Responding to Electronic Mail

The Problem

We have done multiple surveys of our clients, both general and review-time surveys via mail/web/personal visits. A common theme in all of these surveys is that we don't always respond (in sufficient time) to email from our clients. It's the "black hole" phenomenon that CSCF was formed to eliminate.

The Solution

Guidelines for processing email that should help with the problem are:

  • read your email at least twice daily
  • respond to all client email that is 2 or more days old, with the goal being a response of no more than 1 day
  • use an automatic email response when away

An Approach for Reading

While there is no unique approach to handling email that works for everyone, one possibility involves two steps:

  • each morning, make a quick pass through your email, categorizing each new message as one of:
    • information of casual interest -- read and then delete
    • information of interest that doesn't require immediate action -- save it in an appropriate folder, and then delete it from the mailbox
    • information that will require action -- save it for the second pass

and then

  • prioritize the remaining mail, being sure to respond to client email that's 2 or more days old.

Note that this implies that you read all mailboxes that might contain client email. The implication of that is that it's easiest to have all of your client email arrive in your main mailbox. Read it there, only saving it (if necessary) in client or task specific folders afterwards.

The Response

As was observed by one client, they'd like to know that the mail was received, and whether they should be making alternative plans. An acknowledgment within one business day was being requested. Superficially, that seems easy, since the request isn't to have the work done, just have the request acknowledged. In practice, there are likely at least two causes of failure:

  • none of us wants to simply say that we received the mail; we want something of substance to say. And we often think that we can do that with just a bit of time. Except enough other things happen that day that we don't find the time.

  • we don't have the means to estimate when specific work might be completed.

If you find there's nothing to say other than that you can't do the requested work, let your client know that the work is competing with work for their colleagues.

Ideally we'd like to be able to provide an estimate of when the work can happen. That can be challenging. Make your best estimate.

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Topic revision: r3 - 2012-04-09 - BillInce
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