When Your Voicemails and Emails Go Unanswered, What Should You Do?

A few months ago Alex, a marketing consultant I know, met with Sam, the head of marketing at a pharmaceutical company, to explore the possibility of doing a branding project.* They had a great meeting. Or so Alex thought.

But a month later, after the emails and voicemails that Alex left for Sam remained unanswered, Alex was second guessing himself. He figured he did something wrong in the interview and lost the job.

This is not an isolated situation; I hear some version of this story at least once a week. One person reaches out to another with no response and they interpret the silence negatively.

I called Sam who happened to be a client of mine and asked about the meeting. “It went very well,” Sam told me, “I like Alex a lot. A good fit for the project.”

So why the unreturned emails and messages? “I haven’t gotten back to Alex,” Sam told me, “Because we don’t have financial approval yet. As soon as I get it, I’ll call.”

That’s a perfectly logical explanation. Sam has nothing new to share with Alex, can’t actually offer Alex the job yet, so why share anything at all? We’re all too busy to make a phone call or write an email if we don’t have to.

But that leaves Alex in the awkward and insecure position of knowing nothing. Should he send follow up emails and voice mails, pinging Sam to let him know he’s still interested and waiting for a response? I sent an email to my brother, Anthony, a film producer who receives over 400 emails a day, to ask what he thought.

“If I were to get a series of emails from Alex concerned about my silence, I’d be nothing but annoyed. I know how to handle my business, and if I’m not answering someone, pestering me won’t help them. They have to wait until I’m ready to answer — I can’t have their needs trump my needs.”

“But isn’t it an issue of respect?” I emailed him back that evening, a day before Christmas. “Shouldn’t Sam send Alex a quick 30-second email telling him he’s working on the funding and he’ll get back in touch when he knows more?”

I received Anthony’s response when I booted up my computer the next morning: “If Sam has 400 emails to answer a day, 200 of which are crisis emails that he’s prioritizing and answering at, say, 2 AM on a holiday night — LIKE THIS EMAIL — then it’s not Sam’s obligation to write 200 more 30-second emails to people who Sam doesn’t need to write to. Alex just needs to wait.”

That’s the reality of our work lives these days. We all get more emails than we can answer immediately. So we triage. We deal with the crisis and then, when time opens a little — maybe on a plane ride or a weekend break — we catch up with the less urgent ones.

I have to admit that I’ve been in Alex’s shoes many times and I’ve made the mistake of sending multiple messages to the unresponsive person. But as I thought about Anthony’s email I realized something: not a single one of those multiple follow ups worked. Sure the people might have called me back eventually, but I never — not once — got the work.

Because if they wanted to give me the work, they would have called me back without urging. And emailing every few days or leaving five messages doesn’t communicate your great follow up skills, it just makes you appear needy.

So, in this situation — in which Alex doesn’t already have a working relationship with Sam — what should Alex do? There are two possibilities:

One, elevate the follow up to a crisis email. If, for example, Alex let Sam know there was a competing project that Alex planned to commit to next week, Sam would have to respond immediately or risk losing Alex. I would only suggest saying that if it’s true. If it’s not, it’s a perilous gamble.

Two, recognize that it’s not a crisis — at least not to the person you’re trying to get a response from — and accept that they will respond in their own time or not at all.

Then — and this is critical — manage your own emotions. How? Follow up once, after the meeting, and the moment you send that follow up — not a week later but as soon as you hit send or hang up the phone — assume they’re not interested. They’ve said “no.” Close the book. Take the follow up off your to do list. Move on to the next thing.

If they do call or email back, it will be a nice surprise and you can discuss how to proceed. If they don’t reach out, you haven’t stalled in your other work, knocked your head into a brick wall, or wasted any energy stressing about it.

You can always send other information unrelated to the open issue — articles, updates, referrals — that might be of interest and deepen the relationship. But don’t follow up on the open issue.

“Wait a second,” people who read my blog regularly might be thinking, “didn’t you write a piece about persistence, explaining how you didn’t take no for an answer?”

Yes, it’s true and I do think persistence is essential in many situations, like practicing a skill or rescheduling canceled meetings with someone who is willing to reschedule. But sometimes, as in the case of an unanswered email or call, patience, distraction and the willingness to live with ambiguity are more vital.

So, you may be wondering, did Alex get the job? How does the story end? The truth is, I don’t know. I emailed Alex a few days ago but I haven’t heard back.

* some details have been changed to protect the company’s identity