Email tip: A peer-to-peer discussion group does not come with a service level agreement

Most email discussion groups are not official support channels. There are a lot of peer-to-peer mailing lists inside Microsoft, consisting of people who are interested in a particular topic, sharing tips, providing advice, helping each other out if somebody runs into a problem, but they aren't the official support mechanism for the product group.

Here's an example based on actual events. Consider a hypothetical mailing list called Excel Users. Somebody asked a question seeking advice on how to set up a worksheet with specific characteristics and features. A second message was posted:

We are still waiting for your advice on how to accomplish this.

A peer-to-peer discussion group does not come with a service level agreement. These are just people who use Excel and help each other out in their spare time. There is nobody whose job it is to monitor the mailing list and ensure that every request for assistance gets driven to a resolution. If you want that, then go to the official support team.

What made this example particularly noteworthy was that the question was asked at 10pm and the demand for a follow-up was made at 10am the following day, barely 12 hours later, eight of which people most likely spent sleeping.

Comments (15)
  1. wotsit says:

    That’s why mailing lists are a bad mechanism for that kind of thing. It is a trivial thing to do to answer the email without informing the list (Reply-To is normally not set to the list, so it takes discipline to keep discussion on the list). Since the absence of an email on a list doesn’t imply that the problem hasn’t been solved, some people might think it has been solved, especially if the problem is (to them) trivially easy to do.

  2. KenW says:

    I see this quite frequently in the support newsgroups for my compiler vendor. Someone posts a question, and a short time later (often measurable in minutes) posts again with something like "Isn’t anyone going to answer?", or on one occasion lately, "Well? Nobody here smart enough to help?".

    Of course, those (especially the last one) make me want to immediately put down everything I’m doing in order to rush help to them.

  3. Greg P says:

    Not related to mailing lists, but I have another example of someone not thinking things through.

    all times are for my location, about 8 hours difference from India:

    5 p.m. I leave for the day.

    6:30 an email (from India) "hey, can you please send this file".

    3 a.m. another email "hey, we really need that file, can you please send it."

    8:45 a.m. this one was sent to my entire group, we were just getting in: "Hey we never got a response, can someone over there pleace send this file."

  4. Josh says:


    At least within MS, hitting "Reply All" is the default; unless someone specifically requests a "little ‘r’" virtually all responses go to the list as well.  Even if someone takes a help thread "little ‘r’" for a while (because there is a lot of nitty gritty the list doesn’t need to see), they usually post back when the problem is resolved.

    Of course, while solving your problem, it adds the new problem that you need to set up tons of message sorting filters to avoid having your inbox completely clogged.

  5. Me says:

    I see no “demand” for a follow-up in the second message.  You read too much into things.  

    [s/demand/establishment of expectation/ -Raymond]
  6. Flustered says:

    I’ve frequently seen forums postings like this coming from India, where apparently they haven’t noticed that they’re roughly 8-11 hours off from North America and also haven’t noticed that people provide help on forums for free and for fun and to develop a community that helps one another, not just experts helping whining morons who should do a little of their own research first.

    It’s particularly frustrating when it is clear, even after discounting that it is hard to express nuance in English when it is not your native language, that someone is getting really upset with you for not being their personal forum answer slave.

    Forums are not entitlements.

  7. Merit says:

    My company refuses to create any kind of informal discussion lists or help mechanisms for apparently just this reason.  Apparently our corporate overlords are not familiar with the term "cutting off the nose to spite the face".

  8. DEngh says:

    It’s poor form to seemingly *require* a response from a peer support list.  Whether people think an issue has been solved or not, non-response *is* an option for the situation.  For any or all members of the list, whether they have a response or not.

  9. Frank Gainer says:

    When I see this kind of thing happen, invariably the sender either gets "plonk"ed or ridiculed mercilessly.  

    People who really need answers must learn to craft their questions in such a way that all the geeky readers are eager to whip out their rulers to show how brilliant they are.

  10. Irina Yatsenko says:

    On the list my team "sponsors" (meaning we feel responsible for providing support even though it’s supposed to be peer-to-peer) we answer everybody. Even if the person asking the question isn’t very polite. Some simply don’t realize the dl isn’t for official support requests (actually we’ve seen the helpdesk send people our way – cannot blame those poor users after that), some might have difficulties with English, and some might not be familiar with the concept of peer-to-peer group. Most of them aren’t morons, and those who are provide me with enough amusement for a day…

  11. war59312 says:

    Newsgroups (and IRC) sure was fun in 1997. 99% newbies! Amusement 24/7! ;)

  12. I’ve had similar from family, friends and work collegues. Just because I *WORK* in the IT sector doesn’t mean I give SLA’s to any of the above named when I’m trying to be helpful!

  13. My favorite is when the helpdesk forwards the message to a discussion list for a *released* product, copies the person, and then says "they’ll help you – I’m closing your ticket now. Thank you, come again." With a helpful subject line such as SR#314159265358 ( it’s guaranteed to get some free support within an hour or two. Go, help desk!

  14. At the risk of sounding 'me too', I'll add my "me toos" http://www.codinghorror

  15. Every now and then, I see email sent to a discussion list that includes something like the following:

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