by: John Caddell

My technical background is in computer networking. I spent my twenties studying network protocols, designing queueing systems, and working on security issues. It was a great experience that is still useful today, 20 years later, now that everyone uses that Internet thing.

One principle of networking protocols is the idea of guaranteed delivery versus nonguaranteed. Basically, when you send a message over the Internet, it is broken up into tiny pieces, called packets, and sent down the line, mixed up with all sorts of other packets, and finally reassembled into a message on the other end.

With nonguaranteed delivery, the message is just sent out, and the sender doesn't really know if it got there (believe it or not, there are good applications for this). With guaranteed delivery, by contrast, the receiver sends an acknowledgement (or "ack") to the sender saying, in essence, "I got your message, thanks."

The "TCP" in TCP/IP is a guaranteed delivery protocol.

I was thinking about this because I am doing less computer networking these days and more personal networking. Emailing, Twittering, spending time on the phone. And the "ack" concept works just as well here. (Another metaphor for an ack is a "handshake." I like that one.)

Email, to me, is a nonguaranteed delivery protocol. From a technical standpoint, that's nonsense--Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP), of course, sends acknowledgements to your mail server when your message is delivered. But I'm talking about personal communication.

When you send an email, you don't know if someone got it unless they respond. This is the "ack." For much email, lack of acknowledgement is fine. But for others, acks can be very important to maintaining and enhancing your relationships. For example:

  • If someone refers a prospect to you, you should first acknowledge that you got the referral (thanking them is also good!), and you should send another ack when you get or don't get the business. The referrer is curious to know, and also wants to see if you follow through on referrals.
  • If you ask someone a question, and they respond via email, a short ack is good. "Thanks, that helps." They know then that you took the time to read the response and (hopefully) make use of it.
  • If someone asks you a question on email, and you don't have time to answer, you should acknowledge you received it and when you think you might be able to respond. That way the sender doesn't sit waiting for your response to arrive.

There are probably lots of other good times to send an ack. Please post your own ideas in the comments. Thanks, and I'll try to acknowledge all the contributions :-)

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