Mailbag: E-Mail Management for Small Businesses

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This month I answer a reader question about e-mail management in a small business where the turnover rate for junior employees is high.

We are an architectural firm with 15 computers in the office. The three partners each have their own independent e-mail addresses in the business's domain. The work-studio computer has one common e-mail ID that everybody needs to look at periodically.

The four computers for the partners and work studio connect to the Internet. The other PCs we choose to keep off the Net, even though they are protected with Norton (we learned the hard way).

Typically our projects can stretch over two to three years. Since the staff attrition rate is high, we figured it's not worthwhile to have personal e-mail addresses for everybody. But our current method, which has 12 people using one computer to check e-mail, is not a great system either.

So we are thinking maybe our senior staff can get e-mail on their machines, all accessing the one common ID so that everybody is aware of all developments, but send and receive through an e-mail server. I was thinking about converting one of the computers into some sort of an e-mail server, but that's probably overkill. Is there a simpler solution?
--Ajay Sethi, Anna Nagar, India

Coping with high attrition rates for junior staff is a common issue for many professional services firms. I'll share an e-mail management strategy that worked for one of my IT consulting clients, a law firm. But first, I'd like to suggest that you consider revamping your network and e-mail architecture.

Internet Access for All

Your current network permits Internet access for four computers, while denying it to the remaining 11. This results in a crush around one computer as junior staff members vie to access the general shared e-mail box. As you've noticed, this isn't an efficient use of their time.

This problem disappears if you permit Internet access to all PCs. However, you appear concerned that this might allow malicious software to infiltrate your network.

I believe the best defense is to beef up your network and PC security. A router with a hardware-based firewall will provide a primary defense against Internet-based attackers. I also recommend that each PC have a two-way software firewall and use up-to-date antivirus and antispyware applications. Leave the spam filtering to your e-mail server, which can handle it more efficiently than the client on each PC.

Adding a suitable router and software for the PCs may cost from several hundred to a thousand dollars, depending on your current setup. However, I believe it would be worth it to eliminate your e-mail bottleneck. Besides, most if not all of the added costs would be offset by the savings you'd achieve with the e-mail server arrangement that I recommend below.

Outsource Your E-Mail Server

Running your own e-mail server is not a decision to be taken lightly, as I discussed in a previous column. Setting it up is complicated, and its maintenance requires the attention of a competent IT professional. Unless someone can monitor your e-mail server 24 hours a day, seven days a week--locally or remotely--you risk having it fail when no one's paying attention.

I believe that most small businesses are better off outsourcing their e-mail services to a capable hosting service located in a reliable, monitored data center. It will cost you less and be more reliable than managing your own e-mail server in-house.

Managing E-Mail for Employee Turnover

One of the problems with a high employee turnover rate is the confusion that results when a client who doesn't realize an employee has left sends e-mail to that former employee. If you have deleted the employee's e-mail account, your client will receive a bounce-back message that may be misunderstood or ignored. If you forward the former employee's e-mail to someone who's still with the company, it limits your flexibility for reassigning the ex-employee's projects to other staffers. You could develop e-mail handling rules for forwarding e-mail to different accounts under specific circumstances, but that requires a fair degree of technical expertise.

The shared office e-mail address you're currently using does address the routing issue, as long as everyone understands that the lack of privacy makes it unsuitable for personal e-mail. But again, it's probably not the most efficient solution, since everyone must read all the shared e-mail, including irrelevant messages. And what if the first person to read a group message deletes it? No one else will see it.

E-Mail List Can Help

A tutorial guides you step-by-step on how to set up an e-mail list in the cPanel hosting control panel used by many hosting services.
A tutorial guides you step-by-step on how to set up an e-mail list in the cPanel hosting control panel used by many hosting services.
A combination of an e-mail distribution list and internal-use-only e-mail accounts for your staff can resolve this distribution issue.

First, give everyone their own e-mail address that they can access at their own computer. For the turnover-prone staff positions, make sure to set each e-mail client to use the shared office account as both the outgoing SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) address and the reply-to address. That way, when an employee sends e-mail, it will appear to originate from the shared office address, and any reply will return to it.

Also use the shared office address as the alias for an e-mail distribution list that includes everyone. All incoming messages to that address will be automatically distributed to a list of e-mail accounts that includes both the internal-only e-mail addresses of each staffer plus the publicly known e-mail addresses of each partner. That way everyone will receive the general office e-mail in their own account on their own computer, and be able to delete messages after reading them. As a bonus, you can use the office e-mail list for internal communications.

If your Web host doesn't already provide you with a mailing list tool, consider installing a free open-source e-mail list manager on your hosted e-mail server, such as the one I discussed in an earlier column.

Senior staffers--and, eventually, junior ones that you deem likely to stick around for the long haul--may use their internal e-mail address for the SMTP server and reply-to fields to reveal them to the public. Note, however, that the success of the scheme depends on employees not inadvertently handing out their internal e-mail addresses; except for the SMTP and reply-to changes, the accounts are the same as those which are authorized to send e-mail under a personal account ID.

Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions about using technology in your small to mid-sized business via e-mail. PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered. Sign up to have the Business Solutions newsletter e-mailed to you each week.
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