Buried in Email
By Julie Adamen
From a management executive:
“Hi Julie! … I’m wondering if you have come across any companies that are having the same problem we are: Too many emails, and not enough time to answer them! Our managers are literally buried in emails! This is a big problem as our contract states emails will be answered in 24 business hours – which we strive to do but honestly there just aren’t enough hours in the day! What are other companies doing about this? Any help you can give will be greatly appreciated…”
– (Name withheld to protect the innocent)
Sound familiar? Of course it does.
Let’s say a manager receives 60 emails per day, and let’s say each one takes (a very conservative) 5 minutes to read, answer and dispatch: that’s 5 hours per day. If a manager received 120 emails per day… do the math! It is LITERALLY impossible to answer that many emails in a normal work day. Our staff is drowning in email communications and it’s only going to get worse as more of society and the industry moves away from phone calls – yet still expects immediate response/resolution. What to do? For starters, here are some practical suggestions for the day-to-day issues, and some thoughts on how we move on from here.
For the managers:
- Use auto-response every day, all the time
Auto-response is the fastest and easiest way to begin managing your inbox, and here’s why:
It gives the “needed” instant response. Everyone wants to know their email has been received, and auto-response gives that touch back to the client.
It can set expectations. “Hi, this is Julie Adamen and you email has been received. Due to the volume of email received, if your message requires a personal response I will do so no later than 2 pm tomorrow. If this is a service request, it will be forwarded to the correct department for resolution. If this is a matter concerning a threat to life or property, please call our office at 000.555.1212. Thank you for contacting Adamen Management.”
And you can impart general information. To the above, add: “For planning purposes, I will be out of the office this Friday attending multiple Board meetings.”
IMPORTANT! Remember to update the response! Check your response daily – is it still good for today? If not, change it! Not doing so not only confuses the senders, it will likely make your email workload worse and makes you look unorganized.
- Triage: Urgent or Important?
‘Urgent’ – Compelling immediate action or attention; pressing.
‘Important’ – Strongly affecting the course of events or the nature of things; significant
Read/respond to/dispatch all those emails as quickly as possible: Emails that can be forwarded to vendors or another department go first. Next, triage, or work on the remaining emails in order of importance, not in order of urgency. Important items are critical information from Board and committee members or service providers, legal issues, liability issues… even political issues can be very important! Emails from your standard complainers (for the most part) are merely urgent, not important. Everyone thinks their email is the most important thing coming your way today – but don’t be fooled. It’s up to you to respond to the “important” (see above) items first, and the “urgent” ones next. Remember, everything is urgent, but not everything is important.
Don’t be cc’d on conversations you don’t need to be in on. Managers don’t need or want (for the most part) to be looped in a “reply to all” discussion about hedge trimming or paint color between Board and committee members. Tell them to include you in once a course of action need to be taken by you.
Practice short and professional email responses to even the worst senders. Have you ever received a lengthy, train-of-thought email full of commentary and opinion masquerading as “deep concern” sprinkled with rhetorical questions such as: “Do you think this is this acceptable in our community?” or “What are you and the Board doing?” (Of course you have, there’s probably one in your inbox right now!). Recognize these types of communications are intended to get you sucked in to a lengthy back-and-forth conversation which 1) is designed to catch you/the Board in a mistake and 2) something for which you don’t have time. Simply write a short, professional acknowledgement and inform them of your course of action: “I have reviewed your communication dated June 12, thank you. It will be presented to the Board for their review at the next meeting, currently scheduled for July 29.” Seldom does even the lengthiest communication require a lengthy response. Be as brief as possible in all your responses.
Never hop the crazy email train. Without doubt you will receive a long, angry email from some group in the community, with dozens of names in the cc list and probably a lot more in the bcc list. Typically these are full of emotion and speculation, not fact, so it’s very tempting to want to jump in and set the record straight. DON’T DO IT! Doing so opens you up for your comments being taken out of context, cut and pasted or changed altogether. It also gives the crazy train more ammunition to use against you and the Board and will likely create hours of unnecessary work for all of you.
Know when to pick up the phone. You know, sometimes is actually IS faster to pick up the phone.
The Big Picture for Executives
Review existing contracts. Is your company operating on contracts negotiated 5 or 6 years ago? Then the email response times outlined in those old contracts may be completely unrealistic today – and not just because communication methods have changed but the demographic of the community(ies) may have changed: They also may be more “needy” than when you bid the account.
Ask for staff input. How much time is being spent on email for each account? Inquiring minds should want to know so service, pricing, policy or training of staff members can be adjusted accordingly.
Give staff guidelines/set policy. I would venture to say that most staff members – especially newer staff members – don’t know what they should get involved in email-wise or how they should answer (brief, professional and fit for public consumption) in general. Consider developing guidelines – or updating old ones – on email responses, provide “form” emails for routine matters and crazy email trains (see above) are not answered by staff without express permission of their supervisor.
Recognize this: New managers will take a LOT longer to process emails than experienced managers, as they have to “earn while they learn” and look up answers to questions, read unfamiliar documents and on and on. So that 5 minutes to process email we talked about up top? Triple that, at least. Is this communication workload burning your new managers out at a faster rate than normal? Can you afford that?
The Big One: Many management companies have agreed by contract to return email in 24 or 48 hours. Is this turnaround realistic, sustainable and importantly, necessary? Or as executives are we making promises that can’t be kept; thus setting client expectations higher than our staff can deliver? Managers I talk to are working all day and well in to the evening hours responding to emails. How long can or will they keep it up?
The Wrap: Executives must take the lead
- Understand communication flow. Where to start? By actually researching the existing communication conditions managers work under, not what we would like to tell ourselves. First quantify by counting the number of emails coming in, where they come from and how long it takes staff to answer; Then determine if that communication processing time is acceptable or excessive (most companies have software that can track this).
- Help staff manage incoming communications. If workloads are excessive, provide new company guidelines on answering those communications, give them “form” answers for standards questions, set policy for the use of auto-response.
- Manage client expectations.
- a) Bring clients in to the process by letting them know the number of emails received from their community as a part of the management report, along with the amount of time it takes (on average) to respond. This could also be a talking point in your company e-newsletter that goes out to your clients.
- b) Consider revising communications in existing contracts; perhaps auto-response is sufficient for low-priority issues and publish this information through your managers, your website and your own personal outreach. Explain why you’re taking this action.
- c) Consider new contracts to be “X” amount of emails per week are included, more than “X” are charged back to the client (non-auto-response emails only). Perhaps this is only for the most egregious violators; but if we start thinking like other professions, we’d be charging for emails now.
Hey, I’m just spitballin’ here, I don’t have all the answers, and of course all companies are different. What I do know is that staff is buried in email and we need to get in front of this present – and looming – issue.