Knowing how to politely ask for an update is an essential part of effective business communication. When you request an update, you want to ensure you are staying on good terms with your customer, colleague or supplier.
At the same time, it is important that you achieve the outcome you require – a status update.
Studies have shown that the average employee receives more than 200 emails a day. If you have failed to receive a response to your request for updates in the past, understand that is rarely personal.
Your email is fighting for attention with potentially dozens of other emails (many of them so-called FYI mails) that have recently arrived in the recipient’s inbox. In order to achieve your desired outcome, you need a strategy which will deliver results.
Read on to find out how to write a polite and effective request for an update.
The three principles of update requests
There are three key principles to most status updates which are:
- Be direct
- Set a deadline
- Use a clear call-to-action
The vast majority of status updates that you will use in your day-to-day business communication only need to have these three components.
If the reason that you require the update is already understood and no justification is required, then a simple example like this will be the best approach: “It would be great to hear how things are going with the delta design project. Could you please send me a quick status update by the end of day?”
Make your request clear
Being polite in your business communication is of course important. But, be careful when composing your request for an update.
A lengthy justification for your request or softening language can make it unclear for the recipient what you require from them.
You want to make it as easy as possible for the recipient to understand and comply with your request. Keep your email simple and to the point.
Put a deadline for response
Make it clear when you want a response by. This will provide clarity to the recipient about your own expectations. If the recipient fails to provide a response within the given time frame you will know that you need to follow-up.
It will also seem reasonable to follow-up because you have established when you need the update by. A common mistake is to put a deadline too far into the future.
Because you want the recipient to comply with your response, it is natural to think the more time you allow them, the more likely it is that they will do what you are asking. However, the reverse is actually the case.
If a task is far into the future, we mentally assign to something we will do later. If a task has a pressing deadline, then we are much more likely to do it now.
Of course, you need to allow for a reasonable amount of time to complete the update that you require, but not so much time that it is mentally allocated to future tasks which are likely to be forgotten. Creating a deadline, creates a sense of urgency and importance.
If needed add in a simple justification why you need to have the update by a certain time, such as needing to meet your own delivery dates.
Provide a call-to-action
The call-to-action is the step that you want the person to take next. In general, you will want to end your email with your call-to-action and make it a new sentence or paragraph.
For many business emails the next step when requesting an update will be clear to both parties. In this case it is sufficient to simply ask for “an update”.
However, if the process by which you want to be updated requires more than an email response, then this should be stipulated. If you require an update in a different format, such as updating a spreadsheet, again make your expectations clear with your call-to-action.
If you are expecting a phone call for the update then include this information:
“Could you please give me a call for a 5-minute update on the figures before 5pm today?”
Finally, make sure that your desired call-to-action is reasonable.
If any update involves an hour of spend on a spreadsheet, then you need to make sure that the person has sufficient time to comply with your request. Either make compliance simpler, by asking for a quick 5-minute call or an email summary, or if allow for more time for the update.
Provide a “because”
If you want to increase compliance with your request for an update, a simple trick is to add in a “because”. Justifying your request, will make it significantly more likely that people will follow through with providing an update.
One thing that is interesting about providing a justification, is that the reason doesn’t actually matter that much.
In 1978 Ellen Langer a researcher at Harvard conducted a study on the power of the word “because”. Langer used a live study where participants requested to break in line to use photocopy machine at the college campus. Due to the fact that this was before at home computers, the lines for these printers would often become quite long.
Participants in the study would request people lining up if they could go in front of them to use the photocopier. They used one of three lines:
A – Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the machine?
B – Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the machine, because I have to make copies?
C – Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the machine, because I’m in a rush?
The compliance for each of these three different requests was as follows:
A – 60% compliance
B – 93% compliance
C – 94% compliance
What is fascinating about these results is that request B is barely a justification. Despite this the rate of compliance was almost the same as when a genuine reason was used. This is due to the fact that we use “because” as a heuristic, of a justified reason.
If the stakes are relatively low people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the validity of that justification.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t aim to provide a valid reason, but in a pinch simply adding because to your email should help.
“I’d love to get an update on the Browning’s report, because Susan has asked me to feedback at tomorrows morning. Are you able to send through an update by 4pm today?”
Reassign if necessary
If possible, it is to identify why someone has failed to provide you with an update.
In some case the failure to provide an update is due to that person either being either too busy or not the appropriate person in the first place. In a scenario where you know someone is busy, and understand that task could be reassigned to another person, then you can use the following approach.
I’ve heard there has been a number of changes regarding the project, so I’m aware that you already have hands full, and are focused on meeting the new delivery dates. I understand that you may no longer well placed to update the sheet that I sent through last month. Let me know if you want to assign updating the sheet to someone else, because We are aiming to have this updated before the next project milestone.
I believe that Maria has availability to complete the update by next Wednesday. Could you let me know by the end of day if you would like me to proceed with reassigning to Maria?
Feel free to give me a call if you want to discuss this in more detail.“
Make it mobile friendly
You may be writing your email on your laptop or desktop computer, but chances are it will be read on a smartphone. More than 61.9% of all emails are opened using a phone. Many of these people will consuming your email content while on the go.
The recipient of your email will often be skimming the content and then flagging it to respond once they are back in front of their computer. While you may have spent considerable time composing the best request for an update, the person who is consuming that email will frequently be reading through it while multi-tasking.
Understanding that your email will be consumed using a smartphone, and quite possibly while the person is on the go, guides how you should construct your email. The recipient’s attention will almost certainly be scarce.
You need to make sure that you are being concise and action orientated. Read through your email before sending and ask yourself if someone who is distracted would be able to quickly digest your request.
The key takeaway from this is that people’s attention is scarce and you need to respect their time. By keeping your emails concise and to the point, you not only make your communication clearer, you are also showing that you value their time.
A polite email which uses the three key principles of directness, clear call-to-action, and a deadline, is the most effective approach to requesting an update.