Thursday, 3 February 2011

Gmail

I have been using email for a long long time, and have always stuck with downloading my email using pop, and storing it on my computer, but as I am now sending out 100+ customer emails per day on top of other business email, it had to be something I could share the work with someone else, so I could hand off customer support.

I had heard good stuff about gmail, and so I did some experiments.

Now my email setup is complex - I have about 6 domains, in multiple languages, and the customers need a reply in their language, from the domain they contacted (or spam filters cause even more problems than they already do).

Also I have a huge amount of historic email from customers (60,000 emails approx) that I needed to be accessible.

So after some quick tests, I decided to try for switching over.

gmail will pull email in from up to 5 pop accounts so that let me pull in all the incoming email. It automatically does this every few minutes - you can enable a labs option to give you a refresh button, but in practise I haven't used that - but if you had someone on the phone emailing you, you might find it useful.


I used the imap feature to upload all the history. You can upload the same message more than once, and it does the right thing and doesn't duplicate it, so it made it easy to manage the handover period - just upload everything from the changeover period again, and it sorted it out.

After that, it was just a case of learning how to get the most out of it - and its a much nicer system than it appears at first.

The key features that make gmail a really useful practical small business solution are:

Labels - These are the equivalent of mailboxes. Basically you can tag an email with one or more labels. Inbox is just another tag for example. That can make for confusion as you can have emails in several mailboxes - but if you tend to just process your inbox, and then file in another mailbox, it works well as you just 'Move' it (gmail feature) that basically tags an email with a label, and then archives it (archive, to gmail, just means remove from inbox)

Automatic translation. I have this enabled, and it makes it so much quicker to do things like pre-scan email for urgent ones, no matter what the language. It also is really easy to see the original message as occasionally the translation is not that clear.

Canned responses - Very simple, but a huge time saver. Around 80% of responses are partly or entirely a canned response - just change the appropriate bits and send it. This has even more so been important for the support folks. Some minor wrinkles in the canned responses (eg the order of them in the menu is not sorted, its just in last saved order, so you have to save them in the order you want) - but basically an incredibly useful feature.

Searching - well, this is fine IF you look for whole words. As soon as you want to search for a partial - eg the first part of a misspelled name, or part of a transaciton id, its a huge fail. This is the biggest weakness so far in gmail. My workaround was first to try CloudMagic - but in the end that still only does 'begins with' so I gave up on that. Now I rely on the imap connection to Eudora OSE (basically Thunderbird), and it downloads all the emails and Eudora lets me search very well.

Threading (conversations) - Don't bother trying - its useless. It basically puts different conversations into one, and is ridiculously confusing. But its fine without it, because the search works well for this - just search on the customers email and you see all the emails.

Preview - not directly available, but there is an option to enable it fairly conveniently (right click on a message). Also the summary line includes as much of the email as you have width for, so just make the window wide and you can see the start of the emails.

Settings - That brings me to the key thing you need to know about gmail - the default settings are a bit poor - all the good stuff is hidden in the "Labs" part of their settings. Go in there and enable the following:
- Canned responses
- Automatic translation (if you need it)
- Reply to All as default - saves remembering to not reply just to sender.
- Message sneak peak - gives instant preview by right clicking on a message
- Inserting images - allows you to embed images fairly easily
- Auto advance - so it shows the next email, after you 'archive' one
- Undo send - lets you set a delay on sending - I have it set to 20 seconds
- Advanced IMAP controls. Use this to stop your email client downloading several copies (in particular the All Mail folder and the 'account' tagged emails (ever incoming email is tagged with the account it was emailed to by default))

Multi-user access I saw a nice option to let someone else access your gmail account, so eg you could have 5 support folks all accessing the same account. Well, it turns out its useless, because you can NOT have any of the 'Labs' options enabled for those users.

However, you can just let several people all use the same email account - multiple logons work fine - you just need to have a modus operandi so you do not both reply to the same email - in my case we do it by starting at top or bottom of the inbox - you could do it by alphabetic breakdown or whatever. Worst case is if you both reply at the same instant the customer gets two replies, but its unlikely to be a problem.

Bits - hover over things with the mouse and there are useful options, such as hover over an email address and there is an option to show all emails with that person. Hover over a date and it shows the time. Also get used to using your back button - when you are replying to someone, and want to check something out, you do a searc etc - just go back a few times, to get back to the email you were writing.

Spam control - well, disable it - you have to do this using a filter - you use "is:Spam" in the 'Has the words' field, and when you go to next step, there is an option to never send to spam.

Backup - well, there are custom utilities that will do it, but I prefer to just use an Imap email client and sync it all with my local email client, and backup the data from the local client. Make sure to configure that to download full emails and so on of course - as you can set imap clients up to only download headers or recent emails etc. I'm using Eudora OSE for this.

Summary - Overall I am thoroughly impressed with gmail. Sure, it has some wrinkles, and is not perfect, but its transformed my job as I have offloaded most of the customer support now, and I can handle the rest of it a lot more quickly.

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