Your Out of Office Message Stinks

Wow, your out of office message stinks.

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As an email marketer, every time I send out a letter, I get a chance to peruse the “out of office” and bounce replies. Some of them are so amazing.

“It’s our busy season.” <- wait, so you're not going to reply to a prospect because you're busy for an ENTIRE SEASON? Why would I take advantage of your company's offerings.

“I’m away at the beach.” <- while I laud your honesty and lifestyle, lie to me. I'm at the office.

“If you need this, do ____. If you need this, do ____. If you want pizza, press 4.” <- or something like that. I get it. It's helpful. But holy cats. You must be one really busy jack of all trades.

My Ideal Out of Office Message

If I had to craft the idea message for a business or professional who’s out of office for some duration of time, it would read like this:

Subject: Away from __ until __ and not checking (or limited access) to email.

Body: I’m out of the office from ___ until ___ and so won’t likely respond until a short while after then. If your matter is urgent, contact this (one) person, but otherwise, I’ll reply to you by ___.


Beyond that, I wouldn’t do much that’s funny or clever or witty or especially overloaded. Most people see the “Out of Office” at the beginning of a subject line and click delete without reading the body.

Your Mileage May Vary

There are probably some outlier reasons to have more or different versions of an out of office. For most of us, however, I think we’re just worried that we have to cover every base, or that people will be put off by your inability to respond at the speed of light. For the first, remember that this is just email and life will go on. For the second, do you want customers or clients that need immediate responses to any little email? (Rob and Ron, don’t listen to me. Yes, I need immediate responses!)

One Last Thing

If you’re using your out-of-office to tell people that you’re slow to reply, why? You’re highlighting a weakness. Instead, just reply when you can. The world will understand. Or they won’t. But it’s not yours to worry about.

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  • Ben Dunay

    Ferris advocates an out of office even when you’re in the office. So, there’s that, too.

    I’m fine with leaving various contact ppl for different tasks. Sometimes that’s what you need to do as an employee. It’s usually a sign of either a lean team or an over-staffed one. Rarely the employees’ over-doing-it-ness, I think.

    • Chris Brogan

      All interesting perspectives. Thanks for helping me learn.

  • Naomi Dunford

    My favorite? The really moralistic “digital sabbatical” ones. They make themselves sound like they’re thoroughly disgusted with you for sending an email in the first place. I’m like, “Hey, you put your name in the box, Miss Digital Sabbatical.”

    I seriously hope they’re not planning to build a business based on referrals. :)

    • Chris Brogan

      Oh yeah, the sabbaticals. Oh dear. I got a few of those today, too. I just thought longingly about how much scratch I’d have to earn to shut off my business for a while and do that. Too much.

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  • Anita Hovey

    I don’t know. I just set an auto-reply for summer. I’ve set the expectation of “instant” replies for my clients and wanted them to know that over summer I wouldn’t be available “instantly”, but that I was still working. I’ve had great feedback on it… people have tweeted about it, which resulted in people sending me “test” messages just so they could see what I wrote. I’m not saying it’s the best thing ever written, but I had some fun with my brand and it’s working for me.

    • Chris Brogan

      Well then! Looks like you’ve found a great way to make it work for you! : )

      • Anita Hovey

        And now, I’ve had one person who read my comments here, find my website and send me a message just to get it LOL

    • Dave Bowland

      For another view, I would look for another company to work with when my main contact “slacks off” for the summer. Some of your clients may find that funny because they are the same as you, but possibly an important silent majority finds it less than comforting. Or perhaps you don’t have any clients like me.

      • Anita Hovey

        Quite frankly, I don’t want to work with a client “like you”. Isn’t it wonderful to be your own boss and get to choose what type of clients you want to work with? Clearly you and I would not be a good fit and I would have the luxury of saying “no”.

        • Dave Bowland

          Yes absolutely! For some reason your post of your message wasn’t approved but I was able to read it. I jumped the gun on this, as I see from your website that you are in a business that can afford this approach. I was in the mindset of a vendor offering ongoing services of a critical nature (like a product supplier). But this thread exposes the great divide of business owners these days and yes, we can simply chose not to work with each other. Freedom choice is a wonderful thing.

  • SL Clark

    Meh! While I like the Subject line simplicity and the first line of the body, the lack of personality is troubling. If someone does read a line or two, it can carry some of the load. As noted, may increase subscriber rate too!

    As the CEO, god someday, maybe with good fortune, I want a “less than immediately available” message answering on my behalf. This won’t be a simple, blah blah, drone message. Cheers!

  • sedonakathy

    Amen!! Chris, there is nothing worse than an out-of-the office email that is the same for 3 years… Thanks… I’m going to sent your link out to a few people… Hint! Hint!

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  • Daniel Decker

    And… IF you set an out of office email and/or voice mail… change it when you get back. : ) Seems like once a week I call someone and their voice mail says they are out of the office from ___ to ___ but that ____ to ____ was 2 weeks prior.

  • Jim Buckley

    So… I actually have a completely different take on the OOO (thanks to my friend and colleague Fred Steube (@steube on Twitter). At the beginning of the year I replaced my OOO with a permanent message. I change it ever day (adding links that are pertinent to folks I’m working with or ‘news of the day’) and also have found that it manages people’s expectations in a world were ‘instant reply’ is becoming the norm. It might not work for everyone, but for me I’ve found this works great. Like Anita, below I’ve got folks that send me notes… just to get the links. Thoughtful piece Chris as always.

  • Ian Gordon

    I work with a vendor (a digital agency) for a client. The owner and lead developer of the agency use something like – “If it’s really important, drop the mouse and pick up the phone!” Did I mention they were a digital agency? They’re so cool, and fun, and have never received any of the large amount of work I send to the vendors I like to work with.

    • Dave Bowland

      Are you saying you think endless exchange of email is better than the telephone?

      • Ian Gordon

        I’m saying that I like to communicate with my clients in the method they prefer. I like my vendors to have the same attitude with me. Depending on the situation, sometimes phone is best, sometimes email is best. It is often difficult for me to make a call, and frankly having a written history of the direction being given avoids a lot of misinterpretation and mistakes. Sending precise action drive emails rarely result in an endless exchange. Email doesn’t interrupt their work flow or mine. Also, I don’t need the snark when I’m reaching out for help with a problem with their product or service.

        • Dave Bowland

          Right. I get it. Thanks for the reply.

  • Dave Bowland

    Great post. What do you think about people such as myself who check email only 2 times a day
    (10am and 3pm) having an Out of Office message, or do you think it’s
    best simply to have people get used to it (as in the “slow to respond”)
    people. I am amazed at how gumpy people get when you don’t respond
    within 1 minute!

  • Daisy Wright

    My thoughts Chris:

    I like your Subject Line and will use it in future. Mine used to be “Absence Alert!”

    I would, however, edit the message as follows:

    Subject: Away from __ until __ and with limited access to email.

    Body: I’m out of the office from ___ until ___ and might not be able to respond until then. If your matter is urgent,
    contact this (one) person, but otherwise, I’ll reply to you by ___.

    You asked for my thoughts!

  • Julie Hall

    I’m just going to add a slightly different perspective… I quite like knowing that someone is on holiday – it makes them more ‘real’ and quite often gives me a point of connection if I reply to their ‘holiday’ email. They usually notice and respond to my reply when I say I hope they had a good time… Just my 2 cents.

  • DJ Waldow

    I’m a bit mixed/conflicted on this, Chris. On one hand, I understand the importance of short/direct/to-the-point. On the other hand, I think a fun/creative/witty/funny OOO Auto-responder gives a slice into the HUMAN side of us all.

    My favorite OOO’s are from folks like Gini Dietrich and Ann Handley. Chris Penn has some great ones too.

    Does everyone read them? Most likely not. However, those that do tend to enjoy them. My most recent OOO (from last week) included a link to the “Baby Got Back” dance-off my wife and I DOMINATED a few years ago … at her sister’s wedding.

    I had a TON of replies from people commenting on how unique the OOO was and really made them smile and laugh. It gave me the opportunity to start/continue the email conversation with some folks that I would not have otherwise.

    … just another perspective.

    • Cision NA

      I LOVE GINI’S OOO REPLIES. LOVE! When I see OOO I typically don’t read (I figure I’ll get a reply when/if the person has a chance upon return) but Gini’s immediately grabbed my attention, kept it, and made me laugh. Perhaps she’ll get more emails than she typically would because people will respond to her comical OOO, but it’s another way to show your personality – and in a world that has a lot of noise, it’s good to do that whenever we get a chance :)

      Thoughtful post, @chrisbrogan:disqus, and thoughtful response, @djwaldow:disqus! Now I need to figure out how to email you and Ann when you’re OOO so I can see your messages :)


  • Caitlin Howard

    Great post. I think it’s important to have an out of office reply that is to the point. I don’t need to know where you are, I just need to know how long you will be gone and how you will reply.

  • Miriam Ortiz y Pino

    I’d like to comment but I’m about to leave my office for the weekend. So, I’m not going to. :-)

  • Terry Simpson

    I no longer use out-of-office replies- because most places I go in the world there is internet. I don’t like people knowing that I am away, or where. If someone gets testy with me about response time- there is always an excuse (i was in the operating room, I was on a jet without Gogo, I was in the hospital recovering from trying to tame a tiger. Or, my favorite- sorry, your msg ended in my spam file. As a surgeon, sometimes patients need to get a hold of me fast, and they can call the office, who will refer them to the on-call guy. But I like the thought that patients feel they can get a hold of me anytime for an answer — and sometimes when I am up with my 3 yo at 2 am they get one.

  • Bill Freedman

    Right on, Chris. I share your angst about some people who have a tough time with adjusting to the nuances of email in the modern age.

    One more thing to ponder: the segment that gets the most out of office replies is email marketers. Folks who share contact information of their managers, coworkers, assistants or others are providing a goldmine to lead development teams. I am one of those email marketers and I counsel my clients to hire a junior person to mine out of office replies for additional contacts within organizations that are a good fit for our services.

    What do i do? I haven’t used an out of office message in over a decade.

  • Kanti Kumar

    Good practical advice, @chrisbrogan:disqus . I try to keep my message to the fact, as you suggest, although didn’t think of customizing the subject line… Thanks for the suggestion! I use out-of-office message only when I’m away for days in a row, during which my clients need to know who to contact in my absence. For shorter absences (up to a day or two), their queries can wait. Also, I make it a point to set up out-of-office messages only for internal and external clients (selected), not the whole world. So email marketers and others who are sending non-urgent messages don’t have to deal with my OOO messages.

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  • Kimberly Crossland

    Nice tips! In today’s world of expected immediate gratification, there’s certainly a need for out of office messages. But you’re right, overdoing it can be ‘in your face’ or just plain off putting. Good post!

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  • Karl

    Hi – thanks for the tips. Is there a way that I can set up ‘Out of Office’ but change the wording in the automated reply so it doesn’t say ‘Out of Office’ but instead I ‘customise’.

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