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Why an Inbox Is No Way to Manage Your Association

Just about the time we lose the need to communicate by fax, our replacement – email – begins to reveal its inherent weaknesses as a management tool for our association. 

Back in the days when we handled everything with paper and pen, important things were placed in an organized environment where we could find them again, as long as we know how to look. Electronic communication was supposed to make it easier for us to find things when we didn't know where they were stored. But we increasingly find this is not the case. I rarely delete email. My inbox is my largest, least organized filing system. I tag, label, folder, sort, but in the end the only thing that gives me confidence is to search my inbox, which is time consuming.

It is not my intention to assert things cannot be done in your email environment. With enough hoops, duct tape, gum and bailing wire, just about anything can be handled in today's email clients. The problem is, these techniques don't scale, nor do they offer readily available opportunities to identify improvement opportunities.

My dad used to tell me that you need the right tools to do some jobs well. I think serving your members in the best way possible is one of those jobs – now let's examine some of the capabilities we need in a tool.

The Problem: Too Much Information

The Sharepocalypse is a significant opportunity for associations to succeed like never before – it is also one of the largest inhibitors to enabling us to actually achieve that success. More disjointed paths for us to receive information, requests for action, knowledge and expertise, are creating too many large volume pipes for us to manage it all effectively.

In the end, the items flowing through the pipes end up as a piece of email. Depending on how many people received the initial note, we may have several replies of "thanks" interspersed with those identifying some problem or concern – it may take a few hours to a few days for the last of the "chatter" to subside. Only then can we summarize the details surrounding the issue and get it handled - many times deferring any reply to the original request until we feel comfortable with the contents of the reply.

It's not that the team is not trying to do well, the volume is so significant and the process so inefficient – the effect of increased volume is geometric, not linear.

Bottom Line: It's the Top Line

As an email drifts away from the top line of someone's inbox, so do its chances for a speedy resolution. The unfair, albeit natural, tendency for folks to handle the most recent arrival leads to additional effort to find it again (or remember it needs to be handled).

This top line orientation of email leads to inconsistencies in the time taken to respond to members. While many email clients have facilities for reminding you something hasn't been read, it is very hard for them to automatically discern if the email necessitated additional processing, or if it has received the proper attention to be considered "done". Consequently, our team needs to continually scan multiple inbox pages looking for the "oldest" unprocessed item.

We need a tool that definitively tells us which items need to be handled and preserves their arrival order.

What Kind of Tool Do We Need?

With many associations, there is a single email address for all communications; it is simply easier for our members to remember a single email address. This tends to lead to situations where either several people in the office are keeping an eye on the same inbox, or we invest in the overhead to install a "distributor" role in our teams - the single point of contact to parcel out the bits to the responsible team members. In my opinion, both represent unnecessary overhead.

While most email clients will permit some type of label, tag, or other attribute to be attached to an item to indicate who is responsible for something, many of these are only capable of identifying who is responsible at this point in time - there is no history of "transfers of assignment".  If we're going to improve our team's overall performance, we need to be able to identify who can handle a ticket when assigned to them vs. those who look and transfer. 

We need a tool which tells us who is responsible for an item, and the items' responsibility assignment history.  Ideally, this tool could proactively let us handle items which are "bouncing around" our team. We need a tool that allows the entire team see the entire set of active issues along with what is being/has been done by anyone on the team.

Dealing with Recurring Member Queries

If we've responded to a member query in the past, theoretically it should be quick to answer the next time we receive the same query from another member. In reality, that only happens when the same staff member is responding to the same query. When another staff member is responding, it can be too time consuming for them to search through the inboxes to find a previous response to such a query – consequently, we're continually reinventing the wheel. Worse, we could be giving inconsistent answers to members’ questions. Inconsistency with our members is never a good thing.

We need a tool that association staff in finding previous Q&As in an efficient manner.

Consistent Reference Material = Quicker Responses

If we were easily able to locate previous responses to members and board members, we could also bring new team members up to speed far more consistently and a lot faster. In a way, all of those previously answered member questions become a training manual for the newbies. Wouldn't that be nice?

We need a tool that helps us compile a high fidelity knowledge base as a by-product of handling member questions.

Would a Simple Change Eliminate these Issues?

What if we could simply prevent receiving member questions in the first place? If we could make a simple content change on our website, how many of these questions would simply go away? We need the ability to identify FAQs and infer the common solution – if association staff members are responding to queries from their own sent box, with those emails not easily visible to colleagues, it can be difficult for the staff to recognize the pattern of questions.

We need a tool that allows us to identify those patterns and subsequently address the issue of recurring questions.

Are You Supporting Your Association Brand in Your Email Responses?

You've invested heavily in establishing your association's brand and are likely expanding your brand through the appropriate social media channels. We need our primary communication/email mechanism to fully support our brand's image in all communications, provide consistent signatures for all agents and, most importantly, allow the entire staff to support the items arriving from all social channels (Facebook, Twitter, etc).

We need a tool that encourages seamless, consistent service across all channels (Omnichannel).

What's Next?

We need a tool that:

  • definitively tells us what items need to be handled and preserves their arrival order.
  • tells us who is responsible for an item, and the item's responsibility assignment history. Ideally, this tool could proactively let us handle items that are "bouncing around" our team.
  • allows the entire team see the entire set of active issues along with what is being/has been done by anyone on the team.
  • assists in looking for similar issues in an efficient manner.
  • helps us compile a high fidelity knowledge base as a by-product of handling member questions.
  • help us identify opportunities to eliminate member questions.
  • supports association branded communication.
  • encourages seamless, consistent service across all channels (Omnichannel).

Simple, right? Find that tool, turn it on, and away we go! Yes, more or less.

What do you think? Did you see something you hadn't thought about, or do you have more suggestions for what kind of tool we need?

Drop me a comment and stay tuned as I dig into a few more of these topics in upcoming blog posts.

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