When you ask almost any of the highly productive individuals on earth – be they entrepreneur, director, CEO, manager, professional – what the one thing is on which they wish they could spend less time during their workday, they will answer unanimously: e-mail!
E-mail is a tedious but very important part of our work performance and very few businesses can function without it. If you dread spending time on e-mail, it really only leaves you with 2 options: learn to love it, or get someone else to do it.
An assistant effectively utilised in this way can be a super, secret weapon making you doubly as effective, because while she is getting the e-mails done, you are finishing something else. With proper training your clients/colleagues won’t even know it wasn’t you who replied.
This is how to empower your assistant to take over all your e-mails:
Eliminate, then automate
The first step is to take a critical look at the messages that make it to your inbox and eliminate unnecessary processing. For example
· Unsubscribe to most of the newsletters you receive and only keep those that truly add value. An app like unroll.me makes light work of this step as it will help you unsubscribe in bulk and then ‘roll’ the newsletters you do want into one e-mail sent daily or weekly as opposed to all different times on all different days.
· Create rules in your mail account to make some mails skip your inbox altogether. A good example of emails with which to do this is bank statements. Create a rule that marks the mail as read as soon as it arrives and then archive it automatically. This way you know it’s stored safe and sound, but you didn’t have to process it. Another kind of mail to consider is bank auto-generated proofs of payment. If I want to ensure a client has paid I’m going to check my bank account and will definitely not rely solely on the proof the client sent. Therefore, those mails are deleted by my mail account rules before I even see them.
If you take a critical look at your mails you will discover several more that can be avoided or processed automatically in this way.
Standardise the replies – templates in signatures
The second step is to have a quick scan through the mails you sent over the last 3 – 4 weeks and identify the ones where you’ve repeated your reply. This is basically identifying the FAQ’s you (sometimes unknowingly) deal with. When you have a list of about 5, sit down and formulate the best possible answer to these FAQ’s. Include links, examples, stories - everything the recipient needs to feel like you’ve really given them time to answer their question thoroughly.
It is important to always aim to answer each e-mail once only. Aim to pre-empt and address all concerns in one go so that the recipient doesn’t have to send another mail with a different question and then another one with another question, causing a lot of to and fro. When I answer an e-mail and receive nothing back but ‘Thank you’ I know I’ve done my job.
After you’ve drafted the perfect reply to a question, save it as a signature in your mailbox.
The next time you or your assistant have to answer one of these FAQ’s, hit reply and choose the signature that contains the answer you drafted earlier. All you need to do now is edit the pertinent information (like the person’s name or relevant dates, etc.), add a personal touch and send it. It takes your response time down to 5 minutes or less! No need to rewrite, no need to copy and paste. Just select, edit and send.
Writing these templates has the added advantage of teaching your assistant how to sound just like you. She’ll know how you like to reply to these and similar questions. She can then start drafting some more of these standard replies for you to look over and approve and before you know it she’ll be answering just the way you would have.
Now it’s time to hand over
Now that you’ve eliminated, automated and standardised replies, your e-mail processing time should be greatly reduced. It is time to take the final steps toward handing the task over to an assistant.
This part starts with finding someone who you trust to sound like you, but from there on it’s a continuous process of improvement. Make it clear from the beginning so she’ll know to expect constant constructive feedback and then don’t be scared to offer your improvements. Say, ‘I would’ve answered the email this way’ or ‘I would’ve said that instead.’
Give her guidelines and authority - If A then B, if C then D
Empowering your assistant to act on your behalf doesn’t stop at teaching her to sound like you. It goes one step further by also enabling her to make some decisions on your behalf. Naturally you will start with low risk decisions and gradually increase the responsibility, but giving clear direction as to how you would handle a situation will help you reach your desired outcome faster.
Provide your assistant with scenarios that regularly play out in your business and add to that the different ways you want her to handle them within some clear boundaries.
For example, “If a customer complains that their package arrived late, reply with this e-mail template, write to the courier company asking for an explanation and BCC me. If a customer complains that they didn’t receive their full order, reply with this template and offer 5% discount. Write to the shipping department asking for an explanation and BCC me. If it is the second time that a late or incomplete order arrives at the client, reply with this template, authorise 10% discount and invoice the courier company for the discount.”
Your aim here should again be to instruct once only, i.e. try to pre-empt the different scenarios and instruct her on what she is to do for each one.
Create a private address for yourself
There will be some e-mails that only you can/want to answer and for this reason you have to create another private address for yourself. Be careful to whom you circulate this address, otherwise you might end up right where you started.
After completing these steps, you should have drastically reduced the amount of time you spend processing e-mails. You will be left with more time to spend on other wealth-producing activities, be they monetary or quality of life.