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Take Back Your Inbox

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Does this scene sound familiar to you? Over a 24-hour period, I average about 100 spam messages, ten to fifteen e-mail newsletters, and dozens of personal and business messages from individuals. E-mail can be a very powerful tool, to be sure, but if you're not maximizing its features, you're not using this power for increased productivity and speed. If anything, it becomes a chore and difficult task that you must labor through every day.

For many businesses, e-mail has reached that "too much of anything is bad" point. With an hourly stream of e-mails screaming for your attention, important and not so important e-mails that need to be sent, and dozens of spam messages to be deleted, e-mail can get hectic. Instead of letting e-mail take over, however, I've learned the secret of putting my e-mail program to work for me and use it as a powerful ally for information-gathering and communication. Here are some steps to making it work for you:

Find the Right E-mail Program.

All e-mail programs are not created alike. Some have a lot of features, some have a little, and some may have features that others don't have. I've used Qualcomm's Eudora and Microsoft's Outlook. Each performs many functions and offers a wide range of options for e-mail management, including extensive filtering capabilities (more details below), and the ability to manage multiple e-mail accounts. At least one of them should be on the desktop of every serious small business.

Put Your Mailboxes (or Folders) to Use.

You may already have a system of mail-boxes or folders in place, sorting your mail as it comes in and directing it to certain areas for later handling. However, I continue to be surprised by how many people still keep all of their e-mail in one "inbox," leading to a pile-up, an un-wielding mess of thousands of confusing subject lines, dates, projects, deadlines, junk and other things. You'd never put your business files in one large bag, you'd sort them. Why not do the same for e-mail?

The best way to organize your e-mail is to create a manageable amount of mailboxes that you can use to sort your e-mail. As your e-mail comes in, drop it into these various mailbox files and folders. You may sort by project, by person, by business function - whatever works best for you.

Fire Up Your Filters.

Once you get your mailboxes set up and are regularly transferring mail from your inbox to other mailboxes or folders, you can set up filters that will automatically send incoming mail to its respective folder without having to manually move it there.

Here's one example in which filters help: E-mail that you receive on a consistent basis from the same person or company, or about the same subject may be redirected through automatic filters. Most of my e-mail newsletters, for example, go to a mailbox I've called "ezine@smallbiztechnology.com." Anything sent to that address is automatically routed to a specific newsletter folder. This makes my inbox less full and enables my e-mail use to be much more productive and efficient.

Guard Against Viruses.

E-mail is one of the most common entry points into your computer - and your entire network - for a virus. Most often, the virus will come in the form of an attachment to an e-mail message you receive. The best way to prevent viruses coming via attachments is to:

  • Make sure your virus program scans your e-mail attachments while downloading to your PC.
  • Do not allow your e-mail program to automatically execute (or open) e-mail. You can set this function in Eudora by going to "tools," "options," "viewing mail," then de-select "allow executables in HTML content." In Microsoft Outlook it is "tools," "options" then select the "security" tab, then select "attachment security."

Automatic replies.

Just as you can automatically sort incoming messages, your e-mail program can be set up to automatically reply to certain messages you receive.

If you receive a lot of the same questions or deal with the same issues and find yourself e-mailing the same replies, for example, why not set up an automatic reply in your e-mail system? Maybe new customers regularly e-mail you for directions to your business. You could always direct them to your Web site, of course, or have them e-mail directions@yourbusiness.com, for example. Your e-mail program could then detect this address and reply with the address and best ways to get there.

AOL: It's Not for Business.

While AOL has done a decent job of providing e-mail and Internet access to millions of people, it is not on the list of tools businesses should use. Many people may find AOL easy to use, but perhaps it is best for personal use only. Here's why: Having an @aol.com e-mail address does not look professional. It's better to have a domain name that reflects your business's name. If you can't have that at least have a domain name from a commercial Internet service provider like Earthlink, AT&T or another, which reflects a more general telecommunications brand than AOL, which carries with it associations with content, entertainment and various well-known services. But more fundamentally, AOL's e-mail program simply does not carry with it the features businesses need and which are detailed above.

Last Word.

Keep in mind that e-mail is more than just sending and receiving e-mail. E-mail encompasses your image as a business and you want all the features that will keep your business productive and professional. Finally: Don't forget to back up your e-mail.

Ramon Ray, Technology Evangelist, is a technology analyst, author, speaker and the editor of Smallbiztechnology.com.

Since 1986, Ramon has been using computers and was first "online" in 1995. He has written hundreds of technology articles and the book "Technology Solutions for Growing Businesses" (Amacom, Nov 2003).

Last updated: Jul 1, 2004




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