What is the rule for how fast you should be responding to your business e-mails?
The short answer: As soon as you can.
The long answer: It is obvious that some e-mails will be more important to you than others. It also is clear that we only have so much time in a day and there will be days where you will be unable to reply to any e-mails at all. So, you do the best you can to reply to everyone as soon as you can.
Business contacts look at e-mail as an instantaneous medium. They know that their e-mail is in your inbox waiting to be downloaded or ready for you to read usually within minutes to hours of clicking Send.
If you are out for an extended time, by not making the Sender aware you are away with a courteous away message, the Sender will assume their e-mail is received but ignored. If not responded to promptly, the Sender may assume that in your view they are not a priority.
If you are so busy that you cannot respond at all (you are there but not “away” to require an away message be in place), you are in fact deciding to ignore the Sender — even if for the time being. And that’s exactly what they will assume. You’ve made a decision that their e-mail is not important to you or you would have responded.
There really is no gray area here. Perception is alive and well in regard to how quickly you respond to those who take the time to e-mail you. Of course, this does not include spam or irresponsible forwarders.
If you are simply swamped or have other responsibilities that keep you from responding in detail, a short message stating your situation and that you will respond in detail as soon as you can is highly recommended.
Remember, e-mail isn’t just about you, how busy you are or what you feel is important to you at that point in time. Especially in business where partnerships are critical to your success, acknowledging the human being involved (the Sender) on the other side of your screen shows you are a business partner that can be counted on.
What type of business partner do you want to be?