"How Much Time Should I Spend On E-mail?”

Email is an important tool in your sales arsenal, but it also can be a big time waster, with the ping of each new message often triggering a near-Pavlovian need to check one’s inbox.

Email is an important tool in your sales arsenal, but it also can be a big time waster, with the ping of each new message often triggering a near-Pavlovian need to check one’s inbox. In fact, a study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that the average salesperson spends only about 39% of the time on actual sales, with 28% of a workday lost to reading and answering emails. The recipient of some 200 emails a day, sales consultant Ryan Sauers understands the impulse, but warns against overindulging. “If we don’t watch out, our entire sales day is reactionary to emails we’re getting,” says the president and owner of Sauers Consulting Strategies. “You don’t want to stop every five seconds to check new messages, or you’re never going to get any momentum going.”

Sauers recommends a “best practice” of setting up three times a day – in the morning, around lunchtime and later in the afternoon – to read and answer emails. Then, close your email program down to avoid distractions, he says. Most salespeople will still have their smartphones nearby, in case a high-priority message comes in between those blocks of time, he says.

Other experts, however, say it’s not realistic to turn off and tune out. “In the world we live in right now, people are looking at email constantly,” says Danny Friedman, ad specialty sales expert and vice president of Northbrook, IL-based Added Incentives. “Before the Internet and email were big, I used to tell people I would get back to them within the day. Now, people pretty much want you to get back to them within the hour.”

And if your response time is not lightning-quick, clients and prospective customers are likely to get annoyed, or worse, take their business elsewhere. Consider this sobering statistic: Half of all buying decisions go to the first responder, says Linda Richardson, a Philadelphia-based sales trainer and author of Changing the Sales Conversation. “Maybe it’s because the first responder truly is more hungry and has that sense of urgency,” she says.

The key is to be strategic in how you tackle your inbox, so you don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of messages vying for your attention daily. Here are some strategies to help you prioritize your inbox and maintain your sanity:

Delete the junk: Most companies install spam filters to weed out the most egregious offenders, but workers still get a decent amount of email that doesn’t require their attention. If you don’t recognize the sender and the subject line is not relevant, feel free to delete without opening.

Master the quick scan: Internal emails that you are carbon-copied on are usually more of a heads up than a call to action. “Generally, they’re not to you directly,” Sauers says. He recommends a filter for CC’d mail and scanning through those messages last.

Create a VIP room: Route messages from your most important and/or demanding clients to a special email folder. Always check that folder before tackling your general inbox.

Emails With Maximum ImpactShow your work: Even if you don’t have an answer for a client or prospect right away, Friedman recommends jotting off a one-line response immediately, letting correspondents know you’ve received their message and giving them an estimate of when you expect to have a solution. “They want to know you’re on it,” he says. “I know our industry is promotional products, but it’s a service industry.”

Flag it, don’t forget it: Flag messages that aren’t urgent, but still require a response, so they don’t get buried. “Not responding or losing emails is unprofessional,” Sauers says.

The important thing to remember, Sauers says, is that email is a means to an end, not the end itself. “The goal is to take it to the next level, which is a phone call, then a meeting,” he adds. “You can use email to get the ball rolling, but there’s no real connection made. You can put a lot of smiley faces, or lols or emojis, but that’s not the same thing as getting to know somebody.” – Theresa Hegel