Can You Really Trust Email?

The other day, Outlook Express sounded the chime on Sara’s computer, announcing the arrival of her latest emails. But the joke was on her. Several of them had been sent more than a month earlier, their delivery delayed because of some Internet snafu.

Of the month-old messages, one had required Sara’s marketing firm to take immediate action on a project. Her inability to act on the urgent request, caused by the nondelivery of that email, ultimately cost her company $1,000.

That blunder was a harsh reminder that as much as we’ve all come to depend on technology, if it’s really important, a follow-up phone call is always a good idea.

Remember the early days of fax machines? People would fax you a letter, send it by mail, and then call you on the phone to make sure you received it. As well, we used to hear “Did you get my email?” all the time. But now that the business world takes email for granted, problems are surfacing.

Sara’s Internet service provider (ISP) was having problems with its email servers. But she didn’t know anything was wrong until the provider eventually sent her a nice apology email that said “We appreciate your patience.” And she’s not holding her breath waiting for this provider to reimburse her the thousand bucks.

Jonathan had a similar problem a year ago. He was sending emails without a care, until he began wondering why some of his recipients weren’t responding. It turned out that he had switched to a different Internet connection that, for some reason, wasn’t getting any emails through to AOL (all unbeknown to him).

No one can afford to lose such mission-critical emails. Here are some sure-fire tips that will help you avoid, or at least be better prepared to deal with, email problems.

Acknowledge. Make it a practice to acknowledge the receipt of important emails. For example, if you want a colleague to send you a word-processing file for your editing, be sure to respond to his or her email with a thank-you email or a quick note stating the file arrived.

RSVP. When sending important emails, include this line: “Please send me a return email to acknowledge receipt of this file. Otherwise, I will assume you didn’t get it.” Some email programs have a “return receipt requested” feature, but you should read the instructions carefully. This feature may not be compatible with your colleague’s computer setup.

Follow up. A “Did you get my email?” telephone call is annoying, but do it anyway if the email is important enough, such as the email Sara got that required immediate attention. (Hopefully, you’ll get your colleague’s voice mail when you call.)

Fax. Jonathan occasionally uses email to send printer-ready files of newsletters to his commercial printer. He also sends a fax of the newsletter layout with the message “Check your email for an electronic version of this layout.”

Get a secondary email account. Occasional email problems are inevitable. Get a free email address account to use as a backup, just in case. Free email addresses are available from any number of places. For starters, check out yahoo.com, excite.com, and softhome.net.

Keep tabs. Your ISP probably won’t inform you of email snafus. If two or three people call to ask if you got their email, visit the web page of your ISP. Many ISPs have “network status” buttons that provide updates of known problems on their systems. In some cases, you can obtain this information by phone from the ISP.

Have a backup ISP. In case your ISP has long-term problems, you’ll need another way to connect to the Internet. If you’re shopping for DSL or cable modem service, ask if the provider includes limited dial-up service. You also can sign up for free dial-up Internet service, if you’re willing to endure a certain amount of advertising when your main ISP is having problems.

Use snail mail. You could always just ignore your computer and send important stuff by snail mail. But you’ll have to figure out how to feed an envelope into your printer. And you will need a stamp and will have to walk to the mailbox. On second thought, perhaps all of us should just stick with email, snafus and all.

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