Conquering Email: Schedule and Respond

If your email volume is anything like mine, you probably spend a considerable amount of time reading, organizing, skimming, fretting or just plain agonizing over the amount of information you feel obliged to process every day. I know people whose lives are ruled by email – if they get away from the computer screen, their eyes are glued to Blackberries, fingers cramped from frenzied scrolling and typing.

Whether the totally “wired” (or, in the case of many of us, “wireless”) lifestyle represents the debasement of communication and presages the downfall of humanity will be a matter for historians and philosophers. What this humble columnist advocates is simple and modest: Take control of email before it takes control of you.

Taking control of email does not mean ignoring email. It doesn’t require rehabilitation or twelve-step programs. You won’t leave all your clients floundering desperately for answers – though you may have to “realign” the expectations of some of your “special needs” customers. Most importantly, by taking control of email, you’ll reduce the interrupt-driven portion of your workday and become more efficient. As a bonus, if you take control of email using a few simple rules for response, you’ll actually be more responsive to your customers andmore effective in your responses than you are now.

Step 1: Schedule

Consider this: Email comes to us with no rules, no standards of engagement. It is a form of communication that has gathered an aura of immediacy, even though few people agree on just how “immediate” it should be. It certainly should be faster than a mailed letter, but does it need to get there and be read in 30 minutes? In five minutes? In 30 seconds?

The first step in taking control of email is rethinking time. An email is not a phone call, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Yet many people set the frequency of their email checks so that they receive emails every minute or every five minutes. This guarantees virtual immediacy, but doesn’t provide the time needed to process what you’ve received before the next round comes along.

Think of a professional kitchen; someone (often a sous chef) normally processes the orders, feeding them to the line as other items are completed. If waiters just threw orders at the kitchen the second they came in, the kitchen would be in chaos. In a well-run kitchen, the cooks get what they can process effectively at the appropriate time and the restaurant is efficient. Happy customers, happy kitchen.

You need to treat your email the same way: Schedule it so you can process it effectively. For most people with high stress levels and bloated inboxes, I recommend reducing the frequency of email checks toonce per hour. You’d be amazed at how many people have almost gasped with relief at this simple change. Processing email requires attention and often means doing other things in support of your responses: calling the production staff, checking in on an order, etc. By reducing the frequency of your email checks, you increase your efficiency by ganging up more of those support tasks into the time you’ve allocated for reviewing and responding. When you’re getting email every five minutes, you’re bombarded with a new crisis right while you’re in the middle of resolving one.

Step 2: Respond

Now, if you’re like most people to whom I recommend this strategy, you’re saying to yourself, “How the heck am I going to satisfy my clients by only reading my email once every hour? They are going to freak out when they don’t hear back from me immediately!” Well, to paraphrase a hackneyed self-help tenet, the first step is admitting you’ve got a problem. By succumbing to an every-five-minute barrage of messages, you’re simply not giving your poor, caffeine-addled brain enough time to give quality responses to your customers. You’re missing messages, skipping low-priority items and forgetting things that fall to the bottom of your window. Two days later, you’re getting another message from your customer wondering why you haven’t responded.

So, you need to scale back your schedule to process emails effectively, but how do you keep customers happy? Many customers expect fast responses, but email is an odd form of communication to be saddled with an expectation of immediacy. Aside from a few technology tricks that don’t work reliably in every email program, there is simply no way to know if someone received your email. That’s why responding to emails in a timely manner is critical in any customer-oriented business.

There are two chief problems in responding to email. One is obvious: not responding at all. This is what happens quite frequently when you can’t process email effectively. The second problem is responding ineffectively. This happens when a customer has an expectation of a response and the response is inadequate. You solve the first problem by reducing the frequency of your email checks so that you can review and respond to everything.

The second problem is a little more complex, but the single most important piece of advice I give to our own customer service people here is this: respond. Even if you don’t have an answer, let the customer know that you are looking for one. By evaluating email once per hour and responding to everyone, you satisfy customer expectations of near-immediacy and give yourself the time necessary to respond intelligently. Even if you don’t know where their order is, a customer would rather know that you are looking into it than hear nothing at all.

Step 3: Respond Right

That brings us to the topic of quality. If you’ve ever gotten spam, incomplete emails, indecipherable messages or terse, meaningless gripes in your inbox, you know that there is a huge amount of useless noise going back and forth out there. Taking control of your email means improving the quality of your communication. As a writer and a former editor, I could pen 10,000 words of invective about the declining quality of communication online, but I’ll save that for another forum. Instead I’ll toss out two important words: Spell Check.

Seriously. Turn on the spell checker if you haven’t already. More importantly, think about what you are saying. Would you be comfortable saying the exact same words face-to-face with the recipient? Are you using words, phrases, sarcasm or euphemism that could be taken the wrong way or out of context? The impersonal, detached nature of email leaves a lot open to interpretation. I know people who’ve felt slighted, insulted, or even slandered, when the sender had no such intention. Choose words carefully.

Even better, use fewer words. Be brief and efficient. Think about whether or not the things you’re saying add any value. If you’re concerned that you might come off as taciturn, add a friendly message or sign-off to your email signature. The purpose of most business emails is to convey information; the less noise you create with your own communication, the less likely you are to receive a lot of noise in return. Save the pleasantries for phone calls, personal emails and face-to-face meetings.

Go and try this for a week. Get control over your email processing and see if helps you manage your time. Email me your experiences and I’ll put them in a future column. Next month, we’ll discuss in detail how to control your inbox, and I’ll talk about the controversial practice of “email amnesty” and the holy grail of email management: the “zero” inbox.

Reprinted from Identity Marketing Magazine

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