Ask almost any highly productive individual on earth what daily task they dread most. Be they entrepreneurs, directors, CEOs or managers, their answer will be e-mail!
E-mail is tedious yes, but remains important to large parts of our work. Very few businesses can function without it. If you dread spending time on e-mail, it really only leaves you with two options: learn to love it or get someone else to do it.
If you dread answering e-mail, it really only leaves you with two options: learn to love it or get someone else to do it! With proper training, your clients/colleagues will not even know it wasn’t you who replied but your assistant.
An efficient assistant can be a super, secret weapon. While they are processing the e-mails, you are finishing something else, making you doubly as effective. With proper training, your clients and colleagues will not even know it wasn’t you who replied but your assistant.
These steps will 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 add real value. An app like unroll.me makes light work of this step because it allows you to unsubscribe in bulk. You can also “roll” the newsletters you do want into one e-mail sent daily or weekly instead of various times on various days.
- Create rules in your mail account to make some e-mails skip your inbox altogether. Good candidates for this are bank statements. Create a rule that marks the mail as read as soon as it arrives and then archives it automatically. This way, the bank statement is stored safe and sound, but you did not have to process it. Another kind of mail to consider is proofs of payment. If I want to ensure a client has paid, I check my bank account and not rely solely on the proof he/she* sent. Therefore, those e-mails are deleted by my mail account rules before I even see them.
Take a critical look at your e-mails. You will discover several more that can be avoided altogether or processed automatically.
2. Standardise Replies with Templates in Signatures
The second step is to scan through the mails you sent over the last 3 – 4 weeks and identify the ones where you have repeated your reply. This step basically reveals the FAQs you (sometimes unknowingly) handle. When you have a list of about 5, sit down and formulate the best possible answer to each FAQs. Include links, examples, stories – everything the recipient needs to feel like you have given them your time to answer their question thoroughly.
Keep in mind that you should aim to answer each e-mail once only. Aim to pre-empt and address all concerns in one go. This way, the recipient does not have to send another mail with a different question and then another one with another question, causing lots of to and fro. When you answer an e-mail and receive nothing back but “Thank you”, you know you have answered properly.
After you have 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 FAQs, 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 names or dates, 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.
After you have 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 FAQs, hit reply and choose the signature that contains the answer you drafted earlier. It takes your response time down to 5 minutes or less!
Writing these templates has the added advantage of teaching your assistant how to “sound” just like you. They will know how you like to reply to these and similar questions. They can then start drafting some more of these standard replies on your behalf, and before you know it, they will be answering just the way you would have.
3. Now it is time to hand over.
Now that you have eliminated some e-mails and automated and standardised replies, your processing time should have reduced significantly. It is time to take the final steps toward handing the task over to an assistant.
This part starts with finding someone you trust to sound like you. From there on, it is a continuous process of improvement. Make it clear from the beginning, so they will know to expect constant constructive feedback and then don’t be scared to offer your improvements. Say, “I would have answered the e-mail this way” or “I would have said that instead.”
4. Give Guidelines and Authority – If A then B, if C then D.
Empowering your assistant to act on your behalf does not stop at teaching them to sound like you. It goes one step further by also enabling them to make some decisions on your behalf. Naturally, you will start with low-risk decisions and gradually increase the responsibility. Giving clear direction around 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 the different ways you want them to handle the scenarios.
For example, “If a customer complains that their package arrived late, do this, this and this. If a customer complains that they didn’t receive their full order, do this, this and this.”
Your aim here should again be to instruct once only. Try to pre-empt the different scenarios and train your assistant on what he/she is to do for each one.
5. Create a private address for yourself
There will be some e-mails that only you can or want to answer, and for this reason, you have to create another private address for yourself. Be careful to whom you circulate this address, or you might end up right where you started.
Say, for example, the address you want your assistant to manage is firstname.lastname@example.org, create another private address, e.g. email@example.com. Your assistant will then forward only that which he/she is not empowered to answer, or is for your personal attention, to your private address.
A most critical step here is to change the reply-to address for the private.sam inbox to the original firstname.lastname@example.org address. If you do this, a client will receive a reply from email@example.com, the same address to where they sent the mail, creating cohesion. If you do not do this, clients will pick up that you have a new address and start using that address (firstname.lastname@example.org) again, nullifying the work you have done to create some margin for yourself.
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.
*When we refer to one gender, the others are also implied