Who do you serve? Be responsive to them

People are everybody’s business.

Ask yourself: What people do you serve in your job or business? Customers, employees, channel partners, investors or all of the above? Are you really responsive to them.

Chances are your primary mode of communication with any of these constituencies is e-mail… maybe text or twitter. This has changed a lot even in the last few years. My phone almost never rings, yet I have conversations via e-mail and text that I would never have had a few years ago.

Many pundits warn the loss of personal interaction and inefficiency of problem solving with rapid fire digital conversations… They may be right, an important topic in itself. But this article is about optimizing how you respond when the medium is e-mail.

If people are your business, and people communicate mostly via e-mail, then e-mail (twitter, linkedin…) is your business too.

A company I know well recently visited silicon valley to raise money. The company had long been in communication with three valley VCs and emailed all three VCs in advance of their visit to setup meetings. Two VCs responded quickly and setup meetings. Two weeks later one issued a term sheet that was soon signed. Because the round was tight, the third VC – who didn’t respond to the company’s initial e-mail but later wanted in – was cut out.

Being responsive matters.

This is one of a few firm operating values at Hyde Park VP. It should not be a differentiator as a seed stage VC fund… shouldn’t every VC be responsive to the entrepreneurs they serve?… but has proven to be nonetheless. Turns out many VCs are just not very responsive. No matter what business you’re in, being responsive matters because it:

    • Makes people feel respected and appreciated: Don’t you feel good when you send an e-mail and get a response quickly?
    • Moves the ball down the court faster: As boundaries between organizations, departments, companies and roles blur, the binding workflow tool is increasingly e-mail – like it or not. Don’t become a bottleneck.
    • Keeps things from falling through the cracks: The longer you wait, the more likely you or the sender will forget about whatever needs to be done. Assuming the e-mail was sent for a good reason (a bold assumption, true), that’s a shame.

Lots of people say they are overwhelmed by their e-mail, but there are really no excuses. Sam Yagan – entrepreneur, CEO of Match.com and advisor to HPVP – responds to every e-mail I send him within 24 hrs. He’s an officer at a public company, there’s no way I’m high on his constituency list AND I’m pretty sure he gets more e-mail than all of us combined.

So, a few obvious tips to manage your e-mail:

  1. Send fewer e-mails, get fewer e-mails
  2. Don’t respond unless you need to (aka, choose your battles)
  3. Set guidelines with colleagues to minimize CC and BCCing (aka, trust people more)
  4. Write short/direct e-mails – they are easier to understand and faster to write
  5. Setup a phantom e-mail to use for e-commerce lists (duh)

As with any behavior, we need to monitor and work on being responsive. I have service levels for different constituencies and monitor my performance using GmailMeter. My goal is to respond to any e-mail from my business partner or other colleague within one hour, any portfolio company or investor e-mail within three hours and all e-mails within 24 hours. In practice, I average quite a bit faster than this with 55% of my e-mail responses sent in less than an hour. The only e-mails or linkedin messages I ever ignore are for “cold” e-mailed business plans clearly out of my focus, geography, interest. Here are my stats from GmailMeter.com:

Time

The tradeoff to being highly responsive is that in order to be so, you probably need to be more terse (pithy?) – fewer and shorter words to say the same thing. I have to be careful about this with people I don’t know well. But with professional relationships I know well, I’ve even started using text-speak (b rght thr) – something I would never have done in 2010. No one seems to care. Here are my wordcount stats. Pithy.

Length

To respond fast, you also need to make decisions fast.

This is another tradeoff (or really a benefit?). When you put limits on time to response, you force yourself to make decisions faster. I’ve found this slightly increases my error rate on both the decisions themselves and how I communicate them, but not nearly enough to outweigh the benefits of speed.

Happy responding! It will be appreciated.

10 thoughts on “Who do you serve? Be responsive to them

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  2. Wow, 1-hour target response time for business partners and colleagues? I’m nowhere near that, nor do I want to be. My goal is end-of-day.

    I find that checking my inbox too frequently has the following negative consequences:
    1. It takes me out of the “zone” of programming or writing blog posts
    2. It encourages me to deal with urgent issues rather than important issues
    3. If I’m checking the iphone, it annoys the people around me

    I’m in a very different position than you, though, because I do a ton of individual contributor work that requires intense concentration, whereas the key thing for you is probably making sure to close the deals you want to close.

    Love the analytics that you included!

    1. Laura, thanks for joining the conversation!

      All terrific points, especially when someone’s role is heads-down-building-something. Very fast response may be a better fit for management or networking oriented roles (BD, sales, etc) where a lot of links tie back to one person who needs to keep multiple balls moving down the court. That said, everyone should have service levels for responsiveness regardless of role types… and clearly you do… sounds like end of day works for you and your org, which is terrific!

      Your startup looks quite interesting, by the way. Would love to chat. I will e-mail you. Or feel free to e-mail me guy at hydeparkvp dot com.

  3. Managing my email inbox has always been my Achille’s heel, but have really focused on reigning control of it over the last few months. More focused and concise emails, fewer recipients cc’ed, trying to eliminate low-value email responses like “thanks”, and unsubscribing. I have also found that following up and closing the loop on vendors, salespeople, recruiters, and the like has done wonders for endless hello “can I get your attention” emails.

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