speaking at schools/colleges but this also meant that he wasn’t over loaded with work so it kept his university work and freelance work in balance.

    If however, the situation was slightly different and he didn’t have his university work I think it would have been a bit of a struggle to keep a steady stream of clients by doing that.
    Adam Connell recently posted…Blogger Outreach: Finding Contact Details the Easy Way

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    39 Taswir Haider February 6, 2013 at 12:27 AM

    Interesting topic, John.This was my impression. How do you form relationships with clients or anyone if you’re always auto-annoying them? Thanks.
    Taswir Haider recently posted…3 Plugins to Create Smart Coming Soon Page for WordPress

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