Do More with E-Mail

by Dave Haskin

E-mail has evolved from a novelty to an indispensable tool for communicating with customers and clients, colleagues and suppliers. “E-mail is one of our top-three mission-critical applications,” says Chris Caldwell, network and e-mail administrator for the 55-employee Home Savings Bank of Madison, Wis. “It would be hard to do business without it.”

Because e-mail programs are so important, using them more efficiently and taking advantage of every feature will make your company more productive and more profitable. Here’s how:

This basic tip is one that a surprising number of users ignore. Every e-mail program has an in-box folder to which incoming mail is automatically routed, but you and your employees can create subfolders below the in-box for storing specific types of messages and action points. You could, for instance, create a folder for sales leads, another for correspondence with executives, and a third for outside vendors and suppliers.

E-mail rules, sometimes called filters, examine incoming and outgoing mail for conditions you set and then take an action you determine. For instance, if a message comes from a key client, a rule can automatically route it to a folder you created for that client. “Rules are a big productivity enhancer,” Caldwell says. “I use rules to weed out what needs attention right away and what doesn’t.”

Besides routing mail to specific folders, rules can also perform tasks like automatically color-coding mail from certain clients or even playing a unique sound when a message from an important customer arrives.

Spam, or unwanted e-mail solicitations, clogs virtually everybody’s in-box. Many e-mail programs, such as Microsoft Outlook, have special built-in rules that detect spam and automatically move it to a separate folder. To do that in Office XP Professional, click the “Organize” button on the toolbar and select the anti-junk mail options you want.

You can also create your own rules to deal with spam. For example, spam messages tend to have certain characteristics, such as exclamation points in the subject line, and a filter can move such messages to another folder for review.

Use your e-mail program to handle your e-mail as well as contacts and appointments. The best-known program that integrates these diverse functions is Microsoft Outlook, but some customer relationship management (CRM) programs such as GoldMine and ACT! do so as well (see our Buyer’s Guide to CRM software).

This integration saves so much time that Caldwell says that it was one of the reasons Home Savings Bank switched to Outlook a year ago. It allows all of the employees to schedule group meetings via e-mail and have access to everybody’s schedules at once. “With five branches, scheduling a meeting can be difficult,” Caldwell says. “But now we spend a lot less time scheduling, then rescheduling things.”

Another benefit is that you can easily track all interactions with specific contacts, including e-mail that you exchanged with them. The downside is that these programs can be more complex to learn and use than programs that handle only e-mail.

Some e-mail programs create richly formatted messages with fonts and graphics. They also enable you to create customized “stationery” for messages that can include color backgrounds and even images.

Caldwell’s advice: Don’t use these features. Make sure your users send messages as plain text. “The concern is that [customized messages] will tie up our network,” Caldwell says. “Sending pretty pictures isn’t a good business practice. When it happens, I’ve asked users to stop.”

Even if you don’t create stationery, most e-mail programs can send messages in HTML or Rich Text formats, which are still bigger than plain text messages. To send plain text messages in Outlook XP, select options from the Tools menu. Click on the Mail Format tab and select “Plain Text.”

Some messages need an immediate, but not a personal, response. Say, for example, you have an e-mail link on your Web site. You can create a rule so that when those messages arrive, your program automatically sends replies thanking those potential customers. Remember, though, that not all responses should be automatic and e-mail isn’t always the best way to handle important business.

“Sometimes face-to-face contact is better for gauging a reaction, say, with important customers who are at a critical time in the sales process,” says Dianna Booher, author of E-Writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication (Pocket Books, 2001).

If you have a mailing that you regularly send to a group of people, such as a newsletter to key customers or financial reports to executives, create a group. Groups, which you create in your e-mail program’s address book, can include a number of recipients. You need only select the name of the group, not all the individuals within the group, when you send the mailing.

If you use Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange Server, there’s an additional storage benefit to groups, says Caldwell. When you send a message with a file attachment to 20 individuals, it is stored 20 separate times on the server. It is stored only once if you send it to a group.

One way to make sure that your contacts know how to reach you is to send them a vCard, which is a standard format for addresses. You send your personal vCard as an attachment to an e-mail message and, when the recipient opens it, it automatically becomes a contact record in that person’s e-mail program.

To create a vCard for yourself, create a contact record with your own information in Outlook. Open the record and, in the File menu, select “Export to vCard File.” Then, attach that file whenever you want to send your vCard to somebody.

You can use a Web-based e-mail service to back up your corporate e-mail, or if your company has e-mail through an ISP, to check your corporate e-mail from any computer with an Internet connection. Two of the best-known services are Yahoo!Mail and HotMail, but many other sites also offer free Web-based e-mail.

To check your corporate e-mail, you’ll need to sign up for the service and select the option to check other e-mail. You’ll need to know the name of the servers that handle both your incoming and outgoing mail, both of which you can obtain from your Internet service provider.

It’s Not Just E-Mail
San Francisco-based Connect Public Relations truly takes advantage of e-mail. “E-mail is our lifeblood,” says Brenda Terry, the company’s IT manager. “If anything goes wrong with e-mail, it hampers our employees’ ability to conduct business.” Connect’s public relations reps use
e-mail to contact analysts, clients, and editors; schedule meetings; and develop action plans.

In one instance, after a two-and-a-half day service outage caused by Connect’s service provider, “we felt sure we had lost business opportunities,” Terry notes. The company calculated that it lost $19,000 due to lost productivity because e-mail wasn’t available, and that doesn’t include the near loss of a potential client when Connect was unable to send critical information on time.

Terry said her biggest challenges are linking together e-mail systems in offices in three cities and making sure that users get the most out of the e-mail system. There are separate Microsoft Exchange Server installations in the company’s Provo, Utah and San Francisco offices, but there aren’t yet enough people in the company’s Seattle office to justify a separate installation; those employees tap into the Provo server via a frame relay connection.

Terry adds that the company is so dependent on e-mail that a high priority is placed on educating employees about using it more efficiently. She recommends that any company that wants its users to utilize more of its e-mail package should provide them with training opportunities and solid support. “Once a month we’ll have a Friday afternoon quick-cram session on applications and we cover e-mail regularly,” she said. “I also send out once-a-week tips, many of which are about e-mail.”

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.
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