More on why users keep mailing specific people

June 30, 2009

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the people who've commented on my last entry have attributed this behavior to people's desire to get their issues dealt with promptly (to some, this is jumping the queue; what you could call a 'vigorous discussion' has broken out in the comments about this, rather to my surprise). I have a couple of reactions to this view.

First, I am pretty sure that this is not why people here do it, at least for the kind of cases that I'm thinking of. We don't have a trouble ticketing system or the like, just email aliases, and generally the users email the person who was going to deal with their issue anyways; the only effective difference is what email address they use. Hence my belief that our users really do keep emailing specific people because it's easier to remember people than mail aliases.

(From our perspective it matters what they email; when you mail an alias, everyone is in the loop and we have a record of it. But these are internal process issues, not things that the users care about, at least not until the person they emailed is out sick one day. And I actually suspect that they accept that sort of thing happening, because after all they did email a specific person.)

Second, if getting prompt responses is the reason that users are mailing you directly you have at least one problem, to wit either your response times are perceived as too slow or the procedures for going through regular channels are too complicated. If users are also doing it to jump the queue, it is my opinion that you also have either problem users or a significantly dysfunctional organizational environment (at a minimum, one where there is vigorous disagreement over what your priorities should be).

In either case, swatting users on the nose is generally not an effective way to solve your problems (although it is a great way to make them worse). Instead, you need to deal with the root causes, the hard social problems. Sometimes this will be beyond your power; in that case I believe that you need to do the best you can and be as transparent about what is going on as possible.

(If the problem is organizational politics, the last thing you want to do is put yourself in the position of being everyone's chewtoy. Let aggravated people see that it is not your fault, so that they can take their gripes to higher powers. And if you're dealing with problem users, you really want to have management approval of what you're doing; otherwise, you may find out the hard way that the problem users have more power than you do.)

Comments on this page:

By Dan.Astoorian at 2009-06-30 11:05:45:

When your staff reply to mail sent to the e-mail support alias, what name and e-mail address are in the From: line and signature? The staff member's, or the support address?

If I write a letter addressed "To whom it may concern," and receive a reply from an individual, naturally I will tend to address any similar further correspondence to the individual who replied, because it's socially uncomfortable to continue addressing a nameless entity when you know (or think you know) who is at the other end of the line. It feels like addressing someone in the third person while they're in the room, or refusing to look someone in the eye when you're talking to them.


From at 2009-06-30 11:10:21:

Dan makes a good point. The ticket system (RT) we uses has the mail come from our support address, but the name is "$support_person via RT" so the user sees the name of a real person. I've also encouraged our staff to include their name and title in their RT signature so that it is obvious who the person on the other end is.

The central computing group here uses a system called "Remedy" that nearly everyone hates. One of my biggest complaints about Remedy (apart from the expensive licensing) is the fact that the mail is fairly anonymous by default. You have to hope the person you're working with explicitly put their name in the e-mail, or else you're left to try and guess it.

By cks at 2009-06-30 12:01:30:

When we reply to people, our usual habit is to send it from our own accounts and to cc: the general alias. Sometimes people then drop the cc: on further email, but not usually, and if they do drop it I wouldn't count it as an example of what I'm thinking about here. What I'm thinking about is new emails (not following up on any existing issue) that go to a single person instead of the alias.

From at 2009-06-30 13:47:36:

When replying to user requests, added a "Reply-To:" header pointed to the generic alias might be a quick+dirty way to get users to follow up to the desired places. It seems to work for me but of course I have to remember to do that.

By Dan.Astoorian at 2009-06-30 14:24:04:

I know that you're talking about new e-mails, but I postulate that a significant contributor to the phenomenon you're trying to combat is users who e-mail the support address the first time they have a problem, then afterward contact the individual admin(s) they "met" when that issue was being addressed.

My suggestion of setting the From: line to the support address is as much for its psychological effect as for its technical effect. It tells the user: you are receiving a response from the support organization, as opposed to the individual assigned to handle your case in this particular instance.

(It also has the added technical benefit that the admin doesn't get two copies of each reply when a user does a "reply all", i.e., instead of the reply being addressed both to the individual admin address from the From: line and the support address in the Cc: line, it just goes to the support address. It does also eliminate the need for the user to consider whether to "reply" or "reply all.")

If I want to e-mail someone from an organization I've corresponded with in the past, I may well go to my received-mail folders to find their e-mail address, and either copy-and-paste the From: address, or even hit Reply and then change the Subject: line to the new topic. Alternatively, I may go to my address book, which tends to get populated (either automatically or manually) from the From: lines of messages I've previously received.


From at 2009-06-30 20:34:05:

Dan has very valid and good points. I second's description of RT at our site - I very much like the "$support_person via RT <support@...>" text that RT puts in the From: header. This way indeed I can see the name of actual person, and yet replies go to the proper address. This almost ensures that next time I write to support, I would use that address as opposed to digging $support_person from the university directory ;-)

Lev Gorenstein

From at 2009-07-01 14:26:31:

Promptness has something to do with it, but not all that much. Users target specific people for two other reasons:

- they want accountability instead of a black hole and a form letter; try to ignore that e-mail and expect being targeted through other medium
- they want to be sure that the issue is being resolved and not being stared blankly at by a random support monkey
Written on 30 June 2009.
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