Sorry for the late reply: How to Respond to a Late Email
Michelle Le Cras
,
Growth Marketing Manager
Last updated:
October 22, 2021
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In 1976, Elton John proclaimed that “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” 45 years later, the phrase “sorry for the late reply” still marks the beginning of thousands of emails sent daily. But do you really need to apologize? And when is a reply truly late? In this article, we take a deep dive into late responses and show you how to handle them smoothly.

Do you need to apologize for a slow email response?

Late email replies are so common for businesses and individuals that they have their own awareness day. April 30 was designated Email Debt Forgiveness Day by the podcast ‘Reply All’ to encourage listeners to tackle unreturned messages. 

When to say sorry for the late reply

If you find yourself avoiding some email replies hoping the sender will just forget about them, you are not alone. But when is an email response late? 

A study by the USC Viterbi School of Communication found that one in two emails received replies in less than an hour. Nine out of ten emails received a reply within a day or two. After 48 hours without a response, there is little chance of a reply. Teenagers are the fastest age group to respond to emails, and laptop users take longer than those on mobile devices. 

In a professional setting, expectations for fast replies are high. Especially if you are in an office-bound role, senders expect you to see emails almost instantly. Many companies have public email policies stating the duration within which staff is expected to reply. If you exceed that limit, it’s time to apologize. 

When a reply becomes a late reply also depends on your organization and your industry. A 2015 survey found that 12 to 24 hours was considered appropriate. With the advent of instant messaging, most customers are likely to expect a faster response. As a rule of thumb, saying sorry for the delayed reply makes sense if you are unable to respond on the same day. 

Moreover, if you agreed to review an email and reply to it within a certain time but are now running late, the sender deserves an apology. The same goes for emails that specify a deadline by which a reply is needed.


sorry for the late reply


When an apology isn’t required 

Sometimes there is no need to apologize for a late reply. First of all, consider whether your reply is late: did the sender expect an instant response? Often, the answer is no, and a reply within 24 hours is completely acceptable. 

Think about the nature of your business. If you are working for a bank or similar institution with distinct opening hours, it is normal to reply within those hours. The same goes for emails received during recognized public holidays. A reply on the next working day is not a delayed reply. 

Next, think about group emails. Check whether any questions are directed at you. The good news is you may not be expected to reply at all. If you do decide to share thoughts later, there is no reason to say sorry. 

Then there are newsletters and other sales and marketing emails. Even if you do choose to reply, there is rarely a need for an apology. 

Sorry for the late reply: four great examples and use cases

Less is often more when it comes to apologizing for a late email reply. In some cases, it’s worth explaining your reasons. In others, it’s better to get straight to the point.

Example 1: keep it short

In most cases, a simple acknowledgment of the delay is sufficient. It’s enough to show the recipient that you care and understand you caused a delay or an inconvenience. 

Dear …, 

Let me start by apologizing for my late reply. 

I really appreciate the work and thought you put into your proposal. Below are comments and suggestions, which I hope you will find helpful. Please do let me know if you would like to schedule a call to discuss them. 

Point 1…

Point 2…

Point X…

Once again, apologies for the late response, and I look forward to seeing the finished project. 

Best wishes, 

With the apology out of the way, you can get straight to the point. Make sure you address any questions the sender asked so that your delayed reply is complete. 

Most people will forgive a short delay but forcing them to follow up on incomplete answers can lead to a permanently damaged relationship.

Example 2: explain your reasons

On rare occasions, it is worth going into greater detail to explain the delay. Whether you choose this option over a simple, short apology depends on your relationship with the sender and the circumstances that caused the delay. 

If you have a close working relationship with the sender, sharing your reasons for the late email response can strengthen that connection. 

Dear …, 

Let me start by apologizing for my late reply. We experienced server problems over the past couple of days which created a bit of an “all hands on deck” situation. Luckily, we secured all data and deployed our backup strategy. 

With servers back on track, I would like to say I really appreciate the work and thought you put into your proposal. Below are comments and suggestions, which I hope you will find helpful. Please do let me know if you would like to schedule a call to discuss them. 

Point 1…

Point 2…

Point X…

Once again, apologies for the late response, and I look forward to seeing the finished project. 

Best wishes, 

This option needs to be carefully considered. You want to avoid divulging too much information or causing additional concern, especially in a professional environment. If in doubt, choose a brief, simple apology.

Just as in our first example, once the apology is made focus on replying to each item the sender raised. 


Example 3: saying no

Are you putting off your response because you know the customer won’t like what you have to say and you don’t want to upset them? Saying no is never easy, especially if you know how valued that customer is and can’t afford to lose them. 

The problem is, delaying your response will not make it easier for the recipient. In fact, they are probably getting more worried every day they don’t hear from you.

Perhaps you have suggestions that may improve the situation but not necessarily fix it. Perhaps your ‘no’ is more of a ‘not right now’. It is worth letting the sender know that. 

Dear …, 

Let me start by apologizing for my late reply. 

As you know, we value your product feedback and depend on it to help us build our product road map.

After spending the week reviewing your suggestions internally with the development team and although we are not able to do X at the moment we did find a great alternative solution that will ensure the visibility your team needs to achieve X. 

Could we set up a meeting this week to show you exactly how?

Once again, apologies for the late response, and I look forward to partnering alongside you through this company project.

Best wishes, 

Done well, this delayed email response not only deals with the lateness quickly but also shows how much you value them as a customer and that you are working to provide a thoughtful solution.


Example 4: extremely late replies

We’ve all been there. You read an email, you didn’t reply straight away but also forgot to schedule a reply or mark it as unread, and it simply dropped off your screen. 

You forgot all about it. Since then, weeks and months have gone by. Finally, you are clearing out your inbox – and there it is: that two-month-old email asking important questions. Now, you could consider putting off your reply until Email Debt Forgiveness Day. But chances are you won’t be able to forget about it now. So here is one way to reply: 

Dear …, 

Apologies! That really is all I can say for my extremely late reply. 

I did read your email when it arrived but managed to let it slip off my screen without replying. With so much time gone by, can I ask if you still need answers to your questions? 

I would be delighted to help. Please do let me know if there is anything you require. If it is easier, we can also schedule a call at a convenient time.  

Once again, apologies, and I look forward to hearing from you. 

Best wishes, 

This sorry for the late response email starts a bit more emotionally to highlight just how sorry the sender is. It will work best when there is a strong (working) relationship between the two parties. Here is a more formal alternative:

Dear …, 

Please accept my sincere apologies for this late reply to your email. 

With so much time gone by, can I ask if you still need answers to your questions? 

I would be delighted to help. Please do let me know if there is anything you require. If it is easier, we can also schedule a call at a convenient time.  

Once again, apologies, and I look forward to hearing from you. 

Best wishes, 

This version goes back to the idea of keeping the apology short but genuine and then moving on to the actual subject.

Depending on how much time has passed since the original email was sent, it is preferable to ask whether the information is still required. Whilst it does force the original sender to reply, it also avoids more wasted time and effort on both sides. 

sorry for the late reply


Four tips for faster email responses 

Ideally, you want to avoid having to apologize at all and instead respond to emails as timely as you can. Saying that this may be hard to put into practice. According to Campaign Monitor, the average businessperson receives more than 120 emails per day. It’s a big ask to reply to all of them in-depth. 

Luckily, there are a few tricks of the trade that will help manage your email load and allow you to focus on your priorities for the day. Workflow automation may sound like science fiction, but it is really about working smarter not harder.


Collaborate with your team 

sorry for the late reply

Most questions can be answered by more than one person in an organization. If your workload is high, and your inbox is starting to bulge at the seams, collaborate with your team to make sure customers receive replies in time. Shared Inboxes is a great way to share a general inbox like support@company.com with your team and give them visibility into the the status of any email and know who and when it’s being worked on.

Workflow automation can automatically assign emails to those on your team that may have more availability. 

Additionally, sharing context with your team if you need a manager to step in or handing off a customer to another team is where internal email notes come in handy. Instead of forwarding or CCing someone on an email, you can exchange email notes on the side of an email conversation versus getting lost in email threads.


Label high-priority emails

sorry for the late reply


Prioritizing between dozens of emails can be challenging – unless you set up your email to do part of the job for you before you even log in. 

Assessing 100 emails is likely to take the first hour of your working day. That’s not the best use of your time. Setting up automation rules to prioritize emails from selected senders or with selected subjects will arrange your inbox for you. You automatically start dealing with the most important tasks for the day. 


Use templates for common questions 

sorry for the late reply


Hate repeating yourself? Then don’t. Turn your reply into a template instead. Template answers may not be able to do the entire job for your team, but they can help funnel email inquiries and avoid delays. 

Using a template does not mean sending an impersonal reply. Instead, it gives you and your team a head start. From the basis of the template, you can personalize your reply and ensure your customers have an answer in minutes.

Create a few different templates for late replies to avoid wasting more time on those.


Manage expectations

There is no hard and fast rule dictating when a reply is late. That means you get to define what is timely in your organization. You can even customize it depending on your individual customers. 

Auto-replies are an excellent way to send thank you messages or to let customers know that their request has been received. Letting them know when to expect a reply is especially useful for organizations that are not particularly office-bound.

Taking better control of your email inbox is a great way to avoid “sorry for the late reply” emails. Gmelius can help.


Take Control of Your Email with Gmelius

Gmelius is an email collaboration platform designed for teams that use Gmail and Google Workspace. Our goal is to help teams in a variety of businesses and industries simplify the way they collaborate via email, as well as how they manage projects and automate their unique workflows. We want to make it possible for professionals to do this directly from Gmail using everyday collaborative tools like Slack or Trello. 


Ready to change the way you manage your email and other collaborative tools? Get started with Gmelius for better, faster email management today.

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