Correspondence: How to Safeguard Your Valuable Time

Stuck in Time

How many times have I sat down to reply to a client’s or a future client’s email and ended up spending an hour carefully crafting a response, off the clock? Lots of times. So many times. Somehow, because of my own indiscretion, I’ve just spent a boatload of unbillable time giving my talent for free. There are strategies to safeguard that time though. Here are a few I’ve come to put into action.

The BIG GOAL: reduce the amount of “touches” (times you have to email someone) and the length of those compositions while increasing the amount of satisfaction or support your customer needs/wants.

Set autoresponders on your business email account, even when you’re not on vacation.

An automated response that clearly defines when someone should hear back from you and what you hope to see when you come back to your inbox is sometimes a breath of relief for your client. It also sets boundaries for your working relationship with them. Win win. Something like this:

“Hi there, thanks so much for reaching out. I get a lot of correspondence and always try to promptly answer emails within 24 hours. Please be sure to let me know what you need and how I can help.” Something like that. Maybe giving a couple of suggestions of how they can solve their own problems would be good, especially if you tend to get similar requests sometimes. (Canceled appointments, I can’t find this or that resource on your website, how can I pay you, that kind of thing.)

This is a fantastic option for people whose jobs aren’t to sit in front of a computer. If you’re an instructor, trainer, sea captain, landscaper, restauranteur… this will work wonders for you.

Want me to help you write and brand one? Email me.

Always relay terms of turnaround time first when responding to a request.

Perfect to avoid, “How’s it going?” type emails that can crowd your inbox in between committing to some work and the time when you’re going to finish a deliverable. Give yourself plenty of time. This is that grand old “under promise, over deliver” paradigm I really like to employ. Give yourself some time to get things done and explicitly relay what you plan to deliver and when you plan to deliver it.

Use gmail? Have “canned responses” ready for frequently asked questions.

Canned Responses is found under "Labs" in "Settings" on gmail.

Canned Responses is found under “Labs” in “Settings” on gmail.

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Enable “Canned Responses” in “Labs.”

What are your rates? What is your philosophy of teaching? What services do you offer? I need to cancel our appointment, how do I reschedule? If you find you’re writing the same thing over and over again, or want a template for something (student evaluation, rate quote, thank you note), create a canned response for it.

You can always drop the canned response in, add their name and an opening sentence that sounds more personal, but there’s no need for you to be lovingly composing your shop’s hours or your billing policies over and over again.

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Now when you compose an email, “Canned Responses” is an option in the menu on the lower right corner.

In gmail, go to “Settings” and click on “Labs.” Enable Canned Responses and be sure to click “Save Changes” up above the list of Labs. Now when you go to compose an email, click the down arrow menu button next to the delete button in the compose screen, and you’ve got the ability to set new Canned Responses.

There are lots of other great tools in the labs too. Check them out.

 

 

Use filters or segregate emails into different email accounts for work and pleasure. 

You know the scenario: you’re out for cocktails, waiting for a bus, or making some dinner and casually look at your phone, finding a work email that takes your attention from what you’re doing. That’s your time! Thus opens a slow leak of unbilled time accumulating in a few minutes here and a few minutes there. I know it feels like you’re being helpful and productive, especially when you’re first starting out as a business, but this has far-reaching, negative ripples. Normally, whatever you were doing doesn’t get done and the email you write is hurried. Then, there you are emailing during your vacation, your evening, or your fun times and the expectation of your clients and customers is going to shift to a dark place where you appear to be available any old time. See two suggestions down. We deal with this.

Set a 200 word limit on responses.

Brevity is the soul of wit, and it’s also the savior of time and sanity. You can say pretty much everything you need to say with fewer words. Give it a try. Compose your responses in a word processing program away from the browser that counts words for you.

Set an amount of time each day for dealing with correspondence.

One hour, two hours- some reasonably-set amount of time at whichever time of day is convenient for writing back to people via all your channels (email, facebook, etc). Resolve to check your email during that time and then maybe one other time later in the day to be sure everything is buttoned. Also, outside of that time, close your email when you’re not using it, especially if you’re job isn’t primarily to correspond with people.

 

Have some tips and tools you’ve tried that I don’t mention here? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Altruism in Your Everyday

When I need to procure anything for business- supplies, postage, travel, etc- I look to fill that need and do some good with the money at the same time. Here are a few things you should consider doing around the office, small changes that have big impacts.

1. Buy Postage Stamps from Island Post Offices

Here in Maine, our small post offices are endangered. Sure, they don’t have a terribly huge amount of mail running through them, but they’re important to the communities on these islands. The Island Institute has this great form you can fill out for your next order of stamps. I’ve visited some of these small outposts, and I have to say, they’re really great and deserving of your support.

2. Develop a Relationship with Your Local Office Supply Dealer

In Portland, ME there’s Wigon Office Supply. In Portsmouth, NH there’s Hoyt’s Office Products. In your town, I bet you’ve got one of these creaky-floored, lovingly-maintained office supply joints. They order from the same exact catalogs that the bigwigs order from, and you can get everything you’d ever need in about 24 hours lead time. Furniture takes a little longer, but that’s no big deal. Stay with them for a little while and most likely they’ll extend you a 20% or more discount on your office supplies.

I used to call my gal up at a small place in Dover, NH back when they were an independent. Every time I moved to a new office, they’d extend me the discount at that new spot, too. The best part? I could call her for anything I needed, saying something like, “I need 300 envelopes that fit something with x, y, z dimensions but I can’t find it in the catalog.” She’d do the research, often pulling up some sale-priced thing that fit the bill and saved us tons. Relationships rule. The sale means the world to them, the service will mean the world to you.

3. Join the National Association of Railroad Passengers

NARP gets you cheaper tickets and gives you the opportunity to help rail. Amtrak provides convenient service between east coast cities in my experience. The service will only get better if we patronize Amtrak. No checked bags, no crazy fees everywhere, no weight limit to your bags, no creepy screening. GO RAIL!

4. Stop Buying Pink Crap

Please pardon this one negative item. Don’t buy that silly pink line of office products that says they’re helping to raise money for researching a cure to one of the plagues of our times. They’re not, here’s a little bit about why. A donation cup as you enter your office or perhaps a coworker team for the next interesting walk/run/bike event is better.

5. Consider Used, Rather than New, Office Furniture

So sweet on the bottom line and recycling in action. There are lots of showrooms that sell used office furniture, and sometimes you can snag a previously loved Herman Miller chair or a whole suite of matching pieces. You’ll save money and avoid throwing out more packaging into a landfill somewhere. Search it up- “used office furniture” plus your town’s name. Maybe try searching under chapter 11 clearing houses, too.

 

 

Well I hope these were helpful. I’d love to hear your tips, too!