Never check e-mail in the morning. Don't keep your e-mail program open throughout the day. Filter unimportant messages out to assistants.
You've heard those rules, right?
Let's begin with a disclaimer: If they work for you, fine. Ignore the rest of this column.
For everyone who actually enjoys reading and writing e-mail—or for anyone who feels vaguely guilty about checking e-mail instead of doing more "important" things, this is for you.
Last year I wrote 10,000 short e-mails. I wrote a lot more than that, actually, but I wrote these particular e-mails to people who joined my newsletter list. The notes were short and I used a keyboard shortcut to help, but they were real notes nonetheless. "Hey John, thanks for reading." "Hi Amy, I hope you enjoy the posts." That kind of thing.
Sending 10,000 e-mails takes a while, but when you do about 50 to 80 a day, all in a row, it's not that difficult.
Guess what happened? About 50% of the people wrote back, most with a surprised query: "Is that really you?" Indeed it was. Some wrote back with a lot more: what they liked about my site, questions about something, or in some cases, their life story.
The message-writing affects all other metrics of my business—sales, visitor value, site comments—and another metric I invented called "nice e-mails." Nice e-mails come in every day, and I save many of them to a text file. I figure the money comes and goes, but the messages stay there in the text file. There's also a fun side benefit: Whenever someone else gets grumpy and writes a not-nice e-mail, I can take a look at the hundreds of nice e-mails in the text file for an instant self-esteem boost.
Don't delegate Relationship-Building
Everyone talks about "building relationships" these days, but what does this really mean? I think it means caring about someone who cares about you—acknowledging the real person behind the screen, as Derek Sivers would say.
Maybe you don't want to send 10,000 e-mails. No problem. But are you delegating your customer contact? This is some of the most important work of your business. If you wouldn't delegate strategy, why delegate relationship-building? Don't cut off ties to your customers; make them closer.
Case in point: Seth Godin—author, change agent, and role model to many. If you write Seth, he'll write back the same day. I've written him at 3 a.m., 12 p.m., and 10 p.m. and received replies within four hours each time. People joke about an army of Seths writing e-mails for him, but he worked for years without a single assistant.
I asked Seth why he does this. He sent me the answer right away, of course: "If someone cares enough to send me a direct note that's relevant, the least I can do is write back."
How many e-mails? Seth says, "100 a day for five years."
That's 182,500 direct interactions. Would you like 182,500 customers, or 182,500 people who at least care about what you have to say? Start taking your in-box seriously.
Not all e-mail is worth spending time on. If you're getting weighted down in long threads, arguing or saying the same things over and over, perhaps it's good to back away.
You can also try to think differently about e-mail: Consider the person behind the screen, reach out, and genuinely care about them. You might just change the world, or at least your corner of it.