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Out-Of-Office Auto-Replies

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This is one of those topics that I wasn't sure where to fit in the site, but I ultimately put it in the "Quoting and replying" section since it pertains to replies. In particular, it's about the replies that are generated automatically when somebody is away. You've probably seen them, especially in a business environment:

Date: Mon, 05 Apr 2010 15:33:22 -0400
From: "Tom Worker" <worker@example.com>
Subject: Out-Of-Office Reply

Tom Worker will be out of the office until Monday, April 12.
If you have an urgent request that Tom would normally take
care of, you can direct it to Bill at billme@example.com,
phone 555-555-5555, X1234.

Tom Worker
Assistant Grunt, Sales Department
Example, Inc.

How is this done?

It depends on what mail program or service you're using. If you have the misfortune to be using M$ Outhouse Outlook, this article gives some information on how to set it up. Other programs may (or may not) have similar features.

But, really, it would make more sense to set it up at the server level instead of on your PC if you can. Anything running on your PC depends on it continuing to run while you're gone, without crashing, hanging, getting turned off, having your system shut down by a power outage, having it taken over by officemates using it to play multiplayer games, etc. The server, where your mail goes first before you later retrieve and read it on your computer, is likely to be maintained by a professional administrator who aims to keep it up reliably 24/7. That's the place to set up automated replies, if possible. Check with your server admin, ISP, mail host, or whoever it is that handles your mail to see if this is a possibility. If there's a web-based panel to maintain your mailbox, maybe there's an option somewhere in there to create an auto-reply. Don't forget to turn it off when you return from your vacation!

But are there any problems with this concept?

What things related to e-mail, or the Internet, or, really, anything created by humans, doesn't have any problems? Yes, there are some flaws with the idea of auto-responders that lead some to think they're a bad idea all around... particularly when they're badly implemented.

Among the bad implementation ideas is one of sending the reply in response to all messages, even multiple times to the same address. This is bad for several reasons. One is that people can find it annoying to get the same autoresponse repeatedly. Perhaps they need to keep sending you messages even while you're away, to send notes about things you'll need to get to when you return, and they don't need to be reminded every time that you're gone when you already know. But even worse is the possibility of "dupe loops", when two people have autoresponses set up, one of them sends a message to the other, and that triggers an infinite sequence of automatic messages in reply to automatic mailboxes, and before long both of their mailboxes are full. To avoid these issues, an autoresponder should be set up to only send once to any particular address. Some people have complained that responders don't send repeatedly in response to repeated messages, but there are good reasons for this.

Another problem is mailing lists. If you get any of your mail as part of a list, instead of as an individual -- whether it's an announcement list (for instance, one where management sends messages to everybody in the office) or a discussion list (where everybody on the list can talk about some subject) -- then if your autoresponder replies to those messages too, you might bother all sorts of people who weren't even specifically writing to you. If replies are set to go to the entire list (as is often done with discussion lists), you might send your out-of-office notice to a whole bunch of people who might not even know you, let alone care whether you're in or out. If replies go to the individual who sent the message, each person who posts to the list while you're out might get individually replied to in this manner. Some autoresponders are smart enough to recognize lists from the different headers their messages sometimes have, and refrain from sending to them.

But What Really Funny Stuff Can Go Wrong?

Now you're talking. There's a neat anecdote recounted here, where a local authority sent a request to a translator for a Welsh version of text to be put on a bilingual road sign, and got a response in Welsh that was assumed to be the translation, and was placed on the sign; however, it turned out to be the text of an out-of-office autoreply sent by the translator. The morals of this story include that you should probably write your autoreply text in a language (or multiple languages) likely to be understood by your clientele; and you should be careful about trusting the accuracy of any information you get in an e-mail reply (especially if it's in an unfamiliar language).

Other Uses for Auto-Responders

In addition to out-of-office replies, auto-responders are sometimes used to send a form response to everybody who sends feedback to a particular address, usually the contact address for a Web site or company. This might have some use to let the people who wrote you know that the message was received, but a form response is never a good substitute for a personal reply, and if the form letter is all they ever get, they might feel like they're really being ignored.


Next: If you want to send other kinds of things than plain text, such as pictures, spreadsheet files, and programs, you'll need to know about file attachments, which the next article discusses.

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This page was first created 04 Apr 2010, and was last modified 27 Oct 2010.
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