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Are your emails getting out of hand?

The Imprudent Accountant examines where communication technology has brought accountants over the last few decades, and how to cope with the inundation of emails.

16th Jan 2020
Partner An unnamed firm
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Older practitioners will remember the frustrations of communicating when it took days to exchange simple messages. A far cry from today’s emails which arrive in a matter of seconds. Patience was the primary solution when nobody answered the phone, or you failed to get through to the right person. 

The ultimate fix was often the fax machine – now more of a museum relic. A generation later, the mobile phone became a status symbol, even though it looked like a far from stylish brick.

Today, mobile phones double as computers which could probably plan and implement a space mission without breaking a sweat. These can be supplemented by laptops or tablets, ensuring that even those with Luddite tendencies are able to stay in touch with their clients and staff almost all of the time.

Naturally, this is a double-edged sword. When you want to contact clients in the middle of the night (or their holiday), such gadgets are gifts from the gods. However, when clients return the favour and pester their professional adviser, it can lead to stress, anxiety, and in extreme cases, a potential heart attack.

Most of this has been considered by academics with far bigger brains and more spare time than me. What I can tell you is that there is no magic bullet.

If I turn off my phone to watch the big match or get some sleep, the result always seems to be an irate client. However, some technologically-induced stress is a little more under our control. This includes email management.

In my experience, emails on the work account usually fall into four categories.

  1. Those that are urgent
  2. Those that will soon become urgent but aren’t yet
  3. Those that will need sorting out some time
  4. Junk mail

The strange thing is that very few people seem to have shared perfect strategies for prioritising and managing an email inbox.

Personally, I am a great believer in little and often. This means clearing the junk and dealing with urgent emails in realtime. 

The category two emails will either get answered in a convenient gap or when they become urgent, depending on other pressures.

My weakness is the slow-burners that only become important three months later when they have been long forgotten.

I also accept that there are different strokes for different folks. I have had colleagues who set aside a fixed period each morning to deal with emails. That never struck me as practical. Others sort them out on the train or at home. 

There is also a class who ignore their emails until clients start shouting. This tact is problematic and guaranteed to annoy your paymasters, whilst raising the blood pressure to dangerous levels.

The purpose of penning this article was to discover whether there is anything that I can learn from enlightened readers who have a better methodology than any of those addressed. If so, please share the secret of your success with other subscribers.

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By svend
17th Jan 2020 10:41

Whilst this topic appears to focus on an individuals own way of dealing with emails, I believe it's more about trying to deal with the quantity of emails in the first place.
Clients send their questions / problems piece meal by email and then want to send further countless emails that serve only to provide information that should have been provided in a single email in the first place had they spent a little time thinking about what they wanted or what they were asking.
Accountants do not apply a charge per email as laywers do and if we did, perhaps the indescrimate use of emails would stop. The problem snowballs when clients then copy a number of different people in the practice in the fear that you might not see the email but someone surely will if they copy enough people. The younger staff in our company appear to be more prepared to be spending an extended amount of time swapping emails with clients rather than talking to them which just serves to compound the problem.

This has been a thorn in my side for longer than I care to remember and I have not found an effective solution.

Seems to me that the only solution is that emails will ultimtely end up having to be charged for in a similar way lawers do but in a process that reflects the difference between the needs of the client. Until the profession resolves this, the unproductive nature of communicating by email will continue.
Has anyone implemented a system that enforces a "fair usage" policy that doesn't lose them clients but creates awareness with clients that the use of email cannot be without boundaries?

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By Tickers
19th Jan 2020 18:11

I agree with everything you say but i don't think we can compare ourselves to solicitors because their industry is locked down and they are not engaged in a race to the bottom in the same way that accountants are. Yes their fees have reduced for certain types of work but their work is not as recurring as ours so we are always reluctant to shun a client because we know that there are other firms out there charging less than us and promising rock bottom unlimited support.

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