Q. What is e-mail management and why is it important to my business?

A. While this question may appear too simple by the fact that it has juxtaposed two commonly used terms (e-mail and management), e-mail management is not as simple as one may think. Over the past eight years, all of us have begun to use e-mail either personally or professionally. While we use e-mail, few of us know how to really manage it.

What is e- mail management? I define e-mail management relative to a business environment as follows: A set of complex strategies, processes and technologies to support the receipt, filtering, archival, segmentation, analysis, workflow and transmission for responding to e-mail received from customers via Web sites and/or Internet e-mail addresses.

E-mail is data; however, unlike transactional data, it has tacit and conversational information which needs to be managed appropriately in order to get the most value for the enterprise. E- mail management, like data management, is fundamentally a business process. As such, the business process of managing e-mail requires a variety of skill sets including: customer care, marketing, copy writing, legal, brand management, data security and data warehousing, to name a few. Along with these skill sets, there is also a need for managing the workflow of e-mail. Who can read certain e-mail? What is the approval process for sending e-mail back to customers? Under what condition does one stop an outgoing message? When should the legal department be involved? These and other questions can be answered by understanding the business process and implementing the appropriate workflow.

In order to appreciate the various sets of business processes involved in e-mail management, let us consider an inbound e-mail into your company and the seven steps that are important to manage e-mail effectively.

First, to manage e-mail, one needs personnel who are qualified to read and write. While this qualification may seem easy to fulfill, in actuality it is not. In today's environment with the decay of the public school systems, it is difficult to find someone who can read and write effectively in a business environment to best represent your company. The written "electronic" word today represents your company; and, more importantly, it can be used in a court of law. Therefore, the hiring or retraining process for finding the right personnel should not be taken lightly.

Second, the key to the successful execution of e-mail management is recognizing that e-mail is not phone or print. Many think e-mail management is akin to managing phone calls or print correspondence. I cannot tell you how many companies have made this mistake, only to find that the business processes for managing phone calls and print mail, while there are similarities, simply do not work for e- mail management. E-mail is far more flexible. The good news is that unlike phone or print, one person can answer a batch of similar e-mail containing the same question in one action, versus having to answer or read each phone call or letter, one-by- 0ne.

Third, the key to productively managing e-mail is to implement basic junk and spam filtering technology that removes junk e-mail. It costs $6.50 to manage a typical e-mail. Paying personnel to read and delete junk mail is a waste of money. Spam filtering technology not only removes junk mail, but also makes the work environment more pleasant because employees can avoid having to read certain unpleasant, adult content e-mail and other such junk mail. Each organization may have different junk and spam removal rules; thus, this process will require one to understand the company's e-mail policy and implement such policy through the IT department.

Fourth, one must decide how and for what length of time to store e-mail. Will the e-mail simply reside on the mail server? Or, will the e-mail be stored in a relational database for use in gathering business intelligence? The length of time that e- mail is stored is also relevant from both an IT and legal standpoint. For certain types of organizations (such as those in financial services), all records need to be stored for seven years. This impacts storage costs and the type of storage formats needed.

Fifth, segmenting and tagging e-mail using business intelligence, as discussed in a previous column, becomes necessary to gather meta-level information for the e-mail. As mentioned before, if you extract such attributes as the attitude, issue, requests, customer type and product/service request from the e-mail, this data can be used to gather not only customer insight from the e-mail but also to formulate responses to the e-mail in a more optimal manner.

Sixth, the workflow of e-mail, as previously discussed is also a key element of this process. Workflow includes setting up proper access levels of who can see what kinds of e-mail. Before e- mail goes back to a customer, it will be important to have management features where legal and compliance personnel, if necessary, can review it. Marketing and legal may also want to review any canned responses or template responses that may be used by others in the enterprise. Also, when a new person joins the organization, it will be important to monitor what kinds of e-mail are sent by that person and have the capability to stop non- compliant messages from leaving the organization.

The seventh, and final step is reporting. Many organizations are receiving e-mail and various personnel within the organization are touching such e-mail, yet very few organizations are aware of any metrics to evaluate if it is being managed effectively. Thus, reporting is key. It is important to at least know the following: how many e-mails are received each day, how many leave the organization daily, the volume of e-mail sent and received per person, the number of junk mail messages and the turnaround time (or service level) from the time an e-mail is received from the customer to the time the customer receives a response. These are the basic metrics needed to assess the organization's efficacy in e-mail management.

In summary, e-mail management is becoming a critical business process to an organization's success in managing customer relationships as well as improving operational efficiency. These steps outline the broad areas that one should consider in mapping an organization's e-mail management strategy.

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