My first job out of college in the early 2000s involved answering webmaster email for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. We would get all kinds of questions, but they usually fell in a dozen or so categories and all needed the same standard response. Having a set of canned email responses saved countless hours.
But as I moved away from an office job and into freelancing, I somehow left the canned emails behind. I forgot how much time those pre-written responses saved and how they could make a serious difference in my freelance work.
“While email templates can’t deliver world peace, they can help with all sorts of situations where staying calm, and being consistent are highly valued.” –Chris Lema
What Is Canned Email?
Let’s be clear about what canned email is:
- These are not auto-responses sent out automatically and triggered by filters or other actions. There is nothing automatic about canned email.
- These are not impersonal responses sent out robotically. Rather, they shouldn’t be.
- These are pre-written responses to standard questions that can be customized for each specific situation.
A canned email is ideal when you repeatedly get the same question. Instead of retyping the same answer over and over again, you just pull up the standard response, customize it and add some personal touches.
Why Use Canned Email?
Canned email is a way to save time by reusing the same response. It also ensures you’re giving the best response.
Let’s look at some scenarios where a canned response might be helpful. Customer service situations (like the example at the beginning of this post) are a prime example, though those examples often feel especially robotic because there’s minimal customization or personalization.
As a freelancer, the primary use for canned email is filtering leads. Maybe you have a contact form on your website where you try to do some prequalifying (but it’s never enough, is it?). Your responses to those leads are an ideal situation for a canned email response. Maybe you have specific questions you ask nearly every client (needs, budget, timeline, etc.). Or maybe you end up saying ‘no’ a lot and have a specific rejection letter.
Magazines and publications are infamous for form rejection letters. This is a similar situation, but you’re likely to customize that standard rejection letter and personalize it.
Other situations where you might use canned email include common questions (“Do you do [fill in the blank]?”) or standard messaging you communicate to every client (needs, invoices, overdue notices, etc.).
OK, so canned email saves time. But it also means you’re putting your best foot forward. This is a way to create the best version of whatever it is you’re writing, and then always using that best version. Why send a sub-par response when you can send your best?
Anyone who doesn’t enjoy writing should love canned email.
You’re not likely to give your best when you’re rushed or tired or distracted. If you’re re-writing your responses every time, you’re likely to forget something. You might say it wrong. Your tone might be off or even come across as rude. But if you’re working with a templated standard response, you can say it the best way every time—and be constantly improving it.
Will Canned Email Give You Botulism?
Some people have a negative, visceral reaction to canned email. You’ll often see comments on posts like this one where someone tries to skewer the idea by offering a canned comment. It’s understandable. How many times have you been chatting with a customer service rep and their answers are so straight from a script you wonder if you’re talking to a real person.
Like anything else, canned email can be done well, or it can be done poorly.
“A canned response is not an auto-response. I read each email and consider the best reply.” –Carrie Dils
The key is to customize each email and add personal touches so it doesn’t feel like they’re talking to a robot. If you’re doing canned email right, you’re not regurgitating a script. You’re reading every email and considering an individual response. You’re using a template as a starting point, saving time instead of starting from scratch. But it’s just a starting point—you customize, personalize and tweak to give an individual answer.
How to Do Canned Email
One of the challenges of canned email is managing the responses in a way that actually saves time. That’s one of the greatest barriers to creating canned email—the perception that it would be faster to just retype the email rather than go through the trouble of saving canned responses, storing them somewhere and pulling them up when you need them.
The system you use is crucial. There are several ways to do it:
- Gmail’s Canned Responses – Google actually offers this in Gmail. You have to turn it on under Settings: Labs: Canned Responses, but then you can save your standard responses and pull them up directly in your email (assuming you use Gmail).
- Signatures – Most email programs let you create multiple email signatures. You can repurpose the signatures to store your standard responses. This can be hard to organize, but it works well. Rebecca Gill talked about using this approach in her webinar on project scoping and contracts.
- Saved Drafts – Another approach that works for most email programs is to use the saved draft feature. It’s not as quick, but it does keep your canned responses immediately at hand within your email program.
- Keystrokes – Developers might enjoy creating keystroke shortcuts with tools such as aText or TextExpander. This usually requires remembering the shortcuts, but it can be a quick way to pull in text without copying and pasting.
- Docs – The simple approach is to forgo all the fancy programs and features, and just draft your standard responses in your favorite word processing tool (Word, Google Docs, Evernote, Text Editor, etc.) and pull them up as you need them. This has the added delay of opening a separate program, but you can minimize the time involved by forcing yourself to answer all your email at a set time.
Whatever system you use, find something that works for you. Pay attention to when and where you respond to email and make sure you come up with a system that works the way you work (e.g., a bunch of Word docs on your desktop is useless if you routinely answer email from your laptop on the road).
Best Practices for Canned Email
I’ve said repeatedly that canned email only works if you do it well. If you’re sending robotic messages with no personalization, then yeah, it’s not going to work well.
Here are some tips to do canned email right:
- Customize – Your canned response should be generic enough to fit most situations, which means you’ll likely need to make some tweaks to tailor it for each answer you send. Pay attention to what people say and tweak your response accordingly.
- Personalize – You’re trying to save time, not be a robot. Say hi. Add something personal that’s unique to the person you’re replying to.
- Proofread – Nothing ruins a canned response faster than people being able to tell it’s a canned response. Customization and personalization help, but mistakes will give you away. Especially if you leave blanks or “[insert here]” fillers. Not cool.
- Fewer Keystrokes – Avoid those unsightly mistakes and save time by leaving blank spaces instead of [Name] or [insert here]. That way you just start typing instead of deleting the “insert here” text. Plus, if you forget to fill in the name, “Hi” looks better than “Hi [Name]”.
- Generic – Remember to keep your responses generic. The more specific you make your responses, the more responses you create and have to manage. Answer the specific question and nothing more.
- Update Your Canned Emails – Always be tweaking and updating these emails. Don’t let them get stale or old. Tweak the language and add new responses as needed.
Both Carrie Dils and Chris Lema give examples of the canned emails they use. Check out their examples for some actual canned email language (notice how it’s conversational, personal and anything but robotic).
Think about all the emails you type every day and whether or not canned email could save you time. It will take some upfront investment to get things set up, but you’ll be saving time in the end.