Do the Can Canned (Response)!

Earlier this week I wrote a post about some Genesis Framework FAQs. The reason? Those were Frequently Asked Questions I received. Instead of answering the same questions over and over via email or social media, it made sense to compile them into a short list of FAQs that I can easily share again and again.

That’s the essence of a canned response.

Before I talk more about canned responses (that is the subject of this post, after all), allow me to back up and tell a quick story. Last year was a great year of business, but after reviewing it in detail, I uncovered a fatal flaw: I’m terribly inefficient at time management when it comes to administrative tasks. As someone who trades dollars for hours on client services, poor time management ultimately results in fewer hours to sell for services.

That’s a problem.

So while there are lots of areas where I can improve my efficiency (billing, banking, proposal writing, etc.) — I feel a post series coming on — today I’d like to share with you how I’m using canned responses to improve my workflow in the ole inbox.

Getting Advice

At WordCamp Las Vegas last month, I got the opportunity to bend Chris Lema‘s and Rebecca Gill’s collective ears and we discussed lead generation via contact form. I’ve played with a lot of variations on my contact form, everything from forcing people to choose highly specific options (i.e. budget, timeline, project type) to a more generic inquiry (name, email, whatchuwantwillis).

A more restrictive contact form is a way to pre-screen leads (i.e. if they don’t see their budget in the list, they don’t bother to make contact) and reduces email volume in my inbox. On the other hand, a more generic form invites a higher volume of emails.

What to do? Restrict leads and deal with fewer emails, or open up the flood gates and kiss inbox zero goodbye?

You probably have your own opinion on contact forms and lead generation (let’s strike up that conversation in the comments), but after talking with Chris and Rebecca, I decided to open up the gates for this reason: I didn’t want to inadvertently miss out on a great lead just to avoid sifting through extra emails.

Dealing with Volume

On average, I get 15-20 leads a week via my contact form. I don’t know if that sounds like a little or a lot, but I do know that as a one-woman shop with no administrative help, it takes a lot of time to answer those emails and thoughtfully engage with potential clients.  Since those are non-billable hours I’m investing, how do I make the most of it?

Below I’ll discuss two aspects: The tools you use to insert canned responses into email and the canned responses themselves.

Canned Response Tools

I asked around to see what other folks were using and got several responses (apparently I’m really late to the canned response party) and here were the most popular options.

Gmail

If you’re using Gmail in the browser (as opposed to POP or IMAP services in a desktop app), there’s a tool under Settings > Labs called “Canned Responses.” Install it and go. Here’s a wiki how-to article for more info.

Canned Responses

aText and TextExpander (Mac)

aText and TextExpander are “typing accelerators” that let you store commonly used phrases (or chunks of text) as an abbreviation or key stroke. So, for example, you could type, “resp1” and whatever text you’d stored would pop out.

My memory is already slipping, so remembering more keystrokes is not the solution for me, but I’ll mention it as some developer friends like these tools quite a bit.

Signatures

This is the option that works for me. If you’re using a desktop email app (Outlook, Apple Mail, Thunderbird), you can create email signatures. Name each signature something obvious (i.e. “Thanks, but No Thanks”) and use the content of the signature as your canned response. It’s quick and easy to insert in an email.

Actual Canned Responses

And now for the part of the post you’ve been waiting for: What the heck am I saying in these canned responses? My library of responses is new and continually evolving. While you’re welcome to use mine as a template, figure out what works best for your business.

Most of the leads coming through my contact form fall into one of these buckets:

  • Contractor looking to sub-contract my services
  • Someone needing help with a full website build
  • Someone needing help with one element of a website build (i.e. tweaks)
  • Someone looking to partner up

For each of those types of contacts, my responses are:

  • Yes
  • No
  • Maybe So

Yes Responses

A Yes for me equals setting up a phone call. Let me say this: I’m not big on phone calls. Even in all of my teenage girl glory, I wasn’t a phone talker.

I don’t hand out Yes‘s like candy, so nobody gets a Yes on the first email unless there’s already been a previous interaction and I have some context about the client and/or project (i.e. an introduction from a trusted source). A Yes goes like this:

Thank you for your email. I’d love to discuss XYZ in more detail. Do you have 20 minutes next Wednesday or Thursday to chat? (I like to give two day/time options). Let me know what works for you and the best number to reach you at.

Short, sweet, and to the point. I know I ended that in a preposition, but tough.

No Responses

If I know right off the bat that the request isn’t a fit, I give the Thanks, but No Thanks response:

Thanks for getting in touch. Unfortunately I’m not a good fit for your project based on X and Y (where X and Y are something mentioned in the email).

If I feel like it’s a quality lead (no yellow or red flags raised), but it’s not right for me, I’ll add this in to the Thanks, but No Thanks:

I would recommend getting in touch with Z, who is fantastic at 123.

As a side note, I try only to refer to people who I know have current availability or are a skill fit. It doesn’t take long to check with someone via Twitter or Skype and, in my opinion, leads to a higher match rate than saying “Here’s 10 people to try – Good luck!”

For reasons I laid out in this post, I no longer offer website tweaks as a service. If I get an email requesting site tweaks, they get the Tweaks Response:

For your site modifications, I’d suggest using one of the following services:

Genesis Tweaks (Genesis-specific changes)
Tweaky (all WordPress edits)
WPCurve (monthly-based service for ongoing support)

These services are all less expensive than hiring me and do great work.

As a side note, if you have other similar services you’d recommend, please leave a comment. Also, if you’ve had a less-than-great experience with one of these vendors, I’d love to know that too – I want to make quality referrals.

Looking for other ways to say No? Chris Lema uses email templates to say No.

Maybe So Responses

It’s rare that I get a complete picture of a potential client’s needs and their project scope based on one email. Actually, it’s so rare it’s never happened.

So, if I’m intrigued by a project, but need to know more before tossing out dates and numbers, I’ll response with the Please Tell Me More:

Thanks for getting in touch. I’d love to talk more about X to see if I’d be the right fit for your project. If you could take a moment to answer the following questions, that’ll help me decide whether I can help or if there’s somebody better-suited I can refer you to.

1. What’s your timeline? I’m currently booking projects X weeks out.
2. Do you have a budget? I’d like to make sure a solution I suggest is within your cost expectations for the project.
3. What about your current solution is frustrating or not quite meeting your needs?

I look forward to hearing from you.

This is probably my favorite canned response – it sets up a framework for the conversation. It’s First Date material, a tell me more about you so I’ll know if we’re right for each other framework.  I really like that third question (courtesy of Chris Lema) as it gets to the heart of the matter. There’s a difference between a person saying “I need a new website” and “I hate my current site because…XYZ.” The more I know about the frustration, the better I can solve the problem (or know that I can’t and refer them elsewhere).

Don’t Be Offended

Now you know my dirty little secret: I used canned responses. If you email me and get one, don’t be offended – just know that I’m trying to make the best use of my time and get better at what I do. Also a canned response is NOT an auto-response. I read each email and consider the best reply.

What about you? Do you use stock replies to common inquiries?

18 thoughts on “Do the Can Canned (Response)!”

  1. Canned responses are great as long as they’re natural and relevant. Nothing more heartbreaking than asking a couple specific questions and getting a four paragraph canned response that answers neither. Using canned responses in an overly broad manner will save you time but cost you customers.

    In my opinion, nothing beats TextExpander, even if you can’t remember the abbeviations. I have so many snippets now that I can’t remember all of them, but I found that in Preferences you can setup a shortcut to open the search. I just fire off that shortcut, type a word, arrow through a few matches and hit enter. No mouse action required, just bam, bam bam! What’s also great is since it’s an app, I can use it anywhere (Gmail, HelpScout, comments, forums, etc.).

  2. I love canned responses and use them often for a few different things:

    1) Answers to a range of FAQs I receive.
    2) “Project Completed” messaging.
    3) “Stuff I need” messaging.

    I’ve also used CRs to highlight common problems I get when people are submitting content / info to me.

    Often I’ll have to tag on a line or two to personalize the message, but these canned responses go a very long way in saving me time.

    1. Do you publish your FAQs somewhere on your site? Wondering if that might eliminate some emails altogether. What’s your method for storing/using canned responses?

      1. Yup, I have FAQs on my site, but I provide a short description of what’s found there in the email.

        And I have always used the Canned Response app for Gmail. I can see how that app would get difficult if you had dozens of CRs, but I only have 6 or so.

        I also use a spreadsheet for much of my work. For each new project I work on, I start a new spreadsheet from a template I created. On one sheet I enter the information I collect from the client (it’s the same every time). And that information is used in other worksheets for certain code snippets, instructions I pass on to staff members or reports I send to clients that hire me for Local SEO consulting. This saves me several hours and reduces many tasks to a simple copy / paste.

  3. Hi Carrie,

    Thanks a lot for your interesting insights.
    I think that a lot of negative feelings are associated with canned responses because they are often synonymous of a “standard” reply that doesn’t answer your questions and doesn’t solve your problem.

    It happened to me a lot when dealing with hosting providers.

    I prefer to call them “predefined responses”: you prepare a set of information that your customers ask you over and over (no matter if you put them in the FAQ, they are going to ask you anyway) and is ready for you to send.

    As Steven Gliebe in another comment says, I think that customization is the key. You start from a predefined reply to make sure that you are giving the customer all the information that he or she needs, including relevant links or documentation, and then you adjust and customize it as needed. The tool you use to do it is crucial because more advanced tools allow you to build templates that can be adapted and customized very fast.

    It’s according to this principle that we develop our text expander for Windows, PhraseExpander, which allows to create predefined responses and long reports (such as medical notes or legal documents) very quickly with its customizable and easy-to-use forms.

    I mention it because it could be an option for Windows users.
    I’d love to get your feedback on it. You can download a free trial at http://www.phraseexpander.com

  4. Pingback: Warm Leads and Steady Referrals - Curtis McHale

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