Apr 2

Managing expectations: A case for out-of-office messages

Tropical islandIt’s spring break in Michigan, which brings with it easier commutes, better parking, fewer calls and the opportunity to cross a lot off your to-do list for those who work this week.

It also brings with it a flurry of out-of-office messages in response to emails and calls. This year, I’ve noticed a wide variety of effectiveness in those messages, ranging from super helpful to why bother.

Robin Keith, the now-retired community relations manager of Warner Norcross + Judd, has always been my aspirational model when it comes to out of office messages. She updated her voicemail daily, letting people know the date, whether she was in the office and available or tied up in meetings and when to expect a return call.

Her email out-of-office notes were similarly helpful, pointing emailers to others who could assist during her absence. She coached a generation of attorneys with this approach very effectively.

I must admit, I don’t change my voicemail as often as I should, particularly when I am going to be tied up in meetings on any given day. I do use the feature when I’m traveling or on vacation. I’m fairly religious about using automatic replies on my email when I’m out of pocket.

After all, that’s what clients, media and colleagues have come to expect – an immediate response that manages expectations. So, it’s puzzling to me when out-of-office messages like the three I’ve received this morning fall into the less-than-helpful category.

Paraphrased: I’m traveling for spring break and won’t be reading email.

While I admire the candor (and secretly wish I could occasionally say I’m just not going to read email), I wish the authors had provided a bit more direction about what I should do in their absence.

Top five tips for out-of-office messages

Here are five things that we all can – and should – do to channel our inner Robins when it comes to out-of-office messages.

  1. Use the feature: The only thing worse than an un-helpful out-of-office message is not using the feature. Last month, I tried for several frustrating days to reach a journalist to confirm details for a set of client interviews. Calls and emails went unanswered for several days, which prompted anxiety in the client. When I finally reached the journalist, he admitted his schedule had changed so he could cover the NCAA tournament. All that flurry could have been avoided if he had changed his voicemail and used an auto response on email.
  2. Be brief: We’ve all had to wade through overly lengthy voicemail greetings that take 90 seconds to get to the point. Be brief when you change your voicemail greeting – and don’t bury the lead.
  3. Be helpful: If you’re going to be away from the office for any length of time, be sure to give me an alternative – can I reach someone else in your absence? Can you leave the phone and email? Will that person actually be available, knowledgeable and willing to help me out? While the above examples met points one and two, they failed on the helpful front.
  4. Manage expectations: The key to so much of success in life, personally as well as professionally. If your out-of-office message has done all of the above, take the next step and manage my expectations by letting me know when I can expect to hear back from you. Will you return emails that evening? all calls on the next business day?
  5. Keep your word: Once you set expectations, be sure to keep your word. If you tell me you’ll return emails that same day, then do so – or refer back to step four and re-manage my expectations.


T.J.’s Monday, April 2 out-of-office, which is a great example of what to do.


2 thoughts on “Managing expectations: A case for out-of-office messages”

  1. Robin Keith says:

    I’m so flattered to be referenced in this important blog post. Updating voice mail and email greetings to reflect one’s availability is a key component to providing the highest level of client service. Mary Ann Sabo demonstrates her commitment to always putting clients first. She is the role model to follow.

    1. Brian Jon Greenleaf says:

      Thanks, Robin — you have been a tremendous mentor when it comes to client service. I’m lucky to have worked with you for as many years as we had together. — Mary Ann

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