(Instant) Email Replies Are Destroying Relationships

A few weeks ago, I blogged about why I think people should spend less time on email.  I discussed some reasons why one could be spending too much time on email. I confessed my challenges with this at one point in my history. For me, it was about accomplishing something to demonstrate value and self-worth and needing breaks when dealing with complex challenges. I now check my emails less than five times per day.

Perhaps the reasons why one excessively clings to email did not resonate. Perhaps a belief that immediate responses are critical when dealing with clients and employees, and perhaps that belief trumps the causes. Perhaps one did not finish reading the post due to an audible ding indicating the arrival of a new email. I heard similar feedback when I gave this advice to the aforementioned panel.

Regardless of the reasons why one is always on email, there are numerous reasons to change. The financial and productivity reasons should be enough. Yet, it is not the most prominent reason to change.

It can destroy relationships. Period. I am not talking about reading email while at dinner with loved ones. I am talking about the relationships with the people on the other side of the email.

It comes down to reality, expectations, and commitments.

Imagine someone wants to send a package via FedEx. The package is not needed until Christmas which is more than two weeks away. She steps into a FedEx store and decides to send it via FedEx Ground. The package should get there within four days which is more than enough time.

After leaving the store, the agent and the entirety of the FedEx team size up the situation. They unanimously decide to send the package FedEx SameDay after seeing the holiday wrapping paper. FedEx never notifies the customer of the priority change. The package is getting there today, and they are not charging the customer for this upgraded delivery. The customer is ecstatic when she receives a call saying her package arrived the same day!

This happens repeatedly for every package the customer ships with FedEx. It continues through the holidays and for weeks afterward. The customer always chooses FedEx Ground. She always pays the price of FedEx Ground. Yet, packages are repeatedly delivered FedEx SameDay.

The customer eventually discovers this happening, and she is ecstatic. It is a deal for the customer, and FedEx never waivers or complains.

It’s reasonable to believe the customer would no longer select the truly needed priority when sending a package. FedEx never committed to anything other than four-day delivery. Regardless, it has always delivered same day. The customer has been trained to expect SameDay service.

That is the case until the one time FedEx a package must get there tomorrow. The customer now has a decision. Should she send it next day or ship it ground?

If she choses next day, she is now paying additional for the same service that has always been delivered at no extra cost. She may feel this is outrageous because she knows FedEx can do it for the same price as four-day. She may have the opposite reaction and feel this is acceptable as an insurance policy. Yet, I question if this is the feeling one wants a customer to have.

She may consider it financially foolish since packages have always arrived the same day. FedEx has never let her down – SameDay, every day.  So, she ships it ground and takes the risk. FedEx is not aware of the imbalanced expectation or the risk. If the package doesn’t arrive on time, the customer is upset and probably realizes she is at fault. It still negatively impacts the relationship because her expectations have not been met.

How did the situation get here? It was a relationship created with initial good intentions by the vendor. It devolved. The misalignment between services purchased and services delivered has created a relationship no longer based on honest expectations. That’s where the problem crept in and began to eat away at the core of the relationship.

Instant Replies == SameDay Service

As a format, email does not innately convey a priority or expected reply time. It does not even contain a requirement to reply. It needs to be explicitly stated.

If a recipient instantly reads and replied to an email, the tone and expectations are potentially being set for the conversation. When it repeatedly occurs over multiple conversations and is not based on committed priorities and time requirements, the expectations on the relationship between the parties is altered.

People are being trained to expect replies not aligned with committed response times. In customer service, clients are being trained to expect this level of service regardless of the contract or service level agreement. As a leader, teams are being trained this is the expectation of each other and from their leader. This is also the expectation when a customer emails.

Are you training your customers to expect messages read and replies faster than the commitment? Are you training your team that this is the modus operandi for customer emails? For your emails? Are you training your spouse that replies must be instant?

Each day is an Instant Replay
They say what we display is symptomatic of addict behavior
– Eminem “Love Song”

Relationships, Expectations, and Commitments

Respect in a relationship is built on met expectations and commitments. Unmet and unreal expectations are critically harmful to relationships. There is no need to create additional ones that will inevitably fail.

Finally, it is potentially insulting. It is about saying that you will set the priority regardless of the sender sending it via a mechanism that implicitly has no real priority. It is about you saying that you are smarter than the sender and will be the one to protect everything by setting this priority and replying immediately.

All of this adds up to being destructive. It can be destructive of your relationships with your team, your customers, your friends, and your family.


Also published on Medium.

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