We asked client and friend of Ascendancy, Monica Seeley, about a tool we had come across (Email Meter) which monitors and reports back on your usage of email. Email overload is obviously a big issue for us and for many of our clients (Helen alone receives around 3,000 emails per month!) and we were interested to hear whether Monica – an expert in this field – thought this kind of tool could be of benefit to us and to our clients.
Here’s the article she kindly wrote us in reply, using a recent client of hers as a case study…
Why audit your email behaviour?
How efficiently do you manage your email? Most business people receive between 70 to 120 emails a day. Not surprisingly, many business executives feel that email is gobbling up significant chunks of time. If new emails are not cleared relatively quickly, the backlog builds-up. Checking them as they arrive is one option, albeit they distract you from the task in hand. Conversely, on a busy day, the bulk go unanswered and people start sending you reminders.
You start to have a nagging feeling that you could deal with your email more effectively, but how? You read some articles and set some goals either to free up time for other more front-line tasks or make time to deal with your emails more promptly. Does your new email behaviour make you as effective and in control as you believe?
It is easy to think one is doing well, in the absence of any hard data. As a golfer, I think my golf swing is short and punchy until I video it. However, with email management it is not so easy to measure this gap.
One client felt she was taking too long to reply on busy days out on client sites, and conversely, that when she was in the office she was getting too distracted by new emails – despite switching off all the new mail alerts and frequently walking and talking to team members. This is a common dilemma for many senior executives, and especially for small business owners with limited administration support.
There are two ways to benchmark your email behaviour, either a manual inbox audit with an expert email management coach, or using an on-line tool such as Email Meter. The latter is what this colleague did. The key initial results indicated:
- Average email response time was 20 hours
- Quickest response time – 27 seconds
- Only 16% of emails had been read
- She had sent 26% more emails than the previous month
- She had received 8% fewer emails than the previous month
Email Meter also shows the intensity with which you deal with emails during the day, and a comparison between internal and external traffic.
Immediately, the difference between sent and received email should be sending warning bells – rather like the inverted yield curve on interest rates. Email Meter also tells you who are your most frequent senders and recipients. But the real questions are, why? and – are these the right people?
Deeper investigation revealed that over this specific period, the most frequent sender was a difficult client making excessive demands on my client’s time. Moreover, she was acting as the ‘post box’ between the client and her team, to protect them from these unrealistic demands.
This, not surprisingly, highlighted a gap between my client’s perceived email management and the reality, and raised even more questions. Specifically:
- Were the main senders under pressure, and not taking time to think before hitting send? In effect, were they taking the monkey off their backs and putting it on yours?
- New emails were being checked on arrival. Was this either a form of executive FOMO or underlying email addiction?
- Was she often using her peak performance time to deal with the inbox, instead of more important (potentially fee generating) tasks?
- Why was she needing to shield team members from specific clients? Do team members not have the right competences? Is the client not as profitable as initially anticipated because they are taking up a disproportionate level of resources? Does she micro-manage?
- What about all the unopened emails – given only 16% are read? If the inbox is so full of junk, is there a high risk of missing a key email? How much was external junk mail and how much internal?
We also have to bear in mind some of the limitations of the Email Meter tool. For example, it does not appear to be able to distinguish between a ‘proper’ reply and an automated reply – my client was actually on holiday for part of the month but the tool did not report any decrease in the number of emails sent (when these were actually ‘out of office’ responses). A deeper analysis is often needed to highlight the real sources of wasted time and energy.
The way forward
Based on this case history, which is by no means unique, here are five ways to help clients improve their email behaviour. All are linked to effective time management:
- Try to avoid using ‘peak performance time’ to deal with emails. Instead work through your to-do list. If this means dealing with email later in the day (and especially after normal working hours), then use a delayed send process, so as not to distract the team first thing in the morning – unless of course the messages really do need urgent attention.
- Treat your inbox as an information highway. Choose which emails travel in the ‘fast lane’ straight to your inbox. Automatically move all the unnecessary ones to the ‘slow lane’ (ie folders) by using rules/filters.
- Be honest with yourself, and analyse what is the underlying cause of clusters of key senders/recipients. Is it your management style, the nature of the business, or something else? Depending on the response, assess what you can do to make these processes more cost-effective.
- Switch off all the new mail alerts. Only check emails at dedicated times. And, if need be, set a reminder to check your inbox, and then stop and go back to the original task in hand. If this is hard, check your level of email addiction!
- Be alert to senders who bombard you with emails. If they are internal, discuss why this is happening. If they are external, review whether or not the project is being managed properly. Does the problem lie with you? (then fix it) Or the client? (then discuss it with them, in the context of creating good business for you both). It may be that email is not the best technology in the circumstances, and a more efficient solution would be a collaborative tool like Microsoft Teams.
Don’t assume that the internal picture you imagine of your email behaviour is reality. Make time to monitor it, either with an app, or with a real person who will give you honest feedback.
Email Meter makes a good starting point, but remember that it cannot add that human dimension to turn the data into knowledge, which a personal inbox audit can do. Importantly too, it only works for Gmail. For those on Microsoft based accounts, as a minimum, quantify the time wasted by receiving unnecessary email using a cost of email mis-use calculator and triage your inbox by sender and topic, to identify trends.
Dr Monica Seeley, founder of Mesmo Consultancy and author of Brilliant Email.