Like most of us, up until very recently, I was a slave to email. I was receiving countless emails a day and spending hours sifting through them. It was a drain on my productivity, my sanity and my ability to remain focused on my business’ strategic priorities.
According to McKinsey Global Institute and International Data Corp, more than a quarter of the average worker’s day is spent answering and reading emails. That’s about two hours and 14 minutes a day spent on emails. That’s a huge amount of lost time.
The worst thing? For the longest time, I didn’t even realise anything was wrong! Somehow, in workplaces all over the world, we’ve convinced ourselves that this way of organising work makes sense. It doesn’t.
A lightbulb moment
My team was growing. We all relied heavily on email (in mortgage broking, most things need to be in writing for compliance) but we didn’t have a uniform email management process. We each approached the prioritisation, actioning and archiving of emails very differently. We also had different perspectives on email responsiveness. I like to respond very quickly but others found this too burdensome or disruptive.
We found we weren’t being very proactive. We were each receiving huge volumes of emails a day and would spend most of our day replying, CC’ing and forwarding — when would we get any real work done?
I realised that unless we did something different, email would remain a major bottleneck, sabotaging our success, affecting our client experience and sapping our productivity. We realised that we needed to throw out the old process and start over.
Can email be replaced completely?
There are countless messaging platforms out there that promise to replace email. You might find they work for you, but for us, we didn’t find one which was a good fit.
We explored several different platforms, including Slack and Trello, but we found they didn’t actually save us time. When it became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to replace email altogether as it’s our clients’ and the banks’ preferred communication tool, we realised that using multiple systems just wasn’t productive. Not to mention the added time it takes to master those platforms.
So, we set our sights on how we could fix the email process, without abandoning email altogether. Email is the one constant communication method in business and will no doubt continue to be around for a while. We decided we needed to conquer and uncomplicate email, rather than replace it.
Outsourcing email admin
What’s the most time-consuming part of email? Email admin. Sifting through emails to determine what is important and what isn’t, filing or categorising emails, tagging tasks, unsubscribing from email lists and archiving emails all take a significant amount of time.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have a personal assistant, in most organisations, this responsibility is handled by employees at all levels. That wastes employees’ time and the business’ money.
So, as a starting point, we decided that we were going to outsource this function. We then created an email management model around this.
A centralised inbox
We decided we would create a centralised inbox which would be managed by a virtual assistant. When we really reflected on it, we realised that separate inboxes were unnecessary. We could still create a personalised customer experience while simplifying the email process.
We started by spending one month classifying and categorising every email that came in. We ended up developing 20 categories of emails from new client enquiry, bank policy updates or property reports. This gave us an idea of the scope and size of the problem.
We then developed a centralised email inbox using the email address [email protected]. We stuck with Google as we already use other tools in the GSuite portfolio such as Drive, Calendar and Chat. However, we also plugged into Active Campaign so we could track all emails as well.
When possible, we give out the ‘hello’ email address instead of personal email addresses, for example for subscriptions or to lenders. All other emails sent to anyone’s personal emails are forwarded to this address.
Our VA is then responsible for managing incoming email and triaging it into one of four categories.
The email requires a quick and simple response. Our VA will respond on our behalf immediately. The response is usually an acknowledgement that the sender’s email has been received and an explanation of when they’ll get a response. The email is turned into a task within our CRM and allocated to the relevant team member.
The email is assigned to a team member and the email is colour coded using the Star system in Gmail.
We also made a decision that any personal emails are forwarded to personal email accounts.
If the email doesn’t require a response or has already been responded to and actioned then the email will be archived.
The email can be deleted or we can unsubscribe from the email list. We use Unroll.me to easily identify which email lists we’re subscribed to and unsubscribe as needed.
Triage, task-setting and tools
This triage process has created a simple to follow and fast process for immediately understanding which emails need to be actioned and when. Our emails are turned into action items and assigned. Each team member batches the times we check and reply to emails to save us from regularly being interrupted.
At the beginning of the day, we check the inbox before our morning WIP. At the end of the day, we have full transparency on what needs to be actioned and by who. Our VA ensures that we have the coveted ‘inbox zero’ at the end of each week.
We also leverage tools like Calendly to book meetings. This displays our availability for meetings and allows the other party to book in the meeting online, without needing to go back and forth over email.
The unbelievable results
For what is actually a fairly straightforward process the results are pretty incredible. The new email process has saved us each about two or three hours a day. For our team of four, that’s the equivalent of 40-60 hours a week. That’s like gaining a whole other employee!
On average we now get about 80-100 emails a day to our centralised inbox, less than half the number of emails we were receiving before we instigated the process.
If anyone is away from work due to sickness or leave, we can easily manage their workload and they won’t be faced with a full inbox on their return.
The process also removed any confusion around who needs to reply to an email or whether it has been replied to already. It has also given me an opportunity to take a step back and empower the team to take ownership over responding to emails I would have previously responded to. Removing me from the equation has freed up my time to focus on growing the business.
In just six months we have increased our productivity significantly and saved the equivalent of nearly $180,000 a year in time. This has created a solid foundation for future growth. We knew we needed to get these operational issues sorted and embedded otherwise it would hinder our scalability.
And the most surprising thing? For a process largely designed to improve our internal processes, the outcomes for the customer have far exceeded our expectations. We are able to respond to clients more quickly. They can rely on the entire team to answer questions, rather than just relying on me. And we are more likely to pick up the phone when we recognise that a particular issue will create an unnecessary long-winded or confusing chain of emails. This has all contributed to greater customer satisfaction.
Feel like a slave to email? A few simple changes can make email actually work for you, rather than the other way around.