Are emails ruining your life?
Since it was invented, email has been the bane of most people’s existence. It’s not hard to spend a whole day just opening, responding to and closing emails. But when does the ‘real’ work get done?
The question of how long a client should expect to wait for an answer to an email sparked a flurry of responses when it was recently posed in Any Answers. And it’s no surprise, of course.
Emails make us feel productive
There is still a prevailing culture left over from our industrial past that activity equals productivity. Firing off emails gives us a sense that we’ve been busy.
But all we’ve done is passed the ownership of the issue to the recipient. Then they will pass it back. Nothing is resolved. When clients fire off emails to you they’ve got an action off their to do list and put it on yours. And, by the way, the same happens when you send an email to a client. But at least everyone feels like they’ve done something today.
Not all emails are equal
Emails can be divided up into categories:
Updates – These emails are intended to share information and keep the other party updated. They don’t require a response unless a polite “received and thank you” feels appropriate.
Technical questions – These are the most troublesome because, depending on your terms, clients may feel they are paying for your expertise on demand. The answer may be time-critical for them and unless you’ve created clear boundaries, their expectation is that they will receive a full, professional, accurate answer when they ask for it.
Meeting requests – Setting up appointments by email is disastrous.
“How are you fixed next Thursday?”
“Well, I can’t do Thursday but I could do Friday before 1pm”
“I can’t do Friday before 1pm but I could do 1.30…”
“I will have to move some things around but 1.30 would be fine”
“What is the best number to call you on?”
Arghhh! It’s always best to pick up the phone to arrange a call or meeting. An email conversation that lasts all day can be reduced to a five-minute call. Done. Next.
Actions to do – These are requests by someone else that you do something – complete this form, write this report, prepare this presentation. Some of these requests are your job. Some are not, or they’re not as high on your priorities as they are on someone else’s. Just because someone else says it’s urgent to them, doesn’t mean it’s urgent to you.
“There’s cake in the kitchen” – Most decent-sized offices have a few emails like this bouncing around each week. People need to empty the dishwasher when the cycle is complete, we’re going for drinks later let us know if you’re coming, it’s Margaret’s birthday so look out for the card to sign. No need to take action. Just turn up and ask for cake.
How to create clear boundaries
Because not all emails are equal not all need to be treated the same way. A ‘triage’ system will help you.
- Decide at what times you are going to triage your emails. I do mine three times a day. I read the latest arrivals and then decide what actions are required and by when. Don’t just start replying. You’ll lose your whole day.
- Diarise the to-dos that come from this exercise (eg an email asking you to write a report by Friday means scheduling two hours on Wednesday to write the report). Another to-do might be to ‘write quick thank yous to emails from John, Jack and Mary’ or ‘Read long update email from Judith and comment’.
- Pick up the phone (or get the relevant person in your office to do it) to make appointments. Have a firm rule that you don’t use email for diary management.
- Do not check emails outside of your triage times. You can even put a message in your email signature that explains when your triage times are to manage expectations.
The rules for technical emails are a little different.
Being an expert in technical matters is your job. It’s what your clients pay you for. It may be inconvenient when they ask a complex question expecting a simple email response but that’s what they believe you’re there for.
Here are a few ideas.
Collate the most regular technical queries and write blogs about them. If you are often asked “what business expenses can I claim?” write a 300-word reply for your company’s blog page and send the link to any client who asks the question.
Bill for your time. Many of us have an ‘email me any time if you have a question’ clause in our Ts and Cs. So our clients do. You can’t blame them. When you engage a client, make sure your fee covers you for those clients who take this clause at face value. Some clients will over-use it, others under-use it but make sure the financials work out for you. Or re-write the clause.
1-2-1 time with clients. A regular weekly or monthly call with high-maintenance clients to work through their list of questions might stop them emailing you so frequently, or at least allow you to reply “Great question – I will add that to the agenda for our call on Thursday”. Clients that benefit from this additional support should be willing to pay for it (or maybe it’s not as important to them as it feels in the moment).
Educate your clients. Your clients may not know how to work with you. Or you may have taught them (by replying at all times of day or night) that they can expect a response by return. When you take on a new client explain what they can expect of you and what you expect of them. You can also write a blog about it. Recontract with longer-term clients so that they know how to work with you.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...