Dealing with Problem Emails Effectively in Just Ten Minutes

Posted by Heather Villa, CMA, MBA, MSM on November 10, 2010 in: Email Efficiency, Tools & Resources

In this article of Tips In Ten I’m going to talk about how to deal with problem emails. When I say problem emails I mean those emails that suddenly arrive in your inbox that can totally ruin your day.

You know what I’m talking about because we’ve all experienced them. We’ve been enjoying our day, thinking that all is well in the world when suddenly our inbox reads “(1)” and the email is all caps, or brutish and rude, or contains words that our mothers wouldn’t let us say when we were kids, or outlines nasty ultimatums that may or may not be ruinous.

Those emails – which I’ve collectively dubbed “problem emails” – can destroy our day. It’s like a slap in the face. And then we think about it all day and can’t concentrate on our work. And when we finally respond it’s not the best-worded piece of prose ever.

But we can deal with them effectively. And I’m going to show you how to do it in ten minutes so that it doesn’t ruin your whole day.

This article of Tips In Ten is unique in one way: In other articles of Tips In Ten, I give you tips and ideas to do something efficiently in just ten minutes. This issue is unique because, while some of you will benefit from learning how to deal with problem emails in just ten minutes (instead of 20 or 30 or 60 minutes), others of you will need to do just the opposite: You’ll need to take extra time – a full ten minutes! – to properly process these emails.

I also want to make it explicitly clear that I’m only talking about problem emails here. By necessity, these should take longer than other emails to process. If you use this process for every email, you’ll never get anything done in your day.

Before I get started with the process, I also want to make an observation about problem emails: In my experience, at least 90% of the problem emails I’ve received over the years were not surprises to me. Occasionally (very occasionally) something will come out of the blue and blindside me. But usually there was something that led up to it. Perhaps it was a customer who wasn’t satisfied or a vendor who had a concern or an employee who wasn’t happy. And very rarely did these things suddenly appear. More often, there were problems that were festering for a while. So you can avoid a lot of these problem emails by paying attention to your business, by staying really aware of how people are feeling, and dealing with things quickly and proactively.

When you do that, problem emails don’t get written as often. But when they are sent to you, here is how to take ten minutes to deal with them.

Step 1: Re-read the email a couple of times, watching for something you’ve missed (Duration: 1-2 minutes).
Make sure you’ve read everything. Make sure you haven’t missed an important clarifying word or sentence. Make sure that you accurately understand the tone. Make sure that you are interpreting the words the same way that the email’s author intended them to be interpreted. This has happened to me when I’ve written a perfectly innocent email and the response has been “what did you mean by that?” Then I go back and re-read my own email and realize that my words were misunderstood. It’s been a good reminder for me to make sure that I’m always trying to understanding the meaning behind the words of any email I receive.

One good example that is common among some readers is the use of ALL CAPS. Sometimes people use all caps to mean shouting or sometimes it is used as emphasis. If an email is written entirely in all caps, it could be anger on the part of the sender but you should consider whether or not the person might normally write like that. Don’t automatically take it to mean shouting. I do know people who write in all caps in spite of the numerous times their friends have kindly taken them aside to try and explain it to them. And if an email uses all caps only occasionally, consider whether they meant it as a form of emphasis rather than shouting.

Perhaps it’s a case of poor word choice. Maybe they wrote the message while on the phone. Maybe they’re having an off day. Maybe they were using their Blackberry in the back of a cab and didn’t feel like thumbing a longer message.

If you have previous communication with them, consider this email in light of their other communication to help you understand their thinking.

And, make sure you read the whole message. I’ve found in the past that the first paragraph of a problem email disturbed me so much that it influenced how I read the rest of the email… but when I went back to re-read the email again a couple of times, I better understood what the person was trying to communicate.

So, if you’re the kind of person to dash off a hasty response, just hold on. Your ten minutes isn’t up yet! And if you’re the kind of person that will let this ruin your day, don’t worry: it’s not going to take much longer.

Step 2: Get up and walk away from your computer. (Duration: 2-3 minutes).
Take two minutes and leave your computer. Let the situation percolate. Drink some water. Get some fresh air. Smile. Stretch. Water your plants. Whatever. Basically, don’t try to avoid the situation by doing other work and don’t sit there and stew about it. Instead, just move around to get a different perspective. It’s okay to think about it, but don’t start solving problems yet. That’s coming next.

Step 3: Find a win-win scenario. (Duration: 3-4 minutes).
Now just find a solution that will help you both resolve the situation. This is the time you need to spend the longest on, but you’ll find it easier if you do the first two steps. It’s not always going to be a scenario in which both parties come away entirely happy, but you both come away from the scenario having given a little and taken a little.

Win-win scenarios might take a few minutes longer when you first start to look for them. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s rare that a problem email will just arrive out of the blue. More often than not, it’s been festering for a while so you probably already know part of the win-win answer.

In thinking about the best scenario, consider what the other person’s ultimate goals are and consider what your ideal goals are, too. Is there a way for each of you to achieve at least part of your goals?

Sometimes a win-win scenario with a difficult customer might be that you refund their money and let them go. It’s not perfect, but it’s still a type of win-win scenario (since you don’t have to deal with them any more).

And sometimes, the person just needs to let off some steam and the win-win scenario is for you to thank them for their honesty and (if appropriate) apologize. That might be all it takes.

Ultimately, if you can understand what they want and help them to get it, you’ll have solved your problem even if it means a minor temporary discomfort, annoyance, hassle, or cost for you. It’s likely, though, that this minor temporary discomfort to solve their issue will be considerably easier and cheaper than if they decided to go further than just sending an email to you.

And there might be some of you who wonder if I’ve allotted enough time for developing a win-win scenario. Here’s my answer to that: It’s possible that there are some situations where more time is required to create a solution. However, I’ve found that a simple, actionable solution does the job and the right answer rarely takes a while to reveal itself; in most cases you already know the best solution when you get the email in the first place. It’s just stewing and fretting that keep you from responding with that solution. Very rarely has the addition of an entire day changed my recommended solution.

Step 4: Write the response. (Duration: 1-2 minutes).
Yes, this is a purposely short time. I recommend that you keep it brief. If you take too long writing a response, you’ll end up either with a defensive posture or with an aggressive posture, neither of which is a good idea.

Instead, write your response and run it through this filter of:

  • Does it show the other person that I read and understood their message?
  • Does it make my position clear?
  • Does it communicate my win-win recommendation?
  • Does it outline a simple and actionable way forward?
  • Is it gracious?

In my experience, these five elements will go a long way to resolving 99% of the problem emails you get. It uses good communication best practices, it helps to keep the conversation focused on the positive and moving forward, and graciousness (which is not acquiescence) ensures that you take the high road when it comes to using appropriate language and tone.

Lastly, proof and send your email. If you’re nervous about the situation and not sure that you’ve adequately addressed it in just ten minutes then schedule it to be sent a couple hours from now and let it sit in the back of your mind while you do something else. You can continue to think about it and maybe revise your email if necessary, but at least you’ll have taken some action on.

If you run a business, you’re going to have problem emails. That’s just the way it’s going to be. However, when you get those problem emails, they don’t have to ruin your day. Instead, you can spend ten minutes on them to deal with them and move on.

Heather Recommends:

I love working with coaches, freelancers, and entrepreneurs to help them become more successful. If you'd like to improve your business, find out how I can help.

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