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If you’re new to Email Center Pro, you might not realize what a valuable tool you’ve got at your disposal. Hopefully, you know about sharing an inbox, assigning emails, tagging, and collaborative notes. But when you’re ready to get deeper into the ECP experience, spend a little time in your Dashboard.

photo by flickr user swimfreak000

First and foremost, the Dashboard is your command center. All the information you need for tracking your email traffic is right there. How many emails did Janet send yesterday? It’s right there. What was the average response time from your customer service team? It’s right there. What time of day do most of your emails come in? Yep… it’s right there. Your Dashboard holds all the analytics that allow you to measure your results.

But Widgets go beyond numbers and graphs. They let you interact with your email and your colleagues in all kinds of ways, and are customizable by the criteria that’s important to you.

For instance, the My Mail Widget lets you see emails assigned to you in every inbox, so you don’t have to flip around through all the boxes you’re responsible for checking for things that need your attention.

Widgets let you can keep track of all sorts of recent actions. If you want to know any time somebody tags an email Feature Request, for instance — set up a Recent Actions Widgetfor that tag and you’ll have a real-time list any time you need it. Want to see every note that a particular user adds to an email, or every note than every user writes? Set up as many Recent Actions Widgets as you need, each one providing the specific information you’re looking for.

The Tag Cloud Widget gives you a visual representation of all of your accounts conversations. With a glance you can see the most heavily used tags and subjects getting play across your inboxes.

You can even read about what’s new in Email Center Pro by adding the ECP Updates Widget, or  integrate  ECP with your Velaro, (Form)Spring or Vertical Response accounts. Access all your saved searches, see who’s logged in, read your RSS 2.0 feeds, check your account usage stats, add and remove Widgets… phew, I’m out of breath. And there is more you can do that I haven’t even mentioned!

In a nutshell, if you’re using Email Center Pro and not using your Dashboard, you’re really missing out. If you’re not using Email Center Pro, I shudder to think of how many places you must have to click and search to get this kind of information, and how much of your valuable time it takes to do so.

Time you could be spending responding to your customers.

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I spent last week in Boston at the Internet Retailers Conference and Exhibition. The conference is billed as the largest of its kind in the world. It would be hard to dispute that.

Evidence of the continued growth of online commerce spread far and wide, as row after row of e-vendors tried to move their wares one demo at a time. If you consider yourself an observer of people, a conference like IRCE provides plenty of material for your consideration.

Email Center Pro set up shop at the Velaro booth (as we just completed an integration with the chat service) and fielded demonstration opportunities early and often. That lasted a day and half. On the third day, we pulled down our banner and began walking the floor. That’s when the understood truth about Email Center Pro came to light again: she was built to service the e-commerce industry.

The stories coming from some of the vendors themselves were rich with email management troubles and inconsistencies. And most of them caught the vision for how the service could aide their own customers. If I had a dollar for every time I got a sheepish smile when I said “Email Center Pro was designed to ensure that you’re no longer sending mixed or duplicated messages,” I would’ve had enough for at least one Boston cab fare.

And that came as no surprise. Email Center Pro was designed to fix that very problem at Palo Alto Software. Said one gentleman, who was in attendance as the owner of DSOL, www.danceshoesonline.com: “The new web has provided niche opportunities to sell just about anything online. But there’s always going to be a need for managing the email.”

I couldn’t have conveyed it better myself.

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Back in April, the White House had the kind of Email Fail that makes you stop and think — “Wow,” you think, “That could have been REALLY bad.”

The situation was understandable. At the White House, they have a lot of staffers who have to weigh in on scheduling issues. I imagine many organizations employ a similar work flow — you send an email to one person, who comments and forwards to the next person, and so on and so on, until the agenda is finalized. Then a cleaned up email, without the comments and headers and entire conversation thread, is sent to the parties who it’s intended for.

It may be understandable, but it’s still a recipe for disaster. In the White House instance, the President’s daily agenda was sent to reporters, complete with the aforementioned comments, headers, and conversation thread. In this case, the extra data was harmless. But considering the audience, and the source, just imagine how very very bad this could have been.

So what are you options if this is the only way you know how to collaborate on email messages?

  • You could make mimeograph copies of your documents and hire a trained monkey to carry them around the office for everyone’s input. That would be both old school and entertaining.
  • You could hold a meeting to discuss the contents of every email before composing it. Who wouldn’t love a few more meetings every day?
  • You could chose a dedicated staff emailer, who would have complete autonomy to compose and send every email that goes out on behalf of your company. And then you could pay for their surgery when carpal tunnel syndrome leaves them claw-handed and disabled.

If none of those sound like great solutions, you might want to check out the really cool Email Center Pro feature called Collaborative Notes. These notes let you collaborate with your teammates internally, without the risk of your comments accidentally getting sent to email recipients.

When it comes to handling customer inquires, this can not only help you save face, but valuable time as well. Why get up and hunt down a colleague in the far reaches of your office when you can note an email “Jack, do we have this feature available yet?” and assign it to Jack. When he responds with a note of his own and reassigns it to you, you can include his input in your message (and take credit it for it too, as far as the customer is concerned!).  You can pass an email around the office this way, and each person’s note will be attributed to them by name, date, and time, building accountability into the collaborative process.

Trained monkeys might sound like more fun, but the mess they’d make of your office isn’t worth it. Consider collaborative notes instead.

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The concept of the Email Fail is simple — with its presence everywhere in our lives, there are countless ways that email can fail us. Sometimes it’s simple human error, sometimes simple technical error, sometimes a bit of both. Whatever the cause, some of the most common email fails can be avoided with a little advance planning (a touch of Email Center Pro wouldn’t hurt either…). In part one of this two-parter, we looked at the dreaded auto-reply and the fails that can result. Today we look at another area where email can fail you — the Customer Service Email Fail.

The first email fail that comes to mind when discussing customer service is the Never Checked email address. This happens when a company, in an effort to stay current and accessible, offers a service via email that they can’t support. Examples of this are the pizza chain that lets you order via email and the vet clinic that provides online scheduling.

In both of these stories, customers thought they were saving time and being efficient by doing their business via email. And in both cases, they were treated as though doing so was just unheard of. Which is really weird, considering they didn’t make up the services or email addresses they were trying to use — they were offered on the companies’ websites!

It seems too obvious to say that the best way to avoid this type of email fail is to not put an email address out there for the public to use if you don’t intend to check it. Set up alerts, put a sticky note on your monitor, write it on your forehead — whatever method you chose, if a customer might be sending you an email to any address, CHECK the address regularly!

Another type of email fail is the good-old Pass the Buck fail. This customer service failure isn’t unique to email, in fact it’s one type of failure that has made the transition from in-person to the virtual world pretty much intact. Here’s an example of a company that’s perfected the Pass the Buck fail.

This one is pretty easy to avoid as well. If an email arrives at the wrong destination, have a behind-the-scenes way to get it to the right place! Once a customer has emailed you, they should never get a response telling them to call or email somebody else.

Finally, there’s the Employee fail. Sometimes an employee just ‘goes rogue’ and there’s no recovering. In these cases, being able to search a sent message archive to see what your employees are up to might help you determine if anyone is on the verge of a major Employee Failure, though there’s really not much any email software can do to help you prevent it.

Posted by & filed under auto reply, Email Fail, Uncategorized.

The concept of the Email Fail is simple — with its presence everywhere in our lives, there are countless ways that email can fail us. Sometimes it’s simple human error, sometimes simple technical error, sometimes a bit of both. Whatever the cause, some of the most common email fails can be avoided with a little advance planning (a touch of Email Center Pro wouldn’t hurt either…).

When you send an email to a colleague or a company that you do business with, you want an answer. You probably have an inbox full of email that needs your attention, and the last thing you want or need is another pointless email to further clutter your inbox. But isn’t that what an auto reply does? It’s a non-action item that does nothing for you but give you another thing to delete.

There is no shortage of  examples from our Email Fail blog of the problems caused by auto replies. Some of the main offenses include:

Now, why would you inflict these kinds of things on your customers? One way to stand out from the crowd, and create customers who look forward to doing business with you, is to… gasp… actually REPLY to them!

The key is to reply promptly. If it’s three days before you can you reply, that’s just too long — whether you warn somebody about the delay or not. Auto responses seemed to gain popularity as email traffic started exceeding companies ability to reply in a reasonable amount of time. On the one hand, I can see the temptation:

“I have no way of getting back to this customer right away, but I want them to know that they’re valuable. I know —  I’ll send them an automatic canned message when their email comes in. Now they’ll know that I got their email and then I’ll get to it when I have time.”

The problem is that the auto reply sends the exact opposite message. It tells the customer that you want them to THINK they’re valuable, but they’re not valuable enough for you to respond to right now, or in the near future (72 hours? Really?)

If you’re managing a lot of email, responding to emails promptly doesn’t mean you have to have a dedicated team of people hitting refresh in their email application all day long. It just means you have to find ways to be more efficient in handling the traffic.

Auto reply is a bad solution to a desirable problem — the problem of more customers than you can handle. If you have so much on your plate that you can’t keep up with your customers emails, don’t put your customers off.  Embrace tools that let you manage your email workflow in ways that work for you and your customers. When you get your email workflow perfected, you’ll find yourself freed to take on the other tasks that will let you grow your business. And you can rest easy knowing that as your customer base expands with your business, you’ve got a system in place to handle the growth.

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It’s been a good run for bacon of late. Much like the pet rock, it’s established a trendy cult following eerily reminiscent of parachute pants and Vanilla Ice.bacon

At Email Center Pro, we’re not one to let an opportunity pass by. You know as well as we do that there’s too much synergy between email and bacon to ignore. Those greasy strips of swine aren’t just here to complement your eggs and toast or rest between your lettuce and tomato. They’re here for punch lines, email punch lines.

And so without further ado, Email Center Pro presents the Top 10 ways that email is like bacon, and vice versa:

  1. Too much of it will clog your arteries
  2. Bacon has a To: and From: address, too. To: Your Thighs; From: Porky
  3. Just when you think you’ve filtered it through, it rears up and causes indigestion
  4. You can build relationships over bacon, too!
  5. Who hasn’t been faced with too much bacon on their plate before?
  6. Email has a light version, too. It’s called Twitter
  7. Sometimes the attachments are more impressive: Eggs, pancakes, slices of fruit
  8. If you’re not marketing with bacon, you’re missing out
  9. Bacon’s relative that nobody likes: Spam. Email’s relative that nobody likes: Spam
  10. In moderation, it’s actually good for you. Too much of it will kill ya. No, seriously, check it out

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any to add?

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This is Part Three of a series entitled “Email: This Is How We Do It”. Today, we continue to chronicle a day in the life of an Email Center Pro power user (how’s that for stretching a concept?). So sit back, relax and take a look at Email Center Pro in action (popcorn sold separately).

Time for part three of a day in the  life of Email Center Pro, and we’ve made it to the afternoon. The email traffic has slowed down some, but that doesn’t mean ECP is any less important to my work flow.

12:30 PM Just back from lunch. I’ve been done with my assigned emails for a while, and now my coworkers and I just handle the incoming emails as we’re available. With alerts set up to notify me hourly when there’s unread email in the Sales inbox and also when there’s any email assigned to me, I can get to work on other projects without having to stop all the time to check my email.

2:00 PM An email comes in that stumps me — I just don’t know the answer. Rather than leaving it for somebody else, though, I attach a note to it: “I’m not familiar with this issue. Does anyone know the right answer?” A few minutes later, when I check back, I see a coworker’s note that gives me the information the customer was looking for. She also ribs me a little in her note, since we had just had a meeting about the very issue the email addressed. Sure glad those notes stay internal, where a customer will never see them.

I send the info to the customer, and make a template of my response. Now when this issue comes up again, I’ll have the information at my fingertips. And I make a mental note to pay attention at our next Customer Service meeting!

2:45 PM We’ve been having a lot of customers asking for a particular software feature. Using Tags, we’ve been keeping track of these requests and the users who have been asking. Today our developers informed us that the feature has been added to our software. By selecting the contacts who are tagged Feature Request, I can send them all an email letting them know the function they’ve been looking for is now available.

3:30 PM A customer calls and says he hasn’t received any replies to three emails he’s sent us. When I search the email address he gives me, I don’t find any emails in our system from that address. I ask if it’s possible that he’s sent from a different one. He admits that maybe he sent the emails from his work email address, and a quick search of ECP for that address shows that indeed he did use that one. I tell him the dates and times of our replies, and he checks his email and confirms he’s gotten our emails.

4:45 PM Getting ready to leave for the day. I look at my Dashboard before I leave to check my average email response time, and also the average for the Sales inbox. It’s good to be able to see how many emails I responded to each day and how long it took from the time it arrived until the time my reply was sent. I can check these measurements for time periods ranging from hours to days, weeks, even years! The system even lets me adjust for business hours and days, so it doesn’t hold the time I’m not in the office against my average.

Adjusted, I’m averaging 28 minutes response time for the month, and came in at 31 minutes today. Without the adjustment, my average for the month is 1 hour 10 minutes. Still not too shabby. I’m happy with both numbers, but I’m sure there’s room for improvement somewhere. But that’s something that I’ll worry about tomorrow.

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This is Part Two of a series entitled “Email: This Is How We Do It”. We’re going to chronicle, over three days, a day in the life of an Email Center Pro power user (how’s that for stretching a concept?). So sit back, relax and take a look at Email Center Pro in action (popcorn sold separately).

Yesterday we looked at some of the inner workings of a Monday morning. Now we’re heading toward lunch, when we tackle the mound of messages waiting for our attention. At this point, the morning settles into a more predictable pace.

10:30 AM Palo Alto Software sells a lot of product that’s transmitted through download, and it seems like there’s a never-ending supply of customers who have lost their serial numbers. Frankly, it’s amazing how many people can’t keep track of a 20-digit number. Good thing we have templates that allow us to plug the unique information into a pre-written message. I can’t imagine how long these emails would take us, and how tedious it would be, if we had to write the same thing over and over again. We’ve crafted responses for all the lost serial number scenarios that come up, and a quick look at our template library shows that these are all amongst the most used.

Back when I started working here, templates really helped me get up to speed so that I could answer customer’s emails quickly and with confidence. During my training days, my colleagues picked emails they knew could be addressed with templates, and assigned them to me.

I’d look at the email and decide which template I should send. I’d  put the name of that template in a note attached to the email, along with any special details that I thought needed to be included. Then I’d assign the email back to my trainer, who could check to make sure that I had selected the right message. She’d leave me notes and reassign the email to me to take action. And after the fact, she could search the archive for all email I sent to double-check that I had handled everything correctly. I remember being impressed by the usefulness of this every day tool, even for a beginner like me.

11:00 AM Replies to my first round of emails start coming in. They’re automatically assigned to me, so the customer will be getting a consistent message and will see that the same person is here to help them resolve their issue or answer all their questions. And since nobody has to assign those emails to me, or read through the whole thread to familiarize themselves with the issue in order to respond, it saves us time. A win-win situation for us and our customers.

Sometimes a message will come in auto-assigned from a customer who is replying to an email we sent them months ago. Often its about something completely unrelated. I think the customers enjoy feeling as though they’re sending an email to an actual person. Today I get one that begins “Hi Jay…” and is a reply to — what else? —  a serial number request that I answered back in January. The customer is asking for upgrade information. I happen to see her message moments after it arrives, and I respond promptly with the link she’s looking for.

She writes back almost immediately, telling me she’s going to upgrade on our website right away, and adding a nice compliment about my responsiveness. Something that was quite simple (ordinary, in fact) for me really added to this customer’s impression of our company. I tag the email Kudos, to add it to the long list of kind remarks from customers. It’s fun to periodically look at all the emails under that tag and read through all the nice things customers have to say about us. Building an “Atta Boy” file is just good for morale.

11:30 AM Uh oh, a phone customer is having trouble with his software. He says he’s been emailing with Technical Support but their solutions aren’t working. I get his email address and do a quick search, which lets me see all the emails he’s sent, as well as our replies. By reading over the messages, I can save him the trouble of having to tell me all the details of his problem and what Tech Support has had him do so far. I go over the last email with him, and together we realize that he missed one of the steps. He goes through the process again, doing the missing step, and his software is up and running. Problem solved.

Seems like a good time to head to lunch. My daily peanut butter and jelly sandwich is calling to me, and it’s abeautiful day outside. A snack and a walk will have me refreshed and ready to take on whatever the afternoon has to offer.

Tomorrow, you’ll find Part Three of this series, and another hearty helping of email management insight …

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This is Part One of a series entitled “Email: This Is How We Do It”. We’re going to chronicle, over three days, a day in the life of an Email Center Pro power user (how’s that for stretching a concept?). So sit back, relax and take a look at Email Center Pro in action (popcorn sold separately).

A huge part of my work day is spent dealing with email — answering customers questions, sending callers information about our products, assigning emails to colleagues and coworkers… I don’t know what life was like here at Palo Alto Software before Email Center Pro, but I can tell you what an average day is like for me as ECP power-user.

Over the next three days, you’ll have an opportunity to do a ride-along with me as I go about my daily routine. As you read this series, I encourage you to think about yourself and your team, and the kinds of email chores you handle on a regular basis. How do you handle the types of scenarios that I encounter each day?

8:00 AM It’s Monday morning and nobody’s been in the Sales inbox all weekend. I come in to the office, get the coffee started, and dig in.

There are 80 emails in the inbox that need attention, and myself and my three coworkers are responsible for getting them all answered as quickly as possible. I’m the first one in — nobody else is due for an hour, so it’s my job to get the emails assigned.

I generally just do this in a divide and conquer mode. I split the number of emails by four, with no cherry picking who gets what (too tempting to give myself all the lucrative ones!). Grabbing a few at a time, I assign them out.

I do it this way mostly to ensure that each user gets emails from a variety of time periods. All of Desi’s would be from the beginning of the weekend if started off assigning 20 consecutive emails to her, for instance. By spreading out how they’re assigned, the people who have been waiting the longest for a reply will be the first to get one, regardless of who their message has been assigned to.

Glancing at the emails as I assign them gives me a chance to make sure they’ve all been sent to the right box. I notice one that looks like it should go to the Marketing department,  so I just move the message over. If  my colleagues who handle that inbox have any questions about the email’s source, they’ll see that it was originally sent to sales and that I moved it over for them. Since I didn’t have to forward it to another email address, the message didn’t get buried beneath the headers that precede forwarded messages.

9:15 AM I log into my jay@paloalto email in Outlook, to check on any personal emails I may have received. If my boss has a project for me, an all company email has gone out, or any other non-sales related item needs my attention, it’ll be sent to this email address. This account is for my eyes only.

The fact that customer emails are completely separate from this address helps me prioritize. My wife may have sent me a note to remind me to pick up salad fixings and dish washer detergent, but it doesn’t come before an email from a customer that needs attention. I usually glance at my inbox at some point early in my day, to see if there’s anything pressing. As usual, there’s nothing in there that needs to come before my customers, so I go back to ECP to take care of my emails there before worrying about what I need to bring home for dinner.

9:30 AM One of my colleagues has called in sick. Luckily, we still have access to those 20 emails I assigned to her! We could just view email assigned to her and respond to them, but we find it easier to simply reassign them to those of us who are here today. We all have a little more work, but at least those customers won’t be waiting for a response until our coworker’s flu has run its course.

10:00 AM I do some work for other departments, so I need to check other boxes for anything important that’s come in over the weekend. It’s nice to just chose the mailbox from a pull-down menu, rather than having to log out of one account and into another to handle all my responsibilities.

And with that, I think I’ve earned myself a little break. I’m gonna head over to the coffee pot, get a refill, and stretch a little before getting back to business.

Tomorrow, you’ll find Part Two of this series, and maybe we’ll find out if Jay missed any salad ingredients…

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There is no shortage of people willing to share their tips and tricks about how to better manage email:

“Take action immediately, if it’s relevant.”
“Don’t take action immediately unless the message is on fire when it arrives.”
“Wait five minutes to take action, refill your coffee cup, then delete everything.”

And there are hundreds more where these came from.

For small businesses, email management is perhaps the crucial spoke in the work flow wheel. It’s the key to driving sales, serving customers and supporting the communication foundation of the business. Which is to say: Email is important.

Because it’s important, there’s significant value in having legitimate tips pointed out. And there are people willing to share, from Tim Ferriss and the “4-hour Work Week” to an office assistant in Omaha with a blog and an opinion. Well, because we like a good party, we were going to join the fray, too, tossing in our top five most useful suggestions for turning your email experience into Shangri-la. But then I thought that maybe we should be a little more explicit.

So, rather than give you the riveting recommendation to “Stay out of your email until at least Noon”, I thought we’d pull you through a day in the life series (who doesn’t love those?).

Beginning Monday, we’re going to start a series entitled “Email: This is How We Do It” (with a nod to Montell Jordan) in which you’ll be taken through the various aspects of email and communication work flow at Palo Alto Software. Not only will you learn techniques for improving some of the most crucial aspects of your business, but you’ll also see why it’s a good thing there’s an Email Center Pro in the world for minimizing all of these headaches.

See you on Monday.