OUT OF OFFICE REPLIES… THE TRUTH, THE CONSEQUENCES, AND THE LIGHTER SIDE…  
     
  Greetings, NSDCAR members!

Over the recent years of increasing use of email as a daily communication medium, we've all seen the ubiquitous "Out of Office" email reply, generated automatically by various email clients or email server software, such as Exchange, Lotus Notes, GroupWise, and others.

At first glance, this feature of the email landscape seems like a great idea; when we're not available, folks who send us email are informed that we're away, and when we'll be back, and sometimes even who to contact as an alternate during our absence.

On the extreme side, and as a source of amusement, one finds the excessively detailed or exculpatory Out of Office reply, offering graphic descriptions of the illness that has taken one "off-line" for awhile, or long lists of alternate contacts such as assistants and secretaries, which one may contact in lieu of the recipient's availability. These kinds of replies are often designed to impress one with how busy the recipient is, or how important… a virtual "thumbing of the nose" to those foolish enough to attempt to contact this busy person during his/her absence/vacation/illness/whatever.

Here at your Association, I often see Out of Office replies that represent the very worst usage of this feature.  It's often obvious that the sender of these replies has either forgotten how to turn them off, forgotten to update them with current information, or worse.

One side-effect of the Out of Office reply is that it serves as a confirmation to senders of Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE, or "spam") that your mailbox is legitimate and can receive outside mail. If the so-called "spammers" receive an automated reply from an email "Inbox", they know that the address is a good one, will eventually reach a real person, and it's worth keeping that email address in their lists, and adding it to any lists they sell to others.  So, if you like "spam", or you have such an excellent spam filtering solution in place that you're not inconvenienced by it, then using the automated Out of Office message might be okay for you.

In today's real estate market, more and more potential clients are seeking to communicate by email, and the busy REALTOR® can use the auto-reply as a communication tool to effectively "touch" a large client list on a regular basis, with relatively little effort on the sender side.  In the interest of being responsive to their clients' email inquiries, many REALTORS® set up auto-replies to let the sender know that their email has been received and that they'll be contacted shortly.

This, on the surface, seems like a good marketing tactic, ensuring that the prospect is comfortable that his inquiry is getting through.  The net effect of the Out of Office reply, however, is often just the opposite.  Experienced Internet users, when they receive these kinds of automated replies, know them for what they are; a quick, easy way to respond, but without meaning, intention, or commitment on the part of the sender.

There is nothing that conveys a lack of interest more quickly than a poorly-worded or poorly-maintained Out of Office reply.  If the language is too generic, it's revealed for what it is… an excuse not to read or respond to email.  If the message contains dates that are long past, the message is certainly "I don't care enough about this method of communication to pay any attention to what I'm saying to you with it".  If the message promises a personal contact within a given time period, and the respondent fails to contact the sender within that time period, then the "real" message is even worse… "I promised I cared about your message, and now I've proven that I really don't… find another, more responsive real estate contact."  Certainly no REALTOR® would intentionally send this message, but the untended auto-reply can say the same thing.  And because it's a passive exercise, where one turns on the auto-reply and then forgets about it, there is a very real danger of having a long-forgotten message turning away business from your electronic doorway, every day.

Another (and perhaps dangerous) practice is giving too much information in an auto-reply.  Telling the whole world that you're vacationing in the Caribbean may make all recipients envious of your travel itinerary, but it will make a professional burglar happy in the knowledge that he knows the exact date of your departure and return. Remember, if you've got an email domain, and someone receives an auto-reply from it, this information can be cross-referenced on the Internet to reveal your home address, in many cases.  The bottom line: don't reveal details in an automated reply that could come back to bite you.

Out of Office auto-replies have their place, and are useful, but they require constant maintenance, diligent follow-up, and a "hands on" familiarity with their usage.  They can be a great marketing tool, imparting useful information and referrals to other resources, such as a web registration page or listings display (yes, you can include live "links" in your auto-reply).  Thoughtful, diligent use of these features as part of a carefully crafted electronic marketing plan is a good thing.

On the other hand, using the auto-reply as a convenient way to dodge or "respond" to potential customers without effort is not going to convey a sense of value to the sender.

Finally, let me share some examples of auto-reply messages that reveal the humorous side of this practice:

"I will be unable to delete all the unread, worthless e-mails you send me until I return from holiday. Please be patient and your mail will be deleted in the order it was received"

"You are receiving this automatic notification because I am out of the office. If I was in, you wouldn't have received anything at all."

"I am currently out at a job interview and will reply to you if I fail to get the position. Be prepared for my mood"

"Thank you for your message, which has been added to a queuing system. You are currently in 352nd place, and can expect to receive a reply in approximately 19 weeks."

"I've run away to join a different circus"

"Hi. I'm thinking about what you've just sent me. Please wait by your PC for my response."