We're sharing tips, tricks and lessons learned from the House and our business community in this post series. You can catch the first part of 'Follow Up + Follow Through' by reading Email Productivity Apps. Have a topic you'd like us to cover? Let me know!
Managing the Process
Once you have the basic tools in place, the next step in improving your email productivity is process. Like anything else you do for your business, having an established method to follow results in tasks completed more quickly, more efficiently, and more accurately. Having a well-documented and easy to follow process is also crucial for training others to take on those tasks in the future.
Prioritization (aka triage)
Creating a process for handling email starts with prioritization. I began using the word triage when I got into the event industry, because it's particularly relevant in high pressure situations: "Determining the most important people or things from amongst a large number that require attention" or, simply, "Assigning degrees of urgency." In other words: do the important stuff first. It's a simple concept, but one that can be elusive for those that have a hard time thinking in a linear fashion. As creatives, we often fall into that category.
For email, triage begins with creating a ranking system unique to your business needs, and then adding in a response time commitment (what us geeks call a Service Level Agreement or SLA) for handling each one. A simple example, in order of priority:
- (Highest priority) Urgent/time-sensitive questions and tasks from existing clients: within 2 hours
- Promising new leads and inquiries: within 12-24 hours
- Less urgent inquiries and tasks from existing clients: within 24 hours
- Generating quotes, invoices and billing tasks: within 24-48 hours
- Non-urgent inquiries and tasks from existing clients: within 48 hours
- Less probable inquiries and project "brainstorming": within 48-72 hours
- Invitations, networking, social requests: within 48-72 hours
- Random questions and vague inquiries (can I pick your brain over coffee?) from non-clients: within 72 hours
- (Lowest priority) FYIs, CCs, shipping notices and other randomness
Again, the priority levels and response times should be tailored to your specific business needs.
Having a triage strategy will help you avoid the trap of tackling the easy or more fun stuff first, which can work against you if you run out of time and wind up delaying important inquiries - new sales opportunities, creating quotes, invoicing and billing ($) - because they are less fun, more monotonous or take longer to respond to.
Implementing a prioritization process
To implement your process, labels and archiving (move to) in Gmail come in really handy. How I use them:
- SaneBox usually grabs most of my non-urgent requests and moves them to SaneLater for review at the end of the day, leaving my inbox already less cluttered.
- On my hourly email checks, I manually move the ones SaneBox misses into SaneLater without opening them, so that SaneBox is trained to do that automatically.
- I delete or label + move any emails that don't need a response into their assigned areas: orders I've placed and shipping notices, inquiries someone else on our team is handling, cc'd emails that I don't need to respond to, etc.
- With the rest of the inbox, I guess by the email snippet what a particular email is about, and open/handle them by level of priority.
- I only tackle the SaneLater box at the end of the day or when I've handled all the priority items.
To ensure success, you'll need to stick to the schedule and hold yourself accountable to those response time commitments. Meeting deadlines to current and prospective clients should come first before more fun and less productive activities (that instagram shot of your lunch can wait) and you shouldn't push off grueling tasks like creating quotes or sending invoices - that's the stuff that makes you money and runs your business, after all.
Using task management to handle involved emails
Hopefully, you're already using some kind of task or project management system to handle your daily to-dos, organize your projects, and get stuff done... right? We use Trello* here at Social House and I couldn't be happier with it - and I'll talk more about it in a future post. Whatever method you use, make sure you include email as part of it rather than separate from it. If an email you receive requires more work than you can do right away, create a task for it, then archive or sort it out of your inbox. When the task is complete, you can find the email and reply, if needed.
Embracing lead management tools
If a large portion of your emails are inquiries for your goods or services (inbound leads), using software to better manage those leads might have the largest impact on your work load. There are a ton of lead management applications out there, so searching for one that best fits your industry, needs, size/complexity of business and your budget would be the first step. We chose 17 Hats* about a year ago to help us manage our venue rentals and have been overall happy with the results.
Before we made the switch, we were drowning in inquiries, responding slowly and individually to each one, hunting for marketing documents each time to include in the reply, making manual changes to contracts and PDFing each one, rinsing and repeating each time. Today, the process is much more automated: inquiries go through a form that asks for all the information we need; event dates gathered in the form are automagically checked against our calendar, and flagged as a conflict when we have an existing booking; our replies are email templates that can be quickly personalized and sent out within seconds (yes, SECONDS); quotes, invoices and questionnaires are all templates as well, and can be generated within minutes (yes, MINUTES). No more hours spent handling, responding and generating a quote for one inquiry. It's life-changing.
Even just the smallest implementation - adding a lead inquiry form that gathers the necessary information from prospective clients and formats into a usable format for viewing - is a big step forward in cleaning up your inbox.
Finally, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the 'Inbox Zero' strategy and how it can help you manage your email (and life). The goal of Inbox Zero is simple: keep your inbox empty, or nearly so. What started out as very specific process developed by one person has grown into a general productivity strategy with many ways to implement it, which, to me, is a good thing: you can adapt the concept to fit the way you work best. Here's how I manage it:
- The first, and most important, principle is that I do my best to deal with an email as soon as I open it. Two minutes is typically enough time for me to open, read, analyze and act upon an email: either send off a quick reply, create a Trello card to track and handle the task at a later time, sort to another folder, archive, or delete.
- If I don't have those two minutes, I don't open the email. An unread email is something that needs to be tackled before the end of each day.
- I try to limit the number of times per day that I look at my inbox: once per hour is a good goal to strive for, with additional 'checkpoints' added in when I have some free time or need a break from another task.
- By the end of the day, I should have very few emails in my inbox, and I try to leave a little time at end of business to wrap them up. Anything leftover gets handled first thing in the morning. It makes for busy mornings after busy days, but ensures I usually can read every email and assign a task to handle them within 24 hours.
Following the Zero Inbox philosophy has really helped me manage the email clutter and make sure nothing falls through the cracks. If you implement the steps we've discussed - Triage, Task Management and Lead Management - getting to, and maintaining, Inbox Zero will be a very attainable goal.
Have an app or general email tip that would help others? Please share in the comments!
* These are the applications we use to manage our business on a daily basis, and I'd be happy to show you in person at the House how we take advantage of their features in our daily work/lives. Following these referral links and ultimately signing up for these services gives us a not-so-great but gratefully-appreciated benefit from the respective providers.