Email: taming your Inbox

April 25, 2014

Email: Taming Your Inbox, AM-Insider article by Sarah Ritchie

If you are a busy account manager (that will be all of you), the chances are high that your email inbox sees more traffic than Grand Central Station. It's quite conceivable that you'd receive 30+ emails on any given day - a nightmare to have to deal with if you are away sick. Try stepping away from your desk for a 1 hour meeting only to return to 10 new emails staring at you, each demanding an action.

How can you tame the beast that is your email inbox - your main form of client communication?


Does Tim Ferris have a point?

Any account manager who has read "The 4-Hour Workweek" (by Tim Ferris) has probably spent some time deliberating whether it is really possible to check your email only two pre-determined times per day.

The primary issue that you face is that an account managers is a 'client service' person. In this age of instant gratification, faster-than-fast food, and being able to contact someone any one of 100 different ways, the demand is high for quick responses and immediate answers. There is an underlying client expectation that their account manager should respond to their every whim as soon as they whim it.

If you employ Ferris's mantra of "eliminate distractions to free up time" (counting email as one of those distractions), then how can you ensure your clients feel like they aren't being ignored? One solution would be to acknowledge quickly but answer slowly.  


The balance between speed and sanity

There is a common customer service truism that all emails should be acknowledged within 30 minutes of receiving them (or quicker than 30 minutes if you can). However, it's important to recognise that acknowledging an email is quite different to actioning the demand contained within the email. 

Acknowledging the email can be a simple reply which conveys the sentiment "I have heard you, and I will get back to you as soon as I can", without tying yourself to a time (unless you can give an accurate time).

Depending on the email that you receive, a quick acknowledgement could resemble:

  • "Thanks John."
  • "I'll have to investigate that one further. I'll get back to you as soon as possible."
  • "I will get that job into the studio and let you know an ETA as soon as I can."

A difficult-to-escape truth is that checking your email regularly during the day is a distraction and can drastically lower your productivity. When your 'flow' is broken (by answering emails), it can take a fair amount of time to re-flow again.

Utilising a tip from Tim Ferris, you could always let your clients know that you will check and respond to your emails at certain points throughout the day, and that they can send you an instant/text message or phone call if the matter is urgent. Use your judgement. You know your clients best.


What is your Inbox for?

One suggestion is that your inbox contains only emails that you have not yet actioned; therefore, the ongoing aim is to clear your inbox ('inbox zero'). This doesn't usually happen (thanks to the constant influx of new messages), but the point is to never let the inbox list get too long (emails get forgotten in long lists and clients get ticked off).

In order to achieve this feat, you can work your inbox in conjunction with a to-do list.

When you receive a request from a client, you then either put the request into your to-do list to action, or action the request then put a reminder into the to-do list to follow up on the action. The corresponding email is then moved from your inbox to a folder within your email client (refer below for a suggested folder structure). Voila!


Deal with it once

We are all guilty of scanning our emails then letting them sit in our inbox for far too long. You need to break yourself of this habit, so here's a new principle: if you open an email, deal with it. This could include actioning the request (and letting your client know you have actioned it); answering and filing; or read and respond. If you are not sure how to respond, send your quick reply then add it to your to-do list with a reminder so it doesn't slip through the cracks.


Mental triage

With every email received you'll need to go through mental triage - a process of determining the priority of each message. Emails that account managers receive tend to fall into these broad categories:

  • Industry newsletters.
  • Junk mail.
  • One-word acknowledgements to your emails (e.g. "thanks").
  • Requests.
  • Questions.
  • Internal agency communications.

The first thing to do is delete all the dross (including junk mail and the one-word-answer emails), then you'll have a better idea of the quantity of communication you have to deal with. EDMs can be moved into a folder where you can read them later if you have time. Internal agency comms can be scanned quickly to see if they are important.

It's a good idea to work out a colour coding system for your emails (e.g. red = urgent action required, blue = take your time, yellow = whenever, etc); or use 'flags' to indicate priority.

You can set up folders and email 'rules' to sort emails into pre-determined folders as soon as they are received. The rule could be based on the subject line, the sender, the email address, etc. One warning is that it is sometimes too easy to forget to check and action emails in any folder other than the Inbox.



Are you receiving too many newsletters or RSS feeds? Either divert these emails (using an email rule) to another folder, or unsubscribe yourself from anything that is no longer relevant to you.


Draft it

Do you find yourself sending out similar email messages? Save yourself typing time and mental energy by keeping these emails in a 'Drafts' or 'Templates' folder and using them as a starting point the next time you need to generate a similar message.


Order by conversation

If you haven't done so already, you should set your preferences to 'organise messages by conversation'. This will group all your related emails together. For example, if you email your client, and they reply to you, then you reply to them, and they reply to you, your grouped messages will appear in your inbox as one message rather than multiple messages - an instant sanity-saver!


Pavlov's account manager

Have you heard of the 'classical conditioning' experiment that Ivan Pavlov ran? He noticed that salivation occurred when meat powder was placed in a dog's mouth. He then rang a bell before giving the dog the meat powder. Eventually, the dog salivated when it heard the bell alone.

Now think of what you do every time you hear the 'new mail' sound that you have set on your email programme or mobile device. Have you been 'classically conditioned' like Pavlov's dogs? Do you check your email as soon as you hear the alert sound or see the new message indicator appear on your screen? A piece of advice: turn off all audio and visual alerts unless you wish to become a slave to the 'ding'. If you are already a slave, going cold turkey, and turning off your notifications, may be just the cure!


Filing your emails

One thing you should rarely ever do is hit 'delete' on a client's email. Think of emails like an indispensable paper trail. If you ever need to refer to a conversation, find an instruction or confirm an agreement, you won't be able to do that if the email has been trashed.

Never fear, it's as easy as pie to set up a folder system - within your email programme - where you can file your client and job-related emails. Here's a suggested structure:

  • Set up four main folders: Admin, Clients, Prospects, Suppliers.
  • Admin: Sub-folders can be created as required. The emails that end up in these folders usually relate to internal agency communications, industry information, etc.
  • Suppliers: You'll have one sub-folder per supplier. Information you keep here is supplier-related rather than job-specific.
  • Prospects: Communication with prospects is not yet job-related, so all emails can go directly into the sub-folder relating to the prospect.
  • Clients: this is the main folder you will be using constantly.
    • Set up one sub-folder per client.
    • Within your client sub-folder you will set up one folder per new job you open. If you name the job folder starting with the job number, your folders will appear in numerical/chronological order.
    • Emails you file into the client sub-folder are client-specific. Emails you file into the job folders are job-specific.
    • At the end of each year, and if your job folder list is long, you can always create a folder titled by the year, then put all of the past year's jobs into that particular folder, then start all over again with new job folders for the current year.
    • If an email pertains to more than one job, just use the 'copy email' function to ensure you have a copy of the email in each relevant job folder.



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