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Business Tips: Handling e-mail

by , MBA

After receiving just over 2400 e-mails in one 12-hour period, I decided enough was enough. I began unsubscribing to newsletters, as a first step. That alone made a good-sized dent in my e-mail problems. Yet, I still get several hundred e-mails a day. Here, I will share with you how I handle those e-mails without losing enormous amounts of time.

The first thing you need is a good e-mail program. Years ago, I used Microsoft’s Outlook Express, which is free. I bought a copy of Eudora Pro, and found it too hard to use. I couldn’t see where I was, and the whole interface just made me dizzy. Today, I am very happy with Outlook. In addition to its e-mail features, it has many collaboration features and excellent scheduling tools. If you're in a corporate environment, this is probably what you use.

AOL and some other services have their proprietary e-mail programs, but these are slow and underfeatured. Go with Outlook Express (or Outlook) if you want to be able to handle lots of e-mails without industrial doses of Valium.

As you retrieve e-mail, look for patterns in spam (unwanted e-mail). You can set up "rules" that will delete incoming e-mail where certain keywords appear in the subject line, the "from" area, or the body. And you have total flexibility in specifying what words to look for where. You can do other things than delete, too, so take a look at the options and use what works best for you.

Once you have your mail, sort by subject. You can delete known spam here, very fast. Then, delete the e-mails that look fishy: those with no subject lines, those with anonymous senders, and those with attachments you are not expecting to receive. Unexpected attachments are often hostile, so don’t even open them. If someone can’t give you the courtesy of asking you first, you are not obliged to read what they send.

People send me jokes, and I recycle the best of them into my own joke list. When jokes come in, I shuffle them to my "delay read" folder. I might have done better to call it "incoming jokes." Use names that make sense, if you start retaining e-mails.

If you are a business, and you get many of the same questions over and over, there are ways to save time. One way is to write an article like this one, and put it on your Website (BTW, feel free to copy this article to your Website, if you hyperlink to when doing so. Otherwise, it’s a copyright violation and I may visit you in the night and cut your fingers off. Or at least send you an e-mail asking for you to be honest.)

Another way is to make a FAQ page. I personally don’t like FAQ pages, just because of the way people do them. Keep the needs of the visitor in mind if you design a FAQ page—don’t just throw a bunch of disorganized material on a page and expect people to find the answer they want. If you can present information clearly, then use a FAQ. Writing an article, too, won’t hurt.

You can use your e-mail, instead of a Webpage, though. Here’s how. First, create a mail folder called "0FAQ." Notice the zero. This puts the FAQ folder at the top of your folder list, so you don’t have to scroll down. Write some standard replies and save them in this folder. These replies are now templates. You can open them, and copy and paste. Just make sure the subject line in your template makes it easy to identify the text.

To improve on this system, type out your standard reply. Then, using your e-mail’s FILE drop down menu, save that e-mail as a file—outside your e-mail system. Use a folder name that is easy to locate and retrieve. Saving this way, you can give each file a name that makes it easy to find. You can set up your e-mail rules to retrieve and use this file, if you want to take the time to explore just a little.

Housekeeping is critical. At every e-mail session, clean out that In-box, or at least get rid of the oldest entries in there. Once a week, clean out your e-mail. That’s right—delete stuff. Make a 20-minute appointment and go to it. Start with the "Sent" folder. The larger your e-mail file system, the longer it takes your e-mail to load and do other things.

E-mail etiquette, or "netiquette." Don’t be part of the problem. Here are some courtesies:

  1. Give an accurate subject line.
  2. Don’t send big files without first getting permission.
  3. Don’t copy everybody and his brother on a message.
  4. Don’t pass along chain letters, virus warnings, or other junk.
  5. Always include the original message when replying.
  6. When forwarding a joke, copy and paste so you don’t get all the carrots on the side.
  7. When replying to multiple recipients, use the blind function to protect their privacy.

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