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Using email for self protection

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Saturday, 08 August, 2009

Content There's no arguing that backing up data is crucial for business. Once a project is finished, its customary to organise it and archive it accordingly. Yet email is something we all use day in, day out continuously, so there's no cut off point where we can make conscious decision to decide to back up. Whether your email set up takes care of backing up or not, it should do as it can help protect your business (or yourself depending on what you do!).

Case Study : A difficult client and how email helped protect us

One previous client we had, who were a small company run by a couple of Phd-titled directors, commissioned us to produce a seemingly straight forward branding and website project. During the final stages of branding, they unexpectedly changed tact and suddenly decided that what was produced was completely wrong.

Its not great to have an unhappy client, but this is sometimes unavoidable in the world of design where subjectivity sometimes rules. We were a little worried since the client was beginning to be a little difficult and we knew they were quite intellectually keen.

However, we had done nothing wrong, had followed their feedback during the stages of development, and had gone through our meticulous sign-off stages. This was our initial response to the client.

To cut a long story and potentially long law suit short, we easily produced a concise, digital email trail of all these things and presented these to them. After 2 days, they responded by proposing to send out a cheque for the branding stage of the work.

Structuring and backing up email is good practice

If you have issues with a client, email histories aren't always going to solve the problem. Even if they will, not having a good system to structure and back up email won't stop you doing so either.

However, the case study above did highlight to me the importance of developing a habit for maintaining a good system for every day aspects of business and life such as email. If and when problems do arise, you can get through them quicker if you're prepared and have the right tools and set up.

Using email online and why it may not be for you

There are two main ways people use email - online with a service like Gmail, or offline using desktop client programs like Outlook.

Using an online service like Gmail might negate having to consciously back up your email since there is a presumption that they won't lose your data and they place heavy emphasis on their search functionality, allowing you to quickly bring up something from the past. However, I've never wanted to use business email in this way since I never feel fully in control of it, being at the mercy of Google service policies.

Therefore, I've only used business email via a desktop client, which always allows me to search for past messages without a net connection if I need to. (Much more convenient in the days of dial-up!) I do use several online services for personal accounts, at the very least because it keeps me aware of what is out there.

How I structure my business email

I've mainly used Entourage as my program of choice and my point of emphasis is to structure your email and its back up so that you can easily find past emails again.

I have a level of folders, one of which is titled "Clients". Inside this is a sub-level of folders - one for each client. Inside each of these is another sub-level, with one folder for each project for that client. Depending on the nature of my working relationship with that client, I might also have other folders called "Maintenance" or "Admin" as well as the project ones.

All my emails (well, not the spam filtered ones) still go into the Inbox, as I use this with Entourage's flagging system as a "to do" list. Therefore, once I've processed a client email, I manually move it into its appropriate folder. The alternative is to set up rules so that Entourage checks who the sender is and automatically puts the email into the right client folder.

For me, keeping a folder structure is more useful to keep track of timely email conversations, especially when relevant emails aren't automatically connected by common recipient etc.

For instance, Entourage has a "link" feature on each email to bring up other emails that were sent to and from the recipient. However, I've sometimes had email conversations with clients, and then send a separate email to my colleagues about that conversation outside of the client's knowledge.

Keeping emails together in folders allows me to group these (for my eyes only!).

How I back up my emails for future proofing

Another reason why I like to keep my emails grouped by client and then by project is so that once a project is finished or I've stopped working with a client, I can easily identify that folder and archive all those emails.  On Entourage, I do this with a program called Entourage Email Archive X.

All emails are exported as text files - one for each email - and I can then place these archived emails with each archived project in my back up.  I preferred having archived emails as text files as being such basic files, they're future proofed and independent of any particular email program system.

At the moment, I'm also experimenting with using Apple Mail 3 as an email client, for a couple of my accounts. Supposedly, with the program's search abilities, you shouldn't need to categorise emails into folders as it should be easy to find what you want with your search criteria.

I'm giving it a go so that I can see the best of both approaches but also because after using Entourage for the last couple of years, Apple Mail 3 might now be the better option, as it seems to do the same things that I need (as described above), but also has better integration with other Mac OSX programs (that I use).

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