Posted by & filed under Cloud Computing, Uncategorized.

Computers. They sustain us in countless ways. Information, communication, entertainment. In the last two decades computers have become a part of our every day lives.

But what happens when computers fail? Who hasn’t lost important data when their computer has gone down? And more importantly, how do you protect yourself so that when the inevitable happens, it’s less tragic?

flickr photo by viZZZual.com

flickr photo by viZZZual.com

When it comes to email, the answer is simple. The time has come to move to the clouds. Locally installed email applications are just accidents waiting to happen. If you lose all your email — contacts, conversation history, everything — when your computer crashes, you are suffering unnecessarily.

Cloud computing refers to online, third-party hosting of software (also referred to as Software as a Service). Googledocs is a good example of this — you create a document in Googledocs and it’s hosted on their server. You can access it from any computer with Internet access, just by logging into your account.  Your file is  in the clouds, and you can pull it down to work on it at any time.

There are a lot of good reasons to move your email to the clouds. In fact, many folks already have, using Hotmail or Yahoo for personal email accounts. Cloud-based solutions for your business email are the next logical step.

Cloud Computing and Your Bottom Line

From a corporate perspective, one of the biggest benefits is that when your email is hosted elsewhere, you don’t have to worry about installing software or having enough memory or backup storage — your IT infrastructure concerns are eliminated. Less time wasted on installations and maintenance means more time for the real work of doing business.

Quick and Painless Software Updates

Another less obvious benefit is the real-time updating that SaaS allows. When a web-based service has a new feature or bug fix, you get it as soon as it’s released. You don’t need to reinstall, redownload, reboot… all of that is taken care of, and you reap the rewards without the hassle.

The Obvious Solution

Finally, moving your email to the clouds just makes sense. Working from home while waiting for the plumber? Check your email. Stuck in the airport for hours with only your laptop to keep you company? Check your email. Staying at your brother-in-law’s house and can’t stand another round of Yahtzee? Check your email (or hide in the garage…).

When your email is hosted in the clouds, you can have access to the information you need, when you need it, where ever you may be.

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This is the third installment in the three-part series “Stop the Madness: Manage Email to Grow Your Business”

Here’s one technique for bolstering yourself against the notion that email is your daily death sentence:

Put a premium on the time you spend with it.

In yesterday’s installment of this series, I suggested that you put tools into your ecosystem that enable you disconnect from the email minutiae. Today, I’m saying that when you do dedicate time to email, make certain that you’re adding value in the following ways:

Your personal brand: In the first post of this series, I talked about the branding that’s inherent in email communication. Now we’re one level up. When I send an email, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m conveying character traits with each sentence. If I want the reader to know that customer service is of the utmost importance, then I’m going to write with a tone of compassion and invitation — regardless of the topic. Remember that for the most part we’ve given away messages of a conveyor built nature, or those manageable with a template.

Your organization’s brand: What are the most important things to your business? Beyond standard branding, what can you do to separate yourself from the pack? AtPalo Alto Software we brand ourselves with response time. We are in the process of developing a badge you’ll be able to attach to your website that will indicate how long a customer can expect to wait for an email response to their inquiry. Would you be willing to use that?

Your time: Based on the parameters we’ve set for your email engagement, the time you’re going to spend with it from now on will be as valuable as other components of your day.

Your end goal: There are varying goal levels associated with operating a business, from completing a feature update to putting together a marketing presentation. But what’s the goal behind that? And the one behind that? Making money? Helping people? How can email support that effort?

Email can speak to each level of your business. It’s got a voice for administration; one for marketing; one for IT; and so on. When you pour in the appropriate value, it’s nimble enough to make all the difference.

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This is the second installment in the three-part series “Stop the Madness: Manage Email to Grow Your Business”

Scenario

It’s 4 in the afternoon. You’re sitting at your desk for what seems like the 23rd hour in a row. You haven’t taken a lunch in three days. You’ve already been through your complete iTunes library — twice. And you’ve been tapping your toes for exercise.

And, yet, the email continues to pour in mercilessly. Another message about the minutiae of your business. Vital to the customer; the 32nd time you’ve addressed it today.

flickr user Jason Michael

flickr user Jason Michael

But there’s always the catch: Those email messages are competing with a project proposal promised to a potential customer. How do you prioritize?

Are you pitting the customer satisfaction delivered through effective email management against opportunities to grow your business?

In yesterday’s post we discussed the importance of extending your brand through your email.

Now we’re going to talk about loosening the reins and letting go.

From the CEO, to the manager to the small business owner, there comes a point along the winding road of business when the many tasks associated with developing success will create a glass ceiling against which growth will headbutt. At the point when you see opportunities littering the ground like sparklers at a Fourth of July party, you know it’s time to do one of two things (both, if you’ve already done the first):

  • Get some help
  • Trust that help

At this point you might be saying two things to yourself. First, “Why are these things relevant to me?” And second, “How is this possibly related to email?”

Well, I’ve addressed the former above. And I’m going to address the latter now.

Email is especially good at living up to the whole “bane of my existence” label. And that’s why your end goal should be to offload as much of the email minutiae as possible. You can push it either to people or systems — the ideal solution lies somewhere in the middle.

  • Virtual (or physical) assistant: Yes, this is an added expense. Yes, there’s a time commitment to get this person up to speed. Yes, the benefits you will reap will, most likely, far outweigh the financial obligation.For instance, email management will become one of this person’s most visible duties.
  • Enhanced email management: If you’re still running your heavily trafficked email inboxes with a jerry-rigged collection of Outlook and Gmail rules (red flag for this, yellow flag for that) you’re stepping on your own productivity toes. Get your self a system that centralizes that operation and gives you cool tools, like, say, templates.

The pot at the end of the rainbow formed by these two bullet points is freedom to grow your business. And that’s built on trust. Here’s what I mean:

1. The ball leaves your court: Once you’ve ceded the bulk of your email management to a virtual (or physical) assistant, you’re going to discover time you thought you’d never see again. It was hiding under another order receipt confirmation. With that time, you’ll be permitted to explore the development of your business in ways you might never have known. Because we simply trust that gas is being delivered to the engine, we rightfully presume that the car will move when we push the pedal.

2. Cool tools facilitate trust building: Giving up blanket control over every email happens in stages. Ease that transition by using tools that keep you connected at your comfort level. Internal notes that you can drop alongside a message allow you to share wisdom at a moment’s notice. Using templates (canned responses) means that you can dictate the messages being sent from your business. And, as an added bonus, find yourself an analytics package that will give you deep insight into how your email system is running from a centralized location.

3. Drop in when it’s relevant: Once you give away the bulk of your messaging duties, you’ll increase the potency of your presence when you are involved. If you ever wanted to be arock star, this is your chance.

This final point is very important, which you’re going to read more about tomorrow in part three of this series, “Stop the Madness: Manage Email to Grow Your Business”.

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This is the first installment in the three-part series “Stop the Madness: Manage Email to Grow Your Business”

Last week I proposed a problem in this blog post. That problem was this: The fact that you’re running a business (or two) means that “email inundation” is about as common a phrase to you as “It was on the invoice”.

Then I asked a question: So, what do you do?

flickr user juliebee

flickr user juliebee

Some of you shrugged. Others continued weeping about the perplexing nature of your email reality. Either way, consider yourself doused in empathy. The email hammer falls mercilessly on many a business owner. But, rather than swap stories about the number of hair follicles abandoned by their strands because of email horrors, I say we look for viable solutions.

With that in mind, these are the parts of this series:

Today: Branding: Yes, It’s In Your Email, Too
Tomorrow: Loosen the Grip: Email Will Bury You If You Don’t Share It
Friday: Respect Your Email: Add Value When You Touch It

As a business owner — in particular — and even as an employee, it’s important to acknowledge that everything generated by your business — from the product or service to the supporting elements and beyond is a reflection of your brand. If you’re scoring at home, let me reiterate: everything.

In no component of your business is that more true than with email correspondence. Every message that you originate or reply to is a piece of marketing collateral that can either represent you well or reflect poorly on your approach to business.

“But it’s just an email,” you say. “I was just replying to a customer’s question.”

You could view email messages that way, yes, but what if you took a different tact? What if you viewed each email as marketing touchpoint — a chance to extend your brand? Then you would start to pay particular attention to these things:

  • Sentence Structure: Whether your selling consulting services or shoelaces, your customers or potential customers need to know that you’re capable of creating complete sentences. Nothing says “Feel free to doubt my competency” like an obnoxious fragment.
  • Grammar: See above and replace “creating complete” with “punctuating”. Beyond the message sent by the absence of grammar, you also risk confusing the meaning of your email.
  • Aesthetic: Remember, we’re talking about branding. Make sure that the email is clean. If you’re conveying multiple points, use numbers or bullets.
  • Signature: Here’s a chance to send a digital business card 100 times per day. Make sure you’ve got a title, contact information and other pertinent links. Be careful not to go crazy here. A 12-line signature crosses into desperation or showing off — neither of which is good.
  • Information: Make sure the messages you send address the issue at hand and provide the information necessary to resolve it — inasmuch as that’s possible. You chuckle, but a third of my day is spent wondering why people bothered to hit the “send” button.
  • Over-delivery: Do this every once in a while. Again, this is an extension of your brand. Being known as a consultant/company/organization that goes the extra mile will pay unexpected dividends.

The nice thing about the email management tools available today is that they prevent the need to create each email from scratch. Using a template or canned response, as long as it meets the branding requirements, is not only acceptable, but advised.

Now, if this seems to you like a bucket of effort you’re not convinced will make a difference, keep this reality in mind: We’re living at the confluence of a couple of major forces that can impact your way of life. You say, “That seems like hyperbole, Jason, could you just go back to talking about email?” In one moment, because it’s all related.

The two forces are Market Saturation and Social Media. In simple terms:

1. There are a lot of businesses out there vying for space in the market.
2. Social Media has turned everybody into a visible figure, which has raised the bar on individual expectation of service.

This means that to create your space in the market, all of the tools in your branding shed must be sharp. And because of the nature of business communication, email needs to be viewed as the Philips-head screwdriver: always ready, always reliable.

Come back tomorrow for the second installment in this series, “Loosen Your Grip: Email Will Bury You If You Don’t Share It”. Can you say riveting?

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flickr user tambako the jaguar

flickr user tambako the jaguar

Ok, so you’re running your own business. Or maybe two. And maybe you’ve got a side gig on top of those.

And maybe you find yourself slogging through the mess that’s become your email inbox. You’re using Outlook and three separate gmail accounts to organize the various spokes in your email wheel, and, quite frankly, you’re starting to run on fumes. Your business (es) are growing, and the email volume right along with it. Perhaps you’re finding that the management of this mess is not only causing you headaches, but is also stunting your progress.

Bottom line: It’s a lot to handle.

So you pick up an assistant (either physical or virtual) and begin asking them to streamline the email portion of your work flow (along with a few other things). After a moment of blue sky, when it looks as though the torrent of messaging frustration will let up, you find that not much has changed. There’s still a pile of email that requires your attention — messages that “need” your wisdom.

And perhaps, more disturbingly, the assistance you tried to bring on as relief, has actually increased your workload.

All the while your business stagnates because your time is not allocated for building it.

So, what do you do?

You’re in luck. I’m going to tell you next week in a three-part series called “Stop the Madness: Manage Email to Grow Your Business”.

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This is the final installment in the series,  “Email: A View From Above”. We’ve been working to prove that email, as a communication channel, is not entirely based on spam or marketing blasts…

Once you’ve figured out how to handle customer email and taken steps toward improving your email customer service, it’s time to think about how you can use email to retain existing customers.

First, it’s important to remember that retaining existing customers is just as important, if not more so, as attracting new ones. And in tough economic times, it becomes vital to work hard at keeping all of your customers happy.

flickr user Beer_Coaster

flickr user Beer_Coaster

Happy customers spend more of their money with you, long term. Happy customers bring in more customers. Happy customers can provide you with marketing and promotion that you just couldn’t buy.

One way to build lifelong customers is to exceed their expectations. A great way to do this is to be prompt. When you manage your email well, it’s not difficult to see a customer’s email come in and reply to it quickly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve replied to a customer’s email within minutes and received incredible feedback. Responses tend to go something like this:

  • You answered my email in five minutes!
  • My problem is solved and I didn’t have to wait all day!
  • I didn’t think this kind of customer service existed anymore!

Tracking a customer over time

Sometimes a customer asks a question that can’t immediately be answered. You do what you can at the time, but you know that in a few days/weeks/even months, there will be more information for that customer. Tracking this kind of inquiry, and being equipped to contact and update a customer after their initial inquiry lets the customer know that they are top of mind, and that you are serious about their business.

Having a good paper (or virtual) trail of your customer contact is also invaluable. The ability to look back through a history of conversations can save you time and give you insight into the kind of customer you’re assisting. This not only eliminates unnecessary back and forth (what product were they asking about last time? how did your last communication end?), but it provides the customer with a sense of security. You know who they are and what’s come before. You’re equipped to help them again.

And here’s how it works

A great example of this happened to me recently. A customer called with a pressing technical support question. She mentioned that she had sent an email but hadn’t received a reply. Not only was I able to look at the Technical Support inbox (thanks to Email Center Pro)  but I could see that my coworker, Steve, was in the process of responding to her most recent email. And because I could see her entire email exchange with Steve, I knew there was nothing I could do to get her answer any faster (because it was not my area of expertise), but that Steve was well on his way to handling it. For this customer, just hearing the words “Steve is responding to your email right now” brought her voice down to a reasonable octave and obviously set her mind at ease.

The golden nugget

The trick to retaining customers is simple — treat them like they matter as much as potential customer. Because they do.

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train-tracks

Flickr photo by fotogail

This is the third installment in the series,  “Email: A View From Above”. Stay tuned while we continue to take an unconventional look at what email has to offer. This communication channel is not entirely based on spam or marketing blasts…

If you’re part of a large organization, there’s a chance that you’re using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application to track various interactions with customers. You get insight into conversations, the sales process and more. And you’re able to use that information to touch base with those customers, design campaigns for further sales’ pursuits and generally grow your business.

But maybe you “suffer” from any of the following:

  • You’re not part of a large organization
  • You don’t spend a lot of time in your company’s CRM (if one exists)
  • You’re looking for information not directly related to a specific customer

Where do you go for a living history of your organization?

Well, if it’s managed in a transparent way, from a centralized interface, the answer to that question would be email. Perhaps email is the bane of your existence and right now you’ve just begun to compose the comment that says “the only thing that we could use email to track is the number of headaches from which we suffer daily.”

If that’s the case, then I’m sorry. Refer to this post from a couple of days ago to learn about a more effective way to manage email. Once you’re doing that, here’s a brief look at the kind of visibility you’ll enjoy:

1. Engagement with customers: At Palo Alto Software, the bulk of our customer interaction is managed through email. Is it safe to say you’re experiencing the same? Email provides a deep well of potentially organized touch points from which to draw.

2. Internal work ownership and flow: Who sent which email on what day? These could serve as important bits of information that relate to duty designation, and how questions and concerns are typically addressed.

3. Oversight and performance assessment: Using email to capture the living history of your organization is not just about tracking customer records. It’s also about looking at the inner workings of how certain members of your team are behaving on a day-to-day basis. The ability to peek at effectiveness and efficiency can be invaluable.

4. Feedback and customer service overview: Are your customers being served in a manner that fits with your foundational commitments? Email is a revealing place to look at how your staff, whether it’s one person or 100, is upholding the value system of the company.

5. Written record of an indisputable nature: It might be relatively easy to dispute a phone call gone awry. We know that every recording says “This call may be recorded for quality assurance.” But it’s still much easier to take a quick peek at email messages if you’re using a software solution that permits that kind of visibility. And that quick peek can reveal things related either to the customer or employee.

What it all means

Things at your organization likely move pretty quickly, and in various directions simultaneously. Perhaps you’ve set up methods for tracking all of this behavior. Is email one of them? Much of the information you need is in there, available if the appropriate systems are in place.

Be sure and check back tomorrow for the fourth, and final, post in this series: “Want to Acquire and Retain Customers? Try Email”

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This is the second installment in the series,  “Email: A View From Above”. Stay tuned over the next two days while we take an unconventional look at what email has to offer. This communication channel is not entirely based on spam or marketing blasts…

Whether you work for a huge corporation or operate your own small business, you know that email has become a primary source of contact with your customers and clients. They want to send you messages at their convenience, and they expect fast, accurate information from you in return.

Flickr photo by Mubarock_zid

Flickr photo by Mubarock_zidreturn.

How you provide that service can make or break your customer relationships.

For many of you, the accepted method of email support is to put a handful of email addresses on your website and respond to incoming mail in a triage mode. That might work to keep your customers satisfied — for a while. But if you approach email for what it is — a primary customer service tool — and handle it accordingly, you’ll create customers who look forward to doing business with you.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but one of the first tasks required for providing superior customer service via email is to actually reply. Auto-responders are fine in certain situations, but unless they’re absolutely necessary, avoid them. Why send two emails — one saying, “We’ve received your email” when you could just send one, resolving the issue quickly and efficiently? You know the logjam that happens in your inbox? Your customers’ inbox looks just like that, too. Try not to make it worse.

Get up to speed, quickly

Once you abandon the auto reply, you’ll have to make sure you reply promptly. Nothing impresses a customer more than when they send an email and receive a reply in less time than they expect. If you can reply in minutes, or within an hour, you’ll be amazed at the feedback your customers will give you. Nothing tells your customers that you care about their needs as much as responding to those needs quickly.

There are some tricks to providing speedy email customer service. One is to create templates for your frequently asked questions. If you have questions that get asked repeatedly, why write the same answer time and time again? A template library can really help you save time. Of course, you’ll edit those templates to suit each situation. When done well, your customers won’t even know that your message wasn’t crafted just for them.

If you’re not accurate, you’re not relevant

Now, speed is no replacement for accuracy. If you have to give up the immediate response to ensure the correct one, it’s a swap worth making. Sometimes you need to do some legwork and gather information before you can respond to a customer’s request or question. Say an email comes to an info@ address that really should be handled by somebody in marketing, for instance. Having an easy way to get the right answers — effortlessly collaborating between departments — will help you provide the best possible service to the customer, who doesn’t care who answers their question or how. They will just appreciate getting a response back with the information they needed.

Communication continuity = branding

The final piece of the customer service puzzle is continuity. If you respond to a customer’s request, and they come back with another question, it’s in everybody’s best interest, when possible, for YOU to be the one to answer again. The customer feels like they are communicating with a person, not just another faceless representative of the company. You know the prior history so there’s less wasted time getting up to speed on the customer’s story. When email addresses are shared amongst a team, this can be difficult, but it can really make a difference between mediocre customer service and excellent customer service.

Everyone wants to feel like they’re important, that they’re being assisted by the person best suited to the task, and that that person is going to be there for them until all their needs are taken care of. When these conditions are met, you build customers for life.

Be sure and check back tomorrow for the third post in this series: “Can’t Find Your Organization’s Pulse? Check Email”

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This is the first installment in the series,  “Email: A View From Above”. Stay tuned over the next three days while we take an unconventional look at what email has to offer. This communication channel is not entirely based on spam or marketing blasts…

When email is a big part of your business, coming up with a seamless, efficient work flow is tremendously important. If you have to reinvent the wheel each time an email comes in from a customer or contact, you risk stunting the overall process.

photo by flickr user ralphbijker

Let’s start with the basics: Do you know what’s going on with the email that’s sent to your business? If your company is like most these days, you have personal email addresses and a host of other addresses like info@, sales@ and marketing@. Who is responsible for responding to inquiries sent to those addresses? If you’re a supervisor, do you know when someone responds to those inquiries, or how they respond?

Businesses often treat their email work flow too much like their telephone protocol. A call comes into a central number and gets transferred to the appropriate party. Everyone has their own direct lines, but outside callers are usually funneled in through selected numbers.

This is good for phone calls, because if the ideal person is already on the phone, the operator can route the call to the next available person or put the caller on hold. Or, if the call is for a specific person who is unavailable, the call can go to voicemail.

It’s Email, Not a Phone Call

But email is different. For starters, the email equivalent of a phone operator is pointless. Email should help you streamline your operations, not bog you down with extra steps. Forwarding an email as you would transfer a phone call creates headers that have to be deleted, inboxes filled with redirected emails, and an extra opportunity for a lost email.

Another problem with this process is that it provides no accountability. After forwarding that email to the right person, do you just wash your hands of it — the forward it and forget it approach? And what if you do want to know how or when that message was managed? Do you have to send a follow up email? More work, more email = less efficiency.

The Vacation Dilemma

Personal email addresses like John@yourbusiness really should be separate from customer facing addresses like sales@yourbusiness. Then, if John is away from the office, customers still receive responses to their inquiries.

That said, if an email to sales@ stays in sales@, you still need a response process for your team. Does one person play the phone operator role, forwarding to John? That just creates the same problem — John responds, the customer replies, and again, John goes on vacation and the customer’s email goes unanswered.

Non-Solution Solutions

So you try several people having access to sales@. Now you have to keep track of who’s answered what. I’ve heard all kinds of ‘solutions’ to this dilemma — colored tags, multiple folders, checking and rechecking the sent folder. Many organizations even dedicate a workstation for customer facing email, with employees rotating at the email desk. None of this makes the process smoother for your team or more reliable for your customers. And none of it gives a manager any way of measuring results.

The Ideal Approach

In an perfect world, everyone would have access to all email pouring into those departmental addresses. The appropriate person would respond to every email with the correct response in a timely manner, and managers would be able to see those responses and even suggest the right response before it’s sent. And ultimately, customers would get a prompt answer — a correct answer — every time.

Be sure and check back tomorrow for the second post in this series: “Want to fail at Customer Service? Ignore Email”

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This is the first post on the official Email Center Pro Blog.

Official not because there are rogue ECP blogs lurking online. But official because that’s just the way things are said.

Welcome to a place that celebrates the realities of email.

No matter your position in the overall conversation, the truth remains: email, for all the conviction that befalls it, is a vital component of the overall communication strategy for organizations of any size — from the independent consultant to the Fortune 500 behemoth. For many, the problem lies in the fact that email is seeemail-on-the-roadn not as part of that strategy, but as a by-product that simply dumps difficulty and frustration into workers’ laps.

Email Center Pro is a tool that can be used to combat that. The application facilitates a re-engineering of how email is perceived. That core concept will serve as the foundational component of this blog.

Email is too often berated and seen as a necessary evil. That’s not surprising, given the impractical way so many of us execute the management of this communication vehicle. But the fact is, there’s no need to languish any longer. Instead, it’s time to adjust our focus and see email as a:

  • Work flow optimizer
  • Customer service tool
  • Record of your company’s living history
  • Customer retention vehicle

The next four posts on this blog are going to deal individually with each of these bullet points. The series is called “Email: A View From Above”.

Now, while we think there’s room in the blogosphere for our effort to become a consistent voice in the practical application of email space, we’d be remiss if we focused entirely on theory, best practices and other suit-and-tie conversations.

Which is why we’re also going to bring the EmailFail blog under our umbrella. Palo Alto has been using that space to point out email blunders, gaffes and eye-poppers for the past two months. That will continue here, so you’ll still get your fill of headlines like:

How to Use Email to Lose Your Job

A parting thought

We believe in email for all of the reasons noted above. When managed transparently and respectfully, it can be the communication vehicle of record for your company without delivering an endless stream of headaches and frustration. It doesn’t have to be the bottleneck that perhaps yours has become. You can fix the overlooked, duplicated or mixed messages that plague your customer service team and, eventually, your bottom line.

Stay tuned and we’ll show you how.

Tomorrow, look for the first installment in the “Email: A View From Above” series: “Company work flow broken? Check your email”