Just about every financial advisor is intimately familiar with the overwhelm induced by an overflowing email inbox. From emails from clients inquiring about basic service requests and financial plan priorities, to team members scheduling staff meetings and service meetings, not to mention the plethora of industry newsletters, helpful educational blog updates, networking group announcements, wholesaler product reviews – on top of all the outright spam – can easily amount to hundreds of emails coming in on a daily basis!
And in addition to simply finding the time to keep up with just looking at all the email that comes in (and reading at least some of them), financial advisors also find themselves responsible for dedicating large chunks of time to actually responding to emails. Which can make it seem nearly impossible to keep up with the deluge of information that comes into an advisor’s email inbox every day! Fortunately, though, there are a few ‘tricks’ that can help keep things under control.
In our 28th episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and financial advisor communication expert Carl Richards talk about some simple strategies they use to manage their own own sometimes-overflowing email inboxes, and the cognitive relief that a well-organized (and well-managed) email inbox can bring.
For instance, Michael has specifically configured his own system to manage the tremendous volume of email that comes in on behalf of the blog. Specifically, he has implemented a system of multiple email addresses (to route inquiries by category to different team members), inbox folders with Outlook-based “Rules” to sort email into them (for separating out newsletters to review, informational items requiring no follow-up, and follow-up items that are low- or high-priority) and a routine where email is reviewed on a daily basis.
Delegating email management can also be a very effective means to stay on top of large volumes of email, especially for busy advisors who don’t have time to review every message that comes in. An executive assistant not only can ensure that spam messages are kept at a minimum, but can also make sure that high-priority items get a timely response and, depending on the level of responsibility delegated, can even send responses on behalf of the advisor. They can also ensure that any messages that can (or should) be delegated to another team member are routed as quickly as possible.
There are also some tech tools that can aid with email efficiency, such as TextExpander (for Mac users) and PhraseExpress (for PC users), which both quickly create template language for commonly repeated email responses (which can be most useful for advisors who aren’t particularly fast typists). Microsoft Outlook has a built-in feature that allows an email account owner to designate a second person as an Assistant, who can then access the email account simultaneously from a different computer to share the responsibility of sorting through email, and helping an advisor review only the messages they really need to see.
Ultimately, the key point is that having a well-managed, organized email box allows a financial advisor to spend less time on the distracting busywork that reviewing email can be, and more time to spend on tasks that require cognitive focus and concentration – like preparing financial plans and meeting with clients. Or even to enjoy more time with friends and family!
***Editor's Note: Can't get enough of Kitces & Carl? Neither can we, which is why we've released it as a podcast as well! Check it out on all the usual podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts (iTunes), Spotify, and Stitcher.
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Kitces & Carl Podcast Transcript
Carl: Greetings, Michael.
Michael: Hello, Carl. How are you?
Carl: I'm good. Thank you for having me as a guest on your podcast. I'm really excited to talk to you today.
Michael: You're not the guest – I'm the guest! We're the guests! We're co-guests, we're co-hosts.
Carl: Yeah. Super good.
Michael: I tried to make this Carl & Kitces and you said, "Put it the other way around."
Carl: It's good. I'm just joking. I thought it was a good way to start. Listen, I want to talk to you. I have some questions for you about inputs, and particularly like email, and name your social media platform, like Twitter or whatever, people. Well, let's start with email. How do you handle the volume of email coming at you?
How Michael Manages His Email Inbox [00:01:49]
Michael: Oh, man. First, I don't know, by sheer volume, it is ridiculous. It has gotten ridiculous. Not even just all the newsletters and stuff, between all the different businesses that I'm involved with and the number of people that I reach through this podcast, our "Financial Advisor Success" podcast, the blog – it is a constant stream of questions and emails and inquiries, all of which I want to answer because I love sharing thoughts and trying to be helpful. It's part of how I'm wired.
So handling the email flow for me has actually evolved quite a bit over the years. In essence, I’ve come up with some hacks to be a little more productive. They work for a while, but then the volume continues to increase and they break, and I have to do more new things. So it's been an interesting evolution for me. So stage one...
Carl: Stage one.
Michael: Stage one was trying to better manage how email comes in to me. So most of us hand out our email address, "Hey, I met you wherever it was, let's stay in touch." We hand out our email address. And the problem is that if you do that enough and your business grows enough, a lot of people will have your email address and they will want to ask you some questions. This starts to create a very high volume that's a little bit problematic.
The first thing I actually did was to make some additional email addresses for our platform. For the technical nerds, that means I made a whole bunch of email aliases that auto-forward and route around. Before, if someone wanted to contact us through the site, I used to just have my contact information. A lot of people found it and contacted me, and then that got a little too voluminous.
So now, if you have a general inquiry, you email firstname.lastname@example.org. That goes to someone who then figures out, where should this actually go? Some of them are for me, and so those comes straight to me and then I can respond. But sometimes there will be a question about our website. It's a technical problem. It needs to go to our technology person. Sometimes there’s a question about our Members Section or about getting CE reported; that goes to our CE person.
Rather than putting my personal email address out there, which meant everything came to me and I had to be traffic controller, we have a process that falls in two stages. First, we route messages to a second email address that I don't have to be the primary one to manage. I give that to a team member and say, "When things come into this, make sure they go immediately to where they need to go." So if it's for me, I still respond, but, I don't have to route the traffic. Someone else can do that.
The second stage was getting even more specific about the email addresses. So if you're a member and you have a question, you email email@example.com, which is specifically and just for people who sign up for our Members Section. It doesn't come to me, because almost none of those questions are for me. They’re usually like, "I'm having trouble logging in," or "I've got a question about this CE quiz", or "I'm having a problem with a webinar. Is this my computer or the internet connection?" The stuff that we have to do to help members that pay us for CE credit, but that I don’t need to do personally. Historically, I did all of that, because when you start a business, it starts on your shoulders and you carry everything. But then the business grows and evolves a bit.
And so even for advisors, why not have a firstname.lastname@example.org email address, and then any client who needs help can email clients@? And then someone can be tasked with continuously monitoring the clients@ address, which frankly probably shouldn't be you as the advisor because you're out seeing clients and in meetings, and you're tied up for hours or sometimes a full day at a time with all that stuff. So give that email address or route that email address to someone else, and someone else can make sure that people are getting more timely responses, and lo and behold, it's not in your inbox.
Carl: Let me interrupt you and ask you about that real quick because I think this is a really important point, specifically for advisors who always want to be reachable, and it’s a totally well-intentioned belief, because I know plenty of people who answer this question by saying like, "I become less reachable." And none of what you've said so far is that, right? I feel the same way.
Michael: No, I'm not less reachable, I'm not getting reached on this stuff that at the end of the day I didn't need to handle or I'm not actually the primary person in the business to handle anyways. I was routing them, right? It's the advisor equivalent of, if you need a transfer form, contact me and I'll put you in touch with my staff to get the form. Like, why are you routing someone to your team to get the form? Just let the client contact the team. They'll get a faster response and you get your emails.
Delegating Email Responsibility As A Way To Offer Better Client Service [00:07:19]
Carl: Yeah, yeah. And I think that's the important part here is what we're talking about is you do this because you love the people, right? This is in service of the people, not some ego trip on your end, right? I think that's an important part to remember. I've found myself saying, "I'm introducing you to this person to take care of this because I love you." I actually put that in the email that I send sometimes, "Because I love you. And if I try to handle this, nothing will ever happen. If you want something to happen, so-and-so is going to help you."
I think if we get clear that this thing in our heads... It reminds me a little bit of when I was considering selling my RIA firm; John Bowen told me, because I was so hung up on selling, I was like, "Nobody...no, my clients can't ever..." So it's like a similar feeling. Because he said, "One of the greatest disappointments of your life is going to be when you sell your firm and no one cries, no one cries but you."
I think it's similar with email; one of the greatest disappointments and also amazing surprises is that no one is going to be upset. In fact, they're going to be grateful when either A, they've got a specific email address of the person that takes care of stuff, or B, here's a slight version on this, is it's okay to have somebody who's highly trained at traffic control in your inbox. And when they can directly reply from your inbox, I always think it's wise – but you don't have to do this – to identify themselves, "Hey, it's John here. Carl asked me to reply to this. I've CC'ed myself so you've got my direct email."
It's okay too if you don't want to necessarily split up, but the idea that somebody is going to get that email from John when they thought I was going to reply and be upset is just crazy in our heads. What they're going to do is say, "Oh my gosh, John, thank you. Carl's worthless, in terms of getting this stuff done. He's the person who gives us advice." So anyway, I just want to make sure that point gets driven home that this is not...it's in service of the people, right? It's getting them what they want. So keep going.
Creating Email Templates And Using Email Add-Ons For Efficiency [00:09:44]
Michael: Well, I was saying, so the second thing then was, if you write enough emails, you find some of them start getting repetitive, right? Clients ask the same questions. People have the same problems. You have the same issues that crop up. "Hey, it was great to see you in the meeting. Here are the things that we said we're going to do, here are the things you said you're going to do, really looking forward to seeing you again in three months."
Like, 90% of it is templates. The only 10% that's different is like the actual action items you have to fill in for each of the client's meetings. So I started creating email templates of common stuff that gets written over and over again, either common phrases or segments of an email or sometimes whole emails.
Mac users, there's a tool called TextExpander that does this, where you just type in a short snippet and it expands into an entire phrase or an entire email that you can then go in and edit. I'm a Windows user on a PC, so I use a software called PhraseExpress that does the same thing.
And so now, when I need to do a follow-up on a consulting engagement, I just literally open the email and type "consulting follow-up" and all the texts of my standard consulting follow-up email appears in my email. And now I have a whole email, and I just have to edit out the few words and the few parts that are relevant for a specific person, right? Anything you do that repeats, there's just a portion that's boilerplate.
No offense to anyone I've consulted with who gets the follow-up emails; yes, a portion of that is boilerplate because, "Thank you, that was a great meeting," we kind of say that every time. It's okay. It's still nice to say to every person, but you don't have to henpeck it out, particularly if you're not a fast typist. You can shortcut these things and just start chopping a whole bunch of time off of how long it takes you to prepare emails.
Carl: And even that, right, that consulting email, the fact that you were very thoughtful and wrote it out carefully and then saved it as a template is in service of the people. We don't have to feel bad at all that it's boilerplate.
Michael: Yeah, it's a better, more thorough email than me trying to remember off the top of my head, oh, what are the things I always try to cover in these emails when I'm wrapping up while I'm already thinking about the next thing I'm supposed to be doing, but I'm trying to wrap this up first so I can bring some closure to it.
Carl: So you use something like...do you use...because I know in Google, you can use Canned Responses. We use...
Michael: Yeah. So I'm an Outlook user, and so I built it off of PhraseExpress. But there's a whole bunch of different tools that just are built to do either email templates or email phrase substitutions, where you just type a few letters and it turns into the whole word, the whole phrase, the whole sentence, thus the names like TextExpander if you're on a Mac, that just expedites this process. And I think particularly for those folks who are not the fastest typists, just the email stuff takes time because email typing takes time, it's a huge time savings.
Carl: I listened to somebody talk about...they actually calculated the amount of time they saved every year from TextExpander, it was nuts.
Michael: Yeah, it gets crazy nuts really quickly because you don't realize like, you send 10 emails and you save like a minute or two per email, suddenly, you're saving like 10 minutes a day. There's 250 working days in a year. That's 2,500 minutes. That's 40 hours. That's a working week. So like, a minute an email for a dozen emails a day is an entire workweek you save at the end of the year.
Carl: Yeah. And it's just being... I read a story once, about a guy in Upstate New York who was a computer programmer; he moved to Upstate New York and started a farm. I can't remember the name of the farm. But because he was a computer programmer, he paid attention to every single thing he did on the farm, right? He did that for like six months and just mapped every single action he ever took.
Then he spent like three months figuring out like, "Okay, well, if I move the whatever, the shed to here and I just walk..." And he's like, "It's the most...". It's this super crazy productive farm. It's like a half-acre or one acre, and he produces this crazy number. I would watch that and I'd be like, "I've got to become a farmer. That's so cool." Then I'm like, wait, the same exact thing applies here. Can we just pay attention to be super intentional about our actions, and map out repetitive tasks?
We use a thing called Mixmax, which is a template that sits inside Gmail. My whole thing – especially with the Behavior Gap email side where there's 38,000 people on that list – I get hundreds of emails. I was like, "How can we do me at scale?" So we'll record videos that are really specific about a specific email that goes out, and people get a response with the video.
There's so much value added there. And people say, "This is so amazing." And we even tell them, "Hey, we both know this was an automated response." I say, "Can we pretend for a minute that it's not? I put a lot of time in this. If we were sitting across the table from each other, I would reach across and grab your arm right now and look you in the eyes."
You can play around with this stuff and make it incredibly valuable. So do you have somebody in your inbox, your personal email or are you handling all of that?
Michael: So that's the most recent shift that I've made. As of three or four months ago, as business and growth has compounded, there's still too much email that I've got to sort through. And recognizing my own unfortunate compulsion – I like helping people. It's why I do what I do. So it makes it really hard to see an email from a person that wants some help – I'm like, I know a resource, I know a thing, I want to respond to them!
If I respond to all of them, though, I will obliterate entire days where nothing gets done except replying to one-off emails. Which is lovely for the people that get the response, but also means that I can't write an article to help the next 10,000 people because I wrote emails to help 10 of them.
So the latest shift for me has been actually putting someone in my inbox just to help further manage the traffic cop stuff, and helping other people on the team answer things that at the end of the day, I don't really need to be answering.
How Michael Uses Outlook To Share Responsibility For Email Management [00:17:14]
Carl: So walk us through how that actually works.
Michael: So again, I'm an Outlook user. Outlook actually has a feature built in, where you can set someone as an assistant. And so when our team member logs into her Outlook, she's got two Outlook boxes, hers and mine.
Carl: Oh. So we found something that Outlook does well.
Carl: Oh, yes.
Michael: Outlook does this well.
Carl: This is a bonus!
Michael: It sucks at email templates compared to Gmail, which is why I have to use PhraseExpress, but it's actually good at this. When calendar invites come to me, they automatically route to her to accept or decline or make sure they're on my calendar in the right place. She's got her email inbox open directly next to mine and can jump in to move emails around, route things in and out, and grab things that aren't really for me that someone else on the team could handle and sends off to them to handle.
So anybody who gets a response from me, it's always really me. One of my strict rules is still that no one replies to emails in my box as me unless it's me. If she's replying to it, she replies from her email address and says, "I know you contacted Michael about this; let me help you with it."
Carl: Sure, sure. So I wanted to get really clear. So does she go in your inbox at a certain time before you see it?
Michael: Yes. Generally, I try to have her hit my inbox before I hit it in the morning. Now, I...
Carl: And you said she, right?
Carl: Okay. So she goes in certain time before you do, she goes through, clears out certain things that are just junk and can be deleted. There is spam, and it can go away. Then there's stuff that clearly should be handled by somebody else in service of the people because we love the people. And then there's a pile of stuff that's like "Michael needs to respond to." Is that left in your inbox or does it move to like a "Michael respond" folder?
Michael: No. So we basically end out with five core folders, including the inbox itself. So either she deletes it if it was spam, or if it wasn't necessary she files it away because I keep all my emails. For example, if I got CC'ed on a thing that has no actual impact for me at all. I just know enough people, that sometimes I get looped into conversations I don't really need to be in.
Then most of it goes into one of three core boxes. The first is for “Newsletters to Review”. So all those email newsletters and industry trade pub stuff that comes in, which I like to monitor and scan – it's part of how I take in the news and information myself – but I don't want to muck up my inbox. So she puts those in the “Newsletters to Review” folder. I look at that once every day or two and just sort of mass skim all those newsletters that come in from all the different trade publications.
Then there's a second box that's called “FYI”. So these are things that I should see, but I don't really need to respond to. Just like, you got looped in on this conversation, there's a thing to see, someone sent a response to confirm a thing, and I need to see it to bring closure or I should see it to be aware that it was communicated to me, but it's not urgent. I can look any time. But I don't want to just file it away because I should see it. So we have an “FYI” box.
Then we have what's just labeled a “Low Priority” box. It's like, "You're going to want to reply to this."
Carl: That's where all my emails go.
Michael: So you're probably going to want to reply to this, but it's not urgent and time-sensitive. If you get back to it in the next day or a few, that's going to be fine. And then the most urgent stuff stays in my inbox. So when I look at my inbox, I see the things that I actually need to deal with and respond to in a timely manner. And the rest, I control on my time blocks of when I go in to go through some of the low-priority stuff and just respond to things that I do want to respond to and skim through my FYIs.
The other piece is just things that don't actually need to belong to me that can still get forwarded other places, or just things she can handle directly. Someone wants to get on my calendar, we've been working on a time, we found a time that works. She sees the time is available on my calendar. She may just go on and say, "Yep, that time works. I've added it to Michael's calendar. You're all set." I don't see the email. The appointment appears on my calendar. The other person got their confirmation. My mind space is cleared of not needing to worry about that thing.
Carl: Yeah. It's so shocking how simple that idea...and the rules can get refined and better and better over time, but you can very easily set up really specific rules. For those of us who are scared to do this, you can start by deleting stuff that's clear. If you have any question, put it in an "I have a question" folder. I did this for a couple of years with somebody, put things in an "I have a question" folder, and we’d review those once a week together, and I'd tell them, "Oh, that's a delete" and then they’d know, right? Get rid of stuff that's clear. If you have a question, put it in a folder. If you know somebody on the team, here's the two other people on the team, here's what they handle.
And then what's left is, over time, going to get more and more clearly just mine. But at least initially, even just that initial scan, because realize what happens, especially with all those newsletters and requests, like, when you go to the orthodontist, I don't know if you've noticed this, but when you go to the orthodontist and you have the whole thing, like, my orthodontist is my buddy, I rode bikes with him. He did the whole thing, the exam, whatever, and he showed me "Here's what we need to do," and then he disappeared. And I was like, "Wait, what happened?" And then there was somebody else sitting with me who's going through a treatment plan and the price. And I was like, "Hey, where did Jeff go?" And they're like, "Oh, he's gone." Because I wanted to ask Jeff like, "Jeff, come on, brother, give me a little discount here." Jeff was gone.
And I think the same thing happens with our time in the inbox, we're so tempted to A, do hard cognitive work figuring out what's going on in the inbox? Is there a newsletter I could read? Or B, we just all want to help people.
It kills me when I get, I don't know how many book requests a week to read, it kills me to say no. So I finally recorded a video of that pain, "Oh, my friend, it kills me to say no. I want you to know how bad I can do this. But if I say yes to you, I have to say no to my cute little kids." I didn't quite do that.
Michael: And you hold a picture of your children?
The Cognitive Relief That Can Come From An Organized Inbox System With The Right Set Of Rules [00:24:40]
Carl: I hold up one of my kids. Like, cute little kids. But all I'm saying is just what you described, just the basic cleaning out of the inbox, the amount of time that you'll save in cognitive load is amazing. And there's no risk there. Any risks you can mitigate by saying, "If you have a single question, put it in the questions folder, we'll review it at the end of every day."
Michael: Yeah. I was really anxious about this and going down this road. And the advice that someone gave me who had done the same thing was, it's just a bunch of rules. Like, you've got all these rules in your head about what you reply to and don't and what you look at later and what you keep and all that.
Just put the rules down on paper and then hand the rules to someone else. And as you know, as you'll find, they'll be able to do 95% of them really easily based on the rules. And at worst, when you get to last 5% that are uncertain, just either leave it in the inbox or put it in the "I'm not certain" folder, and we'll refine the rules for those over the next couple of weeks, and you're going to get to 99% in an amazingly fast time.
It's really just setting a bunch of rules. And I think for most, we don't even realize how much time we spend on it. Like, it's just a couple seconds here and there, until you get back to saving a minute here or there, saving 10 minutes a day, and it's a week of work for the year.
Carl: Totally. Let's wrap on that point. That you've already got...all we're trying to do with all these things, because this applies to travel, it applies to calendar, it applies to... Ramit's really good at this, Ramit Sethi, "I Will Teach You to Be Rich." His work with his assistant is amazing. And all it was, was get it out of your head onto paper.
You've already got an algorithm that goes on, every single decision you're making is running this algorithm. And can we just get the algorithm out of your head and onto a piece of paper? Then other people will do that work better than you could ever do it. And the crazy side benefit is you get to do more of what you're really good at, right?
Carl: So super good. I'm glad that we had this conversation and specifically just stuck to the idea of talking about primarily how you handle email because that's so valuable for people. So thanks for doing this, Michael.
Michael: Well, thank you, Carl. My pleasure.
Carl: All right. Talk to you next time.
Michael: Talk to you next time.