Make these changes during down time this summer and be ready for the 2015 busy season
There is no doubt that email is a great tool. It makes many things possible that we couldn’t have even dreamed of 20 years ago. We can work remotely from all over the world and easily work with clients across the country.
The biggest problem with email is that it’s become a popular communication tool so quickly that there are many firms having trouble managing it. Most accounting firms admit they don’t have systems and protocols in place to make answering and checking email efficient. If you don’t, think about all the time you waste compulsively checking your email and writing emails back and forth. It’s likely 5+ hours a week just wasted by you. Multiply that by every person in your firm.
According to one study done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average office worker checks their email 30 times a day and many firms are reporting that email can take up ¼ of the their day. One study by researchers at UC Irvine monitored interruptions of office workers. They found that workers took an average of 25 minutes to re-engage in a task after interruptions like answering phone calls or emails. Think about how all those wasted hours translates into overhead.
Having a well-managed inbox helps you stay on top of your business and get focused. It also makes you more productive, by not having to check your email constantly, enabling you to work on your real priorities in your firm.
Summer is the perfect time for practice improvement and tweeks because it’s most firms down season. Here are 5 strategies you can implement this summer to get manage email use and abuse in your firm.
1. Pick up the phone
Although email seems like a quicker way to communicate with clients, there are many situations when it’s not. The goal here is to avoid the long, drawn out, back and forth emails. When you get a message that needs a lot more info before you can answer, just pick up the phone. This turns 30+ minutes of checking your inbox, reading their replies and sending a response back into a quick 5-10 minute call where you can quickly collect all the information you need.
Picking up the phone is also very important if there are any emotional issues being discussed. Emails don’t convey tone or emotion very well and can often lead to more frustration if the messages are being misinterpreted. If you sense that a client or colleague is upset or angry in an email, don’t reply back and just pick up the phone so you can clear up the problem as quickly as possible.
If you want to avoid the back and forth emails to find a suitable time to schedule a call, you can use ScheduleOnce. This software syncs up with your calendar and only shows times to clients when you’re available. Just send over the link and allow them to pick a time that works for them. When they do, you’ll get an email notification and the time slot will be automatically added to your calendar.
2. Use IM in the office
Instant Messaging (IM) can be a good way to exchange messages quickly and get an issue resolved with a co-worker without disrupting their workflow. IM is great for quick questions or check ins with minimal effort, while avoiding a back and forth chain of emails, requiring you to check your inbox every 2 minutes while you’re in conversation.
It’s also great if you’re in the middle of a task or meeting and don’t want to be interrupted, you can go offline or set your status to “Do Not Disturb”.
There are many different IM options for your firm and a quick online search of IM software will give you plenty of choices. One example, OM Messenger, is inexpensive and easy to use with Outlook.
A free and quick way to set up IM in your firm would be to get a Skype account for each team member. You can set up their usernames as firmname.name and exclusively use the chat function in Skype. This will allow users to indicate whether they’re online (available), busy (don’t want to be interrupted) or offline (home for the night).
3. Develop systems
One of the best ways to create efficiencies and train new staff is to create systems in your firms. The more systems the more your firm saves time and guesswork. It also ensures that bad habits aren’t being perpetuated throughout the firm. For example, when you have one staff member train another, any part of the practice without a system, is just going to be taught however that particular employee performs the job.
A lot of firms don’t have systems for email management because email communication has so rapidly become a part of firm culture. If you’re one of the one’s that don’t, the best way to create an email management protocol is to get your staff on board and get them to help you create it.
Workshops are an excellent method to focus your mind and everyone else’s on solutions and improvements within your firm. They also help your team bond and create a more united vision for the firm.
To hold an effective workshop, all of you staff should work together on a problem, like email management, instead of you talking and your staff listening. lf you are a medium or small-sized firm, you can invite every employee to participate. You never know from where the big ideas are going to come from. Sometimes receptionists offer excellent solutions to problems because they are the first point of contact with any customer.
How to organize a workshop on email management:
1. Discuss and list all the problems your firm is having with email communication. This could include the amount of time spent, the amount of emails they’re getting, which clients are emailing too much/unnecessarily, etc.
2. Brainstorm ways to systemize each of the problems- how clients abusing email will be handled, how often email should be checked/how to batch process email for efficiency, how questions within the firm will be handled, which pre-populated emails should be created, etc.
3. Designate a person to create a written procedure (or SOP) after the workshop that can be shared with everyone and used to train any new staff.
4. Pre-populated email responses
Pre-populated emails can save your firm a lot of time on commonly used emails and responses. As a rule of thumb, if you’ve sent the same message at least 5 separate times, you should create an email template. This will allow you to fill in the body of an email with one click, instead of typing up the same response over and over.
You can brainstorm and create useful emails with your team during a meeting and designate one person to write them up. Examples of useful templates for your firm include:
- Thank you notes after meeting with a client
- Check in messages if you haven’t heard back from a client
- A welcome/nice to meet you email when a new client joins the firm
- Request for documents or info
- We’ve received your email and will reply back within ____ days/hours
To find out step-by-step instructions on how to create an email template, check out the link on the Microsoft office site here.
5. Know when to fire a client
With the use of email becoming a very popular form of communication in the last 5 years, some people have learned how to abuse it. A common reason is that they don’t want to think through a problem. Instead they just shoot off a quick email and get the problem off of their plate and onto someone else’s.
If a member of your firm is doing this, then re-training is in order. If this is a problem with a client then you may need to make a bigger change. This could include changing prices for billing practices or firing them.
How can you be sure that they’re abusing email? Email Stopwatch is an inexpensive way to passively track all the time you spend in Outlook with a weekly, monthly or quarterly report so you can easily see which clients you spend the most amount of time emailing with. With this information, you can quickly tell which clients need to be “fired” or at the very least, billed for that time.
Laura Berthiaume is the co-founder of Email Stopwatch, an email management tool allowing managers and users to passively track all the time spent in Outlook on an account by account basis. Laura can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org