If you support a piece of software used by any number of clients, chances are you spend a significant amount of time dealing with various customer requests, the bulk of which come through the email. My current responsibilities include dealing with over 300 organizations which require prompt and helpful email support. Unfortunately, urgent emails often get in the way of non-urgent, but important stuff. Spend too much time mired in day-to-day customer issues, and long-term project deadlines might start to slip. Over the course of many years, I adopted the following common sense practices which helped me minimize the amount of time to get back to that pristine and stress-free inbox zero state while still keeping customers satisfied.
Start on Sunday night
Watching Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is great, but last thing we want is to deal with a hundred emails first thing on Monday morning when we should be planning what we want to achieve during the week instead. Spend an hour the night before though, and, all of a sudden, Mondays do not seem so bad, and we even got an hour to conduct a team meeting. Besides, TV shows are more enjoyable when you know you have less issues to deal with tomorrow.
Moreover, I noticed that sending a client email on Sunday might actually increase the chance of them reading it carefully and not reply instantaneously which often happens during the office hours. Consequently, the inbox count start decreasing, which is exactly what we want to achieve. Less clarifications and back-and-forth means more time saved.
Finally, doing a bit of work on Sunday allows me to hit the ground running on Monday and achieve more stuff during the day. Answering emails is not exciting most of the time and could reduce motivation, so why not do it before going to bed which does not require any motivation. Instead, doing something creative first thing on Monday gives us a motivational boost that could last the whole week. Coming in to the office with all the urgent issues already dealt with allows us to relax and fully focus our creativity on solving challenging problems.
Quick replies first
Out of 100 emails in your inbox, 30 might not need replying to, and 50 could be replied to in under two minutes each. Deal with those first. Psychologically, it is easier to handle 20 emails in the inbox, even if the requests are challenging and require significant time. Besides, those first 50 customers will be happy receiving a prompt reply even if their issues seem insignificant to you.
Some requests, such as price quotations or requests for training could be instantaneously replied with using email templates or predefined answers. However, still take a bit of time to personalize a message at the start, as the customer would definitely appreciate that.
Always be specific and ask for specifics. Rather than clarifying one point at a time, clarify the whole message. Time taken to write out precise and specific email would reduce back-and-forth conversations and save more time in the long run. I find that using bullet form in the email is an excellent way to both clarify points and give instructions.
Organize the client
Sometimes, email about same issues come from two or more different people. Always CC all of the relevant people on your reply. If the solution requires follow-up, specify or ask to designate a single person to deal with the issue. In the long run, you normally develop a relationship with a single person in each customer organization who would be the point of contact for specific issues. Most of the organizations designate a responsible person on their end anyways, but some need a bit of guidance.
If all else fails
If you find yourself going back and forth in the email conversation more than a few times without making a significant progress, then perhaps its time to pick up the phone and call the customer. Oftentimes, it is best to call the customer right away, even if their initial email is unclear. Verbal communication is much faster than written and often deals with the issue right there and then. This premise also holds true in personal life: if we stopped texting and went back to old-fashioned calling each other, we would probably not be buried in our phones as much and found more time for other things.