One of the biggest headaches for people who are self-employed or run a small business is coping with a bombardment of e-mail, faxes, phone messages and paper mail. I'd be lying if I said I've solved the problem, but I have come up with a few methods that help.
To begin with, I'm encouraging people to use e-mail to reach me. I can respond to messages with a short reply when it's convenient. If the message is unimportant, I can easily ignore it. If it is important, I can not only respond, but also save it on my computer for easy retrieval whenever I need it.
Unlike faxes and phone calls, e-mail follows me wherever I travel. Major online services and Internet providers such as America Online, Prodigy, Microsoft Network and AT&T provide local numbers throughout the United States and in some cases even overseas.
Even if you don't carry a laptop, you can retrieve your mail from any machine connected to the World Wide Web by using e-mail services such as Hot Mail (http://www.hotmail.com) or Rocketmail (http://www.rocketmail.com). E-mail is also easy to forward, assuming you're not running a one-person operation.
I often get calls from people wanting to know my street address so they can send me brochures and other marketing material by "snail mail." My advice to them and anyone else wanting to reach high-tech customers and journalists is to scan that material and put it up on the Web. It's easy and cheap to do, and once it's posted, it's there for people when they need it.
My desk is already covered with paper, so when someone does send me a brochure or press kit, it's likely to be discarded or lost. If that material is on the Web, and the person sent me e-mail with the Web address, I can find it in seconds. I'm not saying companies should stop printing brochures, but they should offer an electronic version.
If you get an enormous amount of e-mail (I get nearly 100 messages a day), you can increase your efficiency by using an e-mail program that filters and sorts your mail.
Eudora Pro and the e-mail programs that will come free with the newest versions of Netscape and Microsoft's Internet Explorer allow you to set up multiple mailboxes or folders and create rules that help send your mail to the appropriate box.
You can, for example, create a special mailbox where any mail from members of your staff or your key customers will automatically land. You can even have mail automatically forwarded to a colleague.
These programs also have a sort-and-find feature. If I'm looking for mail that came on a particular day or from a specific person, I can sort my mailbox by date or name of sender. I can also quickly find a message by searching for any word in its text. Try that with paper mail.
Another handy way to keep in touch is with an alphanumeric pager. Regular numeric pagers--which simply display phone numbers--are fine if all you want to do is return a call, but an alphanumeric pager lets the sender send a real message, so in many cases you don't have to return the call.
SkyTel and Pagenet offer pagers that allow callers to dictate a short message to an operator who will instantly transmit it to your pager. You (not the sender) are billed 50 cents per message. Both companies offer software that allows senders to use their PCs and modems to send you free messages, or your pager can be assigned its own e-mail address so people can send you pages via the Internet. If you do that, be sure to tell people to limit them to the capacity of your pager.
SkyTel also offers a two-way paging system, which is like having an e-mail terminal in your pocket. People can send you messages (up to 500 characters) and, using the pager's virtual keyboard, you can send them too. The keyboard is a bit awkward to operate (you use an arrow key to highlight and select each character), but it's helped me on several occasions when I needed to generate or respond to a message while at an airport, on a commuter train or in a meeting. The service, which starts at $24.95 a month plus the cost of renting or buying the pager, includes national coverage at no extra charge.
A SkyTel 2-Way pager can be linked to a Hewlett-Packard 100 or 200LXTM, OmniGo 100 palmtop computer or Windows CE handheld computer, allowing you to use those devices to create, send and store messages.
It seems that every company you call these days has a voicemail system that requires callers to press buttons to leave a message or reach someone. Now you, too, can put your callers through voicemail hell.
Seriously, a multi-mailbox voicemail system can help you sort through your calls, especially if you work at home, as I do, and want to separate personal and business calls. I have an AT&T digital answering machine that lets users press 1 if it's personal, 2 if it's business or 3 if they need further information. I haven't figured out a use for the fourth mailbox, but it's there if I need it.
The AT&T 1725, available for about $80, has four voice mailboxes with 24 minutes of total recording time. A two-line version is available for about $130. You can retrieve messages from the road, and, because it's digital, you don't have to wait for the tape to rewind to hear a message. You do, however, have to remember to insert a backup battery so you don't lose messages in a power failure.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com