The best thing about what I do? Meeting, connecting, helping and learning from other small business owners. I've been sharing our members' inspirational stories in our Small Biz Stories series, and now want to start sharing with you the tips, tricks and lessons learned from them, from the other amazing entrepreneurs I've worked with over the years, and from my own experiences starting and running three businesses after leaving my corporate career. Have a topic you'd like us to cover? Let me know!
So, you're busy. Crazy, madly, happily-but-overwhelmingly, busy. Hopefully, it's because you've got a flood of inquiries, leads and opportunities landing in your inbox - and a good dose of current clients to take care of - topped off with a good ol' heaping spoonful of life. I'll assume you also know that this a pretty common state of being for small business owners and entrepreneurs, and that it doesn't spontaneously get any easier as your business grows. Knowing that I know most people know all this, I'm continually surprised at how poorly many boss dudes and babes are handling a basic prerequisite for any business: following up and following through.
But, you're BUSY. We all are.
I can't tell you how often a phrase similar to "I'm so busy" is given to me in business correspondence. I get it - I do! We are all busy. If you're drowning in email and struggling (and failing miserably) to get back to everyone in a timely manner, know that you're not alone... but also know that it's not an impossible task. You know that kick-ass friend of yours with a business you admire that always seems to get back to you in a reasonable timeframe, never lets an email reply slip, and just seems to be "on it"? They're not less busy than you are. They're just better organized.
It's about good business. It's about working smarter. It's also, most importantly, about respect.
Your Kick-Ass Business Owner Friend knows a secret that really shouldn't be a secret, but lately seems to becoming one: first and last impressions are everything, and everyone wants to feel that their time is respected. I've noticed that there are widely varying ideas of what is considered "timely", and acceptable response times vary across different industries, but there are some truths I've found that apply to all:
- Almost everyone expects some sort of reply within 2-3 days.
- Many people hope for a reply within 24 hours.
- Some people get a little ornery (and by ornery, I mean reach out to you on all your other forms of contact) if they haven't heard back by the end of the business day.
- Established clients or associates working with you on a very near-term event or project often expect a reply within hours.
In a very scientific anecdotal study*, every normal person in the world expects to EVENTUALLY get a reply if they've made an effort to give you a focused, concise, relevant inquiry or reply to your request. Simply not responding to a valid email isn't a tactic for handling your workload.
*Source: Common Sense.
Does all that shock you? Or does it seem right inline with your own expectations? Whether it feels right to you or not, it's important to realize that your response times - or lack thereof - are making an impact on how clients and potential collaborators perceive you and your business long before you officially start working with them. It was a lesson I learned pretty quickly when we first opened our doors at Social House; three lines of new-to-us business and a lack of hands to help made fielding inquiries a real challenge. It took us more than six months to get our process in place, but we did get it figured out, and now have a return time goal of 1-2 business days for initial inquiries. While we sometimes miss that mark, we've been able to get it mostly right with a very small (and, yes, busy) part-time team.
We did this by:
1. Using email productivity apps
2. Establishing a prioritization process (I call it triage)
3. Adopting a zero inbox strategy
4. Implementing lead management software
5. Including email in our task management process
Before we jump into that, though - a quick tip to help you if you're drowning in email:
If an inquiry is something that's not for you, not in your line of work, too stressful, not something you have time for, etc. than say no. And do it quickly, instead of waffling and pondering and questioning your instincts. Wasting time on an inappropriate request just keeps you from responding to the worthy ones. It also delays the inquirer from finding the right person for their needs. In other words, and because I love a good tongue twister, not saying no helps no one. Canned responses (see below) help enormously with saying 'no' quickly and easily.
Now that we've got those dead ends cleared out of your inbox, on to the real work!
Using Email Productivity Apps
There's a literal deluge of apps, sites and software out there to help you tame your overloaded inbox. If you're a small business owner fielding a lot of email, and you're not using anything to help, you're definitely missing a huge opportunity to optimize your workflow. First steps first:
GmailI was surprised to find that some business owners are still using antiquated email applications, or webmail interfaces through their hosting providers. If you're one of them, I'd suggest changing over. Now. Gmail has a lot of features that, once you start taking advantage of them, will immediately save you time and make you more productive. Even better, there are a landslide of apps that integrate and build upon Gmail's feature base; chances are, if you have a specific problem you need to solve, something has already been developed to handle it. You can easily map your website's domain over to Gmail, as well, so that you are using the more professional structure of email@example.com.
Canned ResponsesFree, included with Gmail and super easy to use (go to Settings > Labs > Canned Responses), Canned Responses are a HUGE time saver for repetitive email tasks. They are basically email templates, allowing you to save commonly used emails and replies for use again and again. If you aren't currently using another system for handling leads, Canned Responses is a great first step: simply create a typical prospect email or inquiry reply, and save it for later use. The feature is particularly useful for 'uncomfortable' emails (which we all tend to procrastinate on), like declining a salesy email or saying no to inquiries that just aren't your jam: create a new email, add in your pre-saved rejection, make a few quick modifications, and get on with your life.
BoomerangIf, like most of us, you don't always work between 9 and 5, the ability to schedule when your emails are sent - regardless of when you write them - is a big deal. A major component of winning the response time battle is managing your clients' expectations, and they shouldn't expect to typically receive a reply from you in the early morning or late evening. I wake up really early and try to tackle my email load in the morning, before everyone else is up and working; with Boomerang, I create my replies and set them to send after 8 or 9am. As an added bonus, Boomerang has a feature that allows you to set a reminder to follow up on email you've sent but haven't received a reply on - one less thing to remember or track in your to do list.
SaneBoxThe Zero Inbox strategy saved my work/life, and SaneBox helped me get there. It's a simple app (with a lot of customization available, if you want it): give it access to your inbox, and it filters your email by relevancy, learning as it goes. Emails that it deems less important go to a "Sane Later" label/folder, leaving your inbox hopefully free of clutter and focused on things that need to be handled immediately. At the end of each work day, you'll get an email summary of all your Sane Later sorted emails for you to quickly look over, and you can quickly choose to review any important ones that slipped by. I particularly love how well this process works when I'm traveling and primarily working from my phone - I can keep tabs on my inbox only, which (hopefully) remains more manageable, and leave my Sane Later folder for the evening or early morning when I have access to my laptop and more time to catch up.
Of course, there are tons of other email helper applications out there, and it's worth taking some time to dig around for those that suit your needs. Once you have some productivity helpers in place, the next area to tackle is your process. I'll be sharing tips for that in part two of this series, which you can see here on Wednesday.
Have an app or general email tip that would help others? Please share in the comments!