Are there days when it feels like all you do is read and answer e-mail? That's not surprising: Researchers figure we each spend three or more hours doing it every day.
The Radicati Group, a consulting and market research firm, reports that the average knowledge worker now receives about 81 legitimate e-mails daily (not counting spam) and sends 29. But 110 is just an average; the higher you are in an organization, the more communicating you do. According to The Radicati Group, executives and other managers-including entrepreneurs-deal with twice that number of e-mails per day.
Messaging involves more than just e-mail, of course. The telephone is still, far and away, our principal messaging tool. But historically analog mediums-voice, fax, paper, video-are clearly going digital, their content mingling with e-mail, IM and digital documents. I used to get a daily pile of press releases up to my knee. Now I neither accept nor use any paper at all. But a sequoia's worth of electronic communiqués tumbles into my inbox every day, and I personally dump a forest of words on my poor workmates and other correspondents.
The pile of mail, in the broad sense, that we all move around will only grow taller as our different inboxes become more connected and as e-mail editors elbow word processors, spreadsheets and databases off center stage in our software suites. Communicating will come to dominate all our job descriptions.
From time to time, new technology gives us a hand up. Remember what a lift your BlackBerry was for your messaging efficiency at first? But now everyone knows you have it, and they expect you to be in touch no matter your destination or time zone. Everyone's message is mission critical. Go dark for a couple of hours, and they send out the electronic Saint Bernards.
One measure of our collective impatience is the explosive growth of IM. Marketing and technology research firm Ferris Research figures that the number of business-class instant messagers should double this year-again. By 2007, as many as 182 million businesspeople will be looking for instant answers from one another.
Meanwhile, what about those 100-plus e-mail messages that The Radicati Group reports the average knowledge worker moves daily? That's about 80 percent higher than the average daily volume a year ago, says Sara Radicati, president and CEO of the Palo Alto, California-based firm. "Exponential" is the word she uses to describe everyone's message-growth going forward.
Don't new mediums like IM reduce e-mail volume? Nope. If anything, says Radicati, our different messaging forms tend to be additive and just make us all more communicative.
Entrepreneurs like Mike Faith, 39, are turning that into a key competitive advantage. Like other execs, the president and CEO of Headsets.com in San Francisco juggles some 200 e-mails per day. But e-mail is just a means to improve another form of communication he considers more vital to his mail order business: customer phone calls. In an era when callers routinely get shuffled off to India or to an automated phone attendant, Faith's customer service representatives are charged with keeping them coming back. Their compensation depends on it.
Faith uses technology only if it enhances the customer's experience. He likes his digital PBX's ability to pop up a customer's history so a rep can deliver quick, knowledgeable service. But he won't let it identify big spenders: "We don't accept [that] there are different classes of customers."
Even at home, Faith monitors customer calls into the three Headsets.com offices, getting anxious whenever even one caller is on hold. "It's someone waiting to give us money or someone who gave us money needing support, and neither should have to wait," Faith explains. "The occasional call in queue? OK, I guess. But it could easily become two or three, and that goes against our philosophy of extreme customer service."
Let call flow slow down, and e-mail reminders start flowing from Faith's PC. Since adopting this strategy, Headsets.com's revenue run rate has quadrupled, and bonuses for reps have risen accordingly.
Whatever your preferred form, messaging will become a more critical application for your business. Your e-mail editor will be a transfer point for many message types, says Ferris, and the launching pad for a wide range of office tasks-sharing documents and lists, supply-chain management and work-flow management.
E-mail usage will also broaden out from office workers to the 45 percent of the work force not yet connected, predicts Radicati. That will favorably impact employee morale and productivity, but more messages require more bandwidth-not only from your LAN and Internet connections, but also you and your employees.
Ditto for network storage, which is probably already a nagging concern of your IT staff. Hard drives are cheap, but designing databases for quick access can be challenging. The higher the haystack, the harder it is to find a particular message in it; and you know better than to expect the courts to reduce your obligation to archive e-mail, IM and other message types anytime soon.
Mike Hoganis Entrepreneur's technology editor.