The problem with e-mail as a professional communication tool

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Technology
July 6th, 2005 • 7:05 am

In my personal experience, there is a major problem with using e-mail as a communication tool in a professional environment. The problem is simple: people don’t acknowledge receipt. E-mail communication is not 100% reliable and there are many situations where one really needs to know very quickly whether someone has received one’s e-mail message or not.

The lack of reliability is due to a variety of factors. The main problem these days is spam/virus filters, which can sometimes be overzealous or badly configured and flag as spam things that are legitimate e-mail messages. If the user of the system with the spam filter doesn’t check his/her spam regularly, or deletes it automatically without checking it, it can become a major problem.

Even when a message is not flagged as spam, there can be delivery failures that cause the message to bounce back to the sender. The problem is that this bouncing back can take a while — sometimes 24 or 48 hours, because the sending server keeps trying to send it again and again, before finally deciding that it can’t and notifying the sender of the failure. During that time, the sender has no way to tell whether the message has been delivered and received properly by the recipient.

I know that there are some technologies out there for requiring recipients to acknowledge receipt, but these technologies are far from universal and standard.

In my experience, simply asking people to acknowledge receipt does not work. Whenever I send an important message for which I need to know if it has been received, I insert the following phrase (using Spell Catcher X‘s glossary function):

Please confirm that you have received this message.

It’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Yet I would say that less than 50% of those people that receive messages from me with this request actually do acknowledge receipt. It’s really hard to fathom. Even if I ask them repeatedly to acknowledge receipt of important messages, even if I ask them over the phone — they still don’t do it. What is wrong with these people? I simply don’t know.

But the fact of the matter is that I cannot get them to acknowledge receipt. So I really think we need some kind of technological tool to assist with this. Of course, we need to be careful here not to impose anything that might encroach on people’s privacy. After all, one of the great benefits of e-mail is that it frees us from having to be available at all times to reply right away. It gives us a “virtual” presence that enables us to receive communications even when we are not available and respond to them as we please.

But at the same time we have to balance this with the need for the sender to know whether his/her message has been delivered and received. When you leave a message on an answering machine or send a fax, for example, you can pretty much be 100% sure that the message has been sent and delivered. Whether the recipient will actually get it and respond to it is another issue, which is basically out of your hands. But you feel that you’ve done your part of the communication “contract”, and cannot be held liable if the person fails to respond and then tries to complain that they didn’t receive the message in time or whatever.

With e-mail, there is no such guarantee. Because of the way SMTP servers work, it might be days before the message bounces back to you and you know that the message failed to be delivered. Until this happens, in the absence of a response from the recipient, you cannot be sure that the message has been received.

Yet as far as I know it should be pretty easy, technically, to design some software feature in our e-mail clients that would not only ensure that messages are sent successfully, but also that they have been received by the mail server that the recipient’s e-mail account is located on. Right now, when I send a message in Mail, I only get a “swoosh” sound confirming that the message has been sent. But that’s it. I don’t know if it has reached the intended target, i.e. the server of the recipient. Yet my SMTP server knows this (I think). So it shouldn’t be too hard to design a software feature that actually checks with the SMTP server to determine whether the message has reached the final mail server in the chain.

It wouldn’t encroach on the recipient’s privacy, because it would just confirm that the message is on the recipient’s server — much in the same way that the tone of an answering machine confirms to me that it is actually recording my message, or that the successful completion of a fax transmission tells me that the receiving fax machine has actually received the fax in full.

Of course, I am not an expert of mail server issues. But it seems to me that this is something that should be feasible. And it would definitely help make e-mail a more reliable tool for professional communication.

3 Responses to “The problem with e-mail as a professional communication tool”

  1. ssp says:

    “Right now, when I send a message in Mail, I only get a “swoosh” sound confirming that the message has been sent.”

    To be fair you should add that the ‘swoosh’ sound only comes when the message has been actually sent… which irritates the hell out of me as sometimes it can take some seconds for Mail to do its work and I’m already doing something else and then irritated by the strange noise.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I actually prefer it the way it is. I don’t need a confirmation that I have clicked on the “Send” button. OTOH, I do need a confirmation that the e-mail has actually been sent — given that I am on a modem connection and that there can be connection failures, etc. I don’t mind hearing the “swoosh” sound in the background while I am doing something else.

  3. Betalogue » iCloud’s silent email filtering: What’s the solution? says:

    […] is why I was advocating for some kind of universal automatic mechanism for acknowledging receipt of e-mails several years ago, and my views haven’t really changed. Unlike direct, live […]

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