Friday, February 17, 2012

SOP Friday: Email Rules and Etiquette for the Consultant

Email has been the "killer app" since networking began - way before the Internet. It still is THE killer app. But email can also be a massive time-wasting distraction. How the technician manages email can affect service delivery and profitability. Plus it can have a dramatic effect on customer relationships.

For the consultant, we're primarily interested in Email processes and procedures that help you manage time effectively. Once you agree on a process for this, you need to write it up, train your people, and hold each other accountable.

You do not need to follow the process exactly, but you should work on the assumption that everyone in the company follows the same general pattern for their day. At the end I discuss how and why you should avoid the email time-suck. This really does apply to you. Yes you.


Do Not Be Interrupt-Driven

This applies to many elements of your personal and work life. It is particularly true with email. Go into the Outlook settings and turn off all notifications. No dings, no changing icons, no flashing screens. And absolutely no little pop-up in the corner that takes your attention away from what you're doing.

Everyone in your company should have ALL of these interruptions turned off. Period. They add nothing to your productivity and serve no purpose except to keep you addicted to switching tasks and reducing your attention span.

A few people need their email open all the time. But most technicians do not need it open all day. They need it open while checking email. Other than that, it should be closed.


Checking Email

You should process your email a minimum of three times per day. Start with Morning, Noon, and late in the work day. Set specific times if it's helpful. For example, on odd-numbered hours (9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm).

Everyone needs to check their email and appropriately act on the content in a timely manner. This is especially true of inter-office emails. Quite often we need answers from our fellow techs to be able to proceed, and a quick response means the least time lost in momentum for the work at hand.

DO NOT camp out on your inbox and DO NOT attend to any email that pops up.

Unless you are waiting on an email for the project, activity, or Service Request that you are currently working on, only process email when you are between tasks and have set aside time to do it.
Anything else is interrupt driven and only causes you to waste time. Changing tasks distracts your focus.


Processing Email

Everyone at your company should follow the same email retention practices. Here's what we recommend.

First, create a year folder in Outlook Public Folders. For example, 2012 for the current year. Inside that you will create sub-folders related to everything that is important company-wide.

Subfolders might include
- Clients
- Marketing
- Operations
- Products and Services

Within Clients, create a subfolder for each client. I don't recommend that you save every single email from every client. But whenever something is important, such as a discussion about a hardware sale, then file it in the client public folder.

This is an easy way to make sure everyone has access to all the information in your email system that's relevant to specific clients, vendors, etc. Other than matters of a personal or financial nature, all important communications should be in the public folders.

It should NEVER be the case that an important client communication is in the mailbox of one technician and not visible to others.

Even as a sole proprietor, this is a great habit to get into.

Note: At the end of the year you can create the 2013 folder and have a nice little archive of 2012 information. You could even save last year to a PST file and keep it on the server. You could open a local copy if needed.


Second, deal with email in batches.
Early in the day, when you're settling in, is the time to look at the latest Microsoft Partner Newsletter or the latest blast from some vendor. Once you open it, though, DEAL with it. That means read it, file it, forward it, or delete it. If you delete the same newsletter regularly without reading it, unsubscribe.

The rest of the day, do not look at any email unless it is related to business. That means, internal emails, or emails related to to your current projects, Service Requests, or Activities.

This process is very simple and allows anyone to clear their mail box quickly, efficiently, and not end up with 75 unread messages containing client requests for help or information aging away.


How To Read and Process An Email Message

For each and every email in the inbox, do only one of the following actions:

- Reply to it and then Delete or Move the email to another folder
- Act on it immediately and then Delete or Move the email to another folder
- Forward it and then Delete or Move the email to another folder
- Create a service request and then Delete or Move the email to another folder
- Create an Activity in your PSA system and then Delete or Move the email to another folder
- Just delete it

Rinse, Repeat.

Note on business related emails:
- Always enter time or notes to any related SR immediately! If you do not do it now it will get lost.


Logging Your Time

It takes time to process email. We process time in 15 minute increments. It is highly unlikely that you will open an email and proceed to bill time to a client (or log time against a managed service agreement). See Time Tracking for Employees.

If you do log 8 or more minutes dealing with a client issue, then you should lot 15 minutes to the appropriate service agreement.

But more commonly, you will log your time as internal and administrative.

This is very handy for determining how much time employees are wasting "getting going" in the morning. If someone logs two hours to checking email in one day, they probably need to find a new profession. Just sayin.

But you don't know how much time is spent on email unless you track it.


Avoid the Email Time-Suck

You already know this: Email is the greatest officially approved time suck in your business. If you have no rules around it, then it be like a wild vine. It will find its own path and fill up empty space without being noticed.

Email makes us extremely productive and is a great tool for managing information. At the same time, email can waste resources such as time and disc space. It can distract you from more important jobs. And it can interrupt you when you need to focus.

Some companies simply do not allow individual technicians to have email. That seems difficult, but the advantages are obvious.

You don't have to follow these guidelines exactly. But you should have some policy to limit how much email distracts you and your employees. To the extent that it's a productive tool, use it. To the extent that it's a distracting time-suck, limit it.

Implementing this policy follows the common process. First, you need to write up your email rules. Second, you need to train your employees on the procedure. Third, you need to support each other and remind each other of the policy.


Your Comments Welcome.

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About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at http://www.smallbizthoughts.com/events/SOPFriday.html.

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Next week's topic: Server Down Procedures


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