Make Sure That General E-Mail Gets Answered

How does your business handle general and sales query e-mail? In many organizations these messages go to a shared e-mail account, such as info@yourdomain.com. Answering them may be the responsibility of any one of several company reps.

But how do you ensure that your company promptly handles all queries sent to a shared e-mail address? In today's fast-paced business world, letting an e-mail sit too long unanswered can spell the difference between winning a sales order and losing it. And how do you prevent multiple employees from wasting their time (and giving the customer a bad impression of your business's processes) by answering the same query?

Email Center Pro (ECP) can help. It's a new Web-based service for sharing e-mail messages among coworkers, who may add comments to messages and use templates or collaborate to produce timely responses.

Depending on how you set up the system, sharing messages may have privacy implications. And ECP is not designed to replace your business e-mail; it works with your existing service to ensure that your staff doesn't drop the ball in its electronic correspondence.

You can evaluate ECP using a free, advertising-supported plan. Paid plans start at $19 per month.

Using Email Center Pro

You can sign up for an ECP account online--and create one or more mailboxes--in just a couple of minutes. ECP recommends that you channel mail to the service by setting up POP retrieval from a specific mailbox (for example, sales@yourdomain.com); but if you prefer, you can forward mail as it comes in, or simply give out your ECP mailbox address (though this will produce a clunkier-looking address--something like sales@yourdomain.emailcenterpro.com).

You can use the service for private accounts, of course, but doing so will render that individual's e-mail no longer private. Still, when employees take ill or go on vacation or maternity leave, using ECP to handle theirher accounts (perhaps by temporarily forwarding their messages to ECP) can help coworkers pick up the slack on e-mail that would otherwise languish until the absent employees returned.

After logging in to ECP's online service, you can view and search all e-mail messages in the covered accounts, amounting to a history of customer communication. Also, to create a more complete record, you can forward older messages and pertinent messages from individual accounts not handled by the service.

ECP uses SpamAssassin as an antispam filter. Incoming spam does not count against the service's rather tight monthly e-mail message quotas.

Email Center Pro lets you assign messages in a shared mailbox to individual employees for follow-up.
A drop-down menu lets you assign a new message to a specific person for follow-up. You can also arrange to send new message notifications, and you can track responses to see how long an e-mail has gone unanswered--or append notes to an e-mail thread with a customer, to share information with your team.

The built-in editor permits you to create custom message templates, reducing the time required to craft a custom response and introducing a degree of consistency in your company's answers.

Smart folders let you organize your e-mail by filtering criteria you specify--such as by message subject or e-mail assigned to you for a response. These folders make it easier for you to view the messages you consider most important.

Is Email Center Pro Right for You?

ECP grew out of a need by business planning software developer Palo Alto Software to better manage its own e-mail. The company says that because ECP uses the Amazon Web Services infrastructure, it possesses the same level of reliability as the Amazon.com store.

A free plan, supported by ads in e-mail footers, provides 1GB of storage, accepts 250 nonspam e-mail messages per month, and accommodates five users and two mailboxes. Ad-free paid plans start at $19 per month for 5GB storage, 2500 e-mail messages monthly, unlimited users, and five mailboxes; these plans also include a service for backing up your data.

The most expensive plan costs $149 per month for 30GB of storage, 15,000 e-mail messages monthly, secure SSL communication, and unlimited users and mailboxes.

ECP isn't the only way to manage shared e-mail. I discussed a less elegant (and less expensive) strategy in a previous column. A help-desk ticketing system, such as Cerberus Helpdesk, is another option. However, ECP is easy to use and simple to set up alongside your existing e-mail system.

The company has also created a promotion for PC World readers: Entering pcworld08 in the code box during signup for the Standard ($19/month) plan will entitle you to three months of free service.

Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions about using technology in your connected small to mid-sized business via e-mail. PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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