These days, e-mail is probably the most important communication tool for businesses. I'd even hazard a guess that in most industries, business professionals either thrive--or barely survive--based on their ability to interact via e-mail. And while it's easy to get overwhelmed by your in-box, there are some easy strategies you can implement to keep it all under control. These seven tips will help you better manage your e-mail use:
Get Rid of Consumer E-Mail Solutions
Using one of the free e-mail services, such as Hotmail, Yahoo or MSN, is OK for e-mails to friends and family. For serious business use, however, it's best to use a professional e-mail program hosted by an e-mail provider, your ISP or on a server in your business. Consumer e-mail services don't have the advanced features that more robust and "professional" e-mail programs have. And if you don't have your own domain name, you should--it's much more professional.
Learn How to Really Use Your E-Mail Program
I recently switched from Mozilla Thunderbird to Microsoft Outlook. Although I'm a technology expert, I definitely needed training in Outlook to maximize my use of this valuable tool. Once I was through, I knew a lot more about the program and understood just how to use it to my benefit.
Whether you use Outlook, Eudora, Thunderbird, Pegasus, Netscape e-mail or some other e-mail program having a few hours of training in its use will only help. Probably the best way to get the training you need is to visit the manufacturer's website and search for tutorials for the program you're using. If you're unable to find something there, a simple Google search should turn up a tutorial for the program you're using.
Keep Your In-Box Manageable
If you use your in-box to store all your e-mail messages, you'll find that after a short amount of time, especially if you get a lot of e-mail, your in-box will be one big mess, with everything from spam and jokes to business contracts and more. Instead of letting it all just sit there, quickly act on incoming messages so your in-box only holds a minimal amount of e-mail at any given time. I know people who have hundreds and even thousands of messages in their in-box, which is inefficient, to say the least.
Maximize the Use of Folders
Imagine what would happen if you kept all your client information in the same file folder--you'd never be able to find the information you were looking for. E-mail messages work the same way. In order to keep things organized, it's critical to set up folders to archive your messages. You might organize e-mail along projects, clients, business processes, persons or other variables that reflect how you operate on a daily basis. For instance, if you handle all your company's marketing tasks, you might setup e-mail folders for each project, and sub-folders for each mode of advertising. You might also create a folder for each type of outsourcing you do, such as printing, design, website design and so on.
Automate Your E-Mail With Filters
Technology should work for you, and e-mail is no exception. If you frequently receive e-mail with a lot of the same subject lines or from the same people, you can set up your e-mail program to automatically route these messages to an appropriate folder or auto-reply to certain messages. For instance, if your friend Sally only sends you jokes, why not route all her e-mails to a "Joke" folder for review later on. Or if you frequently get e-mails asking for directions to your company, set up an auto-reply that will automatically attach a map, link to an online mapping system, and supply basic train and taxi information.
No advice on e-mail management would be complete without stressing the importance of secure e-mail use. Be careful of attachments, embedded graphics and links leading to phishing websites as you e-mail. If you get an e-mail saying "Your PayPal account needs to be verified" or there's a problem with your mortgage, don't just click on the e-mail link provided. Go directly to PayPal's website or that of your financial institution, and log on that way. Or call them directly to find out whether there is indeed a problem.
Back Up Your E-Mail
A critical part of a secure e-mail experience is ensuring that when your computer program crashes, you have an e-mail backup you can turn to for help. Imagine losing a month's worth of new customer information that's stored in your e-mail. Back up the e-mail on your computer, and if you host your own e-mail, be sure you back up your e-mail server as well.
Ramon Ray is Entrepreneur.com's "Tech Basics" columnist and editor of Smallbiztechnology.com. He's the author ofTechnology Solutions for Growing Businesses and currently serves on the board of directors and the technology committee for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.