6 Tips for Responding to Emails During a Crisis

As many organizations work out the kinks of being remotely distributed, the need for ongoing team communication and collaboration is paramount. Now, more than ever, your donors and volunteers need to receive consistent, authentic, and clear messages from you and your team.

What exactly are people expecting to hear from your organization during this time? According to the Harvard Business School, your organization has a unique opportunity to provide: 

  1. Reliable, factual information that instructs people about the crisis
  2. Information about how your organization is directly affected by the crisis, what you’re doing in response to it, and how others can help you
  3. Ways to help people connect with each other during this time, despite the obvious physical barriers

As the CauseMic team recently shared on the Outpost blog, “maintaining relationships with your donors is crucial, and in a post coronavirus era, silence and inaction are unacceptable.” This applies in many ways to how you should adjust your email marketing strategy and the messages you’re broadcasting. 

But it also applies to the other half of your email: what principles should guide your team when donors and volunteers reply to your marketing emails, or send a new email to your info@, donors@, or volunteers@ address? 

Here are 6 quick tips to help make sure your team’s email responses are fast and professional during a crisis:


1. Define a team workflow / process

To make fast responses a reality in your shared mailbox, your team will need a clearly defined process. Too many organizations put the burden of responsibility on one person to check the inbox, reply to messages, and play traffic cop. That might seem fine if your email volume is low, but it doesn’t account for abnormal situations like when your team member is out sick, on vacation, or in the event of a crisis when you get an influx of emails. Your process doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but here are some ideas to consider to manage your shared mailbox as a team:

  • Designate a “triage” role who will be responsible for reviewing new messages in the morning and delegating responsibilities to other team members. Consider rotating this role each week, and be sure to designate a “backup” role to fill in when needed.
  • Set a requirement for the rest of the team to check the mailbox once or twice a day, depending on email volume, to make sure everyone’s staying on top of messages that they need to respond to.
  • Agree on where your team will discuss email responses, and stay consistent so you can cut down on FWDs and CCs. For some, you might choose to use an instant messaging platform like Slack. With a tool like Outpost, you can leave notes for each other without ever leaving your inbox.


2. Take the time to organize your inbox

Organizing and cleaning things up in your shared mailbox might sound like something you don’t have time for, but I promise it will really help your team stay focused and productive. You can even set a time limit of one-hour to whip your inbox into shape. Here are some easy wins you can use to get organized:  

  • Unsubscribe from unimportant newsletters
  • Set up rules to auto-archive notification emails that don’t require a response
  • Create labels or tags to make it easy to filter and find important messages

Once you get a system in place for organizing your inbox, it’ll be easier to keep it that way. You’ll be happy you did, and your team will be too.


3. Delegate, delegate, delegate

In order to collaborate in an inbox without stepping on each other’s toes, you need to understand who’s doing what. In traditional email accounts like Gmail or Outlook, there’s no way of knowing who’s replying to each message, which can lead to team members replying to the same message twice, or emails sitting unanswered. Additionally, forwarding or CCing emails to each other clutters up everyone’s inboxes, and can slow down productivity. 

By delegating tasks your team will have a better idea of who’s responsible for each message. You can do this with a task manager, over chat in Slack, or use a shared email tool that’s actually built for team collaboration. Whichever method you choose, it’s important that you take the time to communicate and understand who’s doing what.


4. Have a response time goal

How fast should your team try to respond to emails? About half of your audience will expect to hear back within 24 hours, but if you’d like to satisfy the majority of your audience, aim for one hour or less. That might be a tough goal for your organization at first, but try setting an easier goal to start, like 8-12 hours, and then start tracking your team’s performance. You’ll start to get the hang of it, and can gradually aim for faster and faster response times. 


5. Save answers to common questions

You’ve probably noticed that your team is getting a lot of the same types of questions (e.g. “Are you still operating?” “How can I help?” “Where should I go to get updated information?”). If that’s the case, then you can save your team a lot of time by writing clear answers to your FAQs one time and saving them in a shared location, like a Google Doc, where your team can easily copy and paste email responses. If you’re using a shared inbox solution like Outpost, response templates can be saved and loaded right from your inbox.


6. Use an auto-responder (sparingly) 

If your shared email is getting a higher-than-usual volume of emails, your team might struggle to reply right away, even with better collaboration in place. You can alleviate some confusion and frustration by setting communication expectations with an autoresponder. But, let’s be real: no one likes to get an auto-response that makes them feel like they’re just a number. And if your wording is too vague, people will believe what you’re really saying is “we’re never going to respond to you.”

So, here’s what some of the best autoresponders have in common:

  • They use personal, warm language to avoid sounding like a robot
  • They set realistic expectations for when your recipient can expect a detailed response from you
  • They provide clear instructions on what can be done if the request is urgent (call a phone number, send a direct message on Twitter, etc.)

Once your email volume gets back to something more manageable, you can turn off the autoresponder altogether. Use it sparingly, like when you know you can’t respond in less than 24 hours.


Don’t forget: this is a strange time for everyone

Now that you’ve got a working process to reply to emails quickly, there’s a couple more items to remember when writing your email responses.

Not everyone puts their best foot forward during a crisis, and emotions can play a bigger role in how people communicate with each other. Do your part to help your organization be a voice of calm for others during times of uncertainty. Consider these four suggestions: 

  1. Give your team a checklist like this one to help them think through their responses before hitting “send”
  2. Be empathetic in your emails
  3. Have a game plan for responding to people who express anger or frustration with you or your organization
  4. Take the extra time to say thank you

By putting the human element front and center in your email communication, you’ll help strengthen relationships with your donors, volunteers, and anyone else watching your organization during a crisis. You’ll be recognized as trustworthy and caring long after the crisis ends, and you’ll be able to have a greater impact for your cause.


About the Author

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The Outpost team is located in Eugene, Oregon and has built a shared email solution to help teams collaborate better, save time, and be more productive. With features like assignments, internal notes, saved template responses, custom rules, and analytics, organizations like yours can have better email transparency and work better together. To learn more, visit teamoutpost.com.



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