An autoresponder is a piece of sotware that – as the name suggests – responds automatically. In office terms, this most frequently applies to email programs and takes one of two forms: client-side or server-side. The former requires that an individual be logged into their email account with the software running, while the latter deals with the response at the server, even as it delivers the email. The server-side option is obviously more efficient.
The purpose of the autoresponder is twofold. Firstly, it can be used as a means to alleviate repetitive tasks, In this function the software analyses an incoming email and, following defined rules, provides a reply to the sender. Usually, the analysis concentrates on the subject line of the incoming missive, since this is a separate data field and easier to manage, although rules can usually be built to look at the body of text as well. This functionality is used for administrative emails (such as non-delivery of mail and so on), but can be adapted to perform other tasks.
For example, a business which provides information leaflets in electronic form may have a special email address with an autoresponder attached. A visitor to the website is invited to send an email with “Req: xxxx”, where the ‘xxxx’ is the reference number of the leaflet they wish to receive. Rather than have a human at the business end replying to these emails by hand, an autoresponder can detect the subject content, attach the correct document to a reply and send it back immediately. It can even be built to follow up the email some time later for continued client contact. This was a popular use of autoresponse software before the advent of high-bandwidth connections and cheap storage made supplying the document online as a direct download much simpler. Many organisations use this method internally for template documents and so on, especially if they do not yet have an intranet implemented.
The second and most common modern usage of autoresponse software for an employee is an ‘out of the office’ account setting. This allows users to flag their email account for automatic responses whenever an incoming mail is received on the server. Commonly, all incoming mails will be answered with a standard text (which the user has entered) to inform the person who sent the email that the recipient is not available until a particular time or date. Many autoresponders allow users to build rules around their responses, giving them the flexibility to automatically answer in-house emails but ignore potential external spam mail.
An example of this is an employee who is taking their annual leave. Rather than let their messages accumulate, they prepare a message before heading off to the beach which informs people trying to contact them that they are away until a particular date. It is usually considered good practice to provide the name of an alternative contact for important requests. They then switch on the message and go away on leave. Any incoming mail directed to this user’s mailbox is detected by the server and delivered as usual, but an automatic reply is produced and sent with the departed user’s text. Thus, continuity of business is assured.
Virtually all modern email software comes with an autoresponder built in. This is particularly true of enterprise programs, with centralised mail delivery to a server mailbox that the user can pick up from any computer. Microsoft’s Exchange and Outlook (either individually or combined), being the standard for so many companies, obviously include this.
In the case of an individual using a mail client to connect remotely to a mail server (e.g. a home user and their ISP), it is unlikely to be provided at the server end, due to restrictions on space and the added complexity of administering it. As a workaround, individuals can still implement their own local automation by the means of Outlook rules or their equivalent.