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Using ‘Canned Responses’ to Save Time While Helping Readers (and how I’d improve Canned Responses)

The amount of emails hitting my Inbox makes me feel physically ill. I just checked my ‘All Mail’ inbox in Gmail and in the last 30 minutes I’ve had 100 emails…. and it is the weekend as I write this (off peak).

On a single day last week I had 8987 emails – it was a fairly ‘normal’ day.

How does one manage this volume of ‘communication’ (I use the word loosely)?

Luckily the vast majority of those emails are things I never need to read. Some are emails notifying me of new subscribers to newsletters, updates or invitations from social media sites etc. I’ve previously talked about how I use Gmail Labels and Filters to filter many of these. Filtering like this gets the emails in my inbox down to several hundred a day.

Many of the emails that do make it into my inbox are from readers asking for help. Their requests are varied and include:

  • questions about the topics I’m writing about
  • requests to do consulting work
  • ‘pitches’ asking me to feature products or link to posts
  • enquiries from advertisers
  • submissions by potential guest posters
  • questions about how to use features on the site
  • reports of ‘issues’ or ‘problems’ that readers are having with some aspect of the site
  • complaints about something that has been written
  • emails of thanks and encouragement from readers who appreciate the sites
  • emails from other bloggers wanting to work together

I’d estimate that these kinds of emails number anywhere from 50-200 per day.

A number of months ago I realized that I spent much of time each day answering virtually the same questions over and over again. Email was taking me hours each day.

I began to use a Mac tool called Text Expander which allowed me to compose responses to my most Frequently Asked Questions and insert it into any document or text input field with a keystroke. When I got an email that I had a response for I then would simply insert it into Gmail, personalize it a little and then send it to the person asking the question.

canned-responses.jpgGmail’s Canned Responses: More recently Gmail added a feature called ‘Canned Responses’ into their Labs section. Other email clients have had this type of thing for years so it was an overdue feature (and it still needs some work in my humble opinion) but I’m sure glad that they added it.

In short – Canned Responses lets you compose an email, save it as a canned response and then select that response when replying to someone.

For virtually each one of the above types of questions that I get I now have a ‘canned responses’ in Gmail that I’m able to quickly reply with. In most cases I do take a few seconds to add something to one of the canned responses (usually the person’s name and comments where the canned response doesn’t quite fit with their question) but in many cases the pre-written answer fits the question pretty well and provides an answer to the person that answers their question. I’d say that I’m sending 30-40 of these a day. If each one saves me writing a 2-3 minute email it is saving me 1-2 hours a day.

Isn’t it Impersonal?

One of the hesitations that I had in starting to use this type of response with readers is that it felt a little impersonal. In some ways it is – but in other ways I think it has actually allowed me to be more helpful to readers.

For example - previously when I got 10 emails a day from people asking the same question the temptation was to answer in quite a blunt and brief way. It’s not that I didn’t care about their question – just that it’s not easy responding to the same thing over and over. With a Canned Response however you can write a comprehensive, polite, helpful response that has a bigger chance of actually helping the person.

Another thing that I’ve noticed about Canned Responses is that I’m actually responding to more emails these days.

For example – I get a lot of emails from readers that simply say ‘thanks for writing your blog’ (10+ a day). While these emails are great they don’t really ‘need’ a response. I did try to respond with a ‘thanks for the feedback’ type email but to be honest on days where I was extra busy I didn’t even manage that.

Using ‘Canned Responses’ I now have a way to not only thank the person for their email but to make an impression upon them with an extended response. The email that I send thanks the person for their feedback, tells them that I appreciate their involvement in my site and suggests 1-2 ways that they can become more involved (including encouraging them to tell a friend about the site).

Over a year if I send 10 of these a day I’ve had the opportunity to deepen relationships with 3650 readers and potentially have them tell a friend about the site. It might not seem like a big deal but these are the small things that can make a difference to a blog.

Automating Canned Responses

At this point my use of Canned Responses is manual. I still am reading each email to work out which (if any) canned response I use however Gmail allows you to use ‘Canned Responses’ in a more automated way by using their filters to look for keywords or the email address that emails are coming from and then send a response to those emails that fit a certain criteria.

This could be very useful and cut down on further work. I wouldn’t want to do it for each and every email that was sent to me – but I can certainly see how it’d be useful for some types of emails. I suspect a contact form that allowed those using it to select a certain category for their question could be useful in triggering these types of canned responses.

How I’d Improve Canned Responses

I mentioned above that I thought Canned Responses could be improved. There are a few improvements that I’d like to see:

1. Managing Canned Responses – I currently have about 13 Canned Responses set up in my Gmail account. The way that these responses are ‘managed’ is via a drop down menu on the page where you compose emails. The problem I am having is that when I open this drop down menu on my laptop (15 inch screen) the menu now extends down further than my screen allows meaning that I can now only delete the first three of my Canned Responses.

Another ‘management’ problem is that because all actions (selecting a response, saving a response and deleting a response) all happen from the one drop down menu – it’s not hard to select the wrong response when quickly using the menu. On a number of occasions I’ve hit ‘save’ instead of ‘insert’ and then saved a blank message as a response (meaning I have to rewrite it and save it again).

2. Replying to Messages – When you’re in the reply window and want to use a canned response to reply to someone there is no way to include that persons email to you in the canned response – at present inserting the canned response replaces the whole email rather than inserting it at the cursor point in your reply.

I like to include the original emails as it gives context to your response (it also helps you later if the person responds to your canned response). The only way to include the previous email from the person is to copy the persons email to you, then select the canned response, then scroll to the end of the response and then paste the person’s original email to you. Only a couple of extra clicks but annoying none the less.

3. Shortcuts to trigger Canned Responses – I’d love to see the option to eliminate the option to have to go through the drop down menu at all and to use shortcuts to trigger the insertion of canned responses. Better still – it’d be great to even be able to send a canned response without opening the email but to be able to select it from your inbox window and send a response to all selected items quickly.

4. Subject Lines – In some of my canned responses I’d love the option of being able to insert the same subject line over and over again rather than having to manually change it.

All in all it’s a useful feature but now that I’ve got more than a handful of Canned Responses I’m hoping that Gmail makes some improvements soon as managing them all is getting more difficult.

Do you use Canned Response (or some other type of process that is similar?).

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. This is great! Now I want to see your ways for us readers to become more involved! Expect an email later today.

    Thanks,
    Nate

  2. Wow that’s a lot of emails!

    Can you take all these responses and put them in a FAQ on your blog? Point people to your faq.

    Hire someone to filter your email and only send you messages that need your special attention,

    Answering such a vast load of emails eats time and inhibits your ability to do anything else.

  3. Sunil Pathak says:

    This is terrific Darren, a busy guy like you doing so much for his reader is simply unbelievable. I see you care a lot about your readers and subscribers, and i think that’s why you are so ridiculously famous .

  4. Unoblogger says:

    A wonderful article…. will sure reduce time when we have that many mails to answer… ill wait till I am able to use the tips

  5. Isaac says:

    It is nice to get a personal response, but we have to realize that isn’t always possible. Good points.

  6. Seth says:

    Lots of emails… But you are great for actually reading them! Thanks for your support and the effort you put into reading emails and being apart of your blogging community you have built.

  7. Cyrus says:

    Canned email seems good, I will try that out. Previously I used to store the same email to the same questions in a word doc, so all I need to do is copy and paste to the reply, it also help me in fasten my speed too.

  8. If you use Outlook, you can use the Signature feature to create a response for each situation, then do a Reply (which will leave the original message and Subject line) with the appropriate Signature.

    And/or, you could use a Virtual Assistant to organize, reply and keep on top of your emails :-)

  9. Simon Salt says:

    Darren
    What about using a Virtual Assistant. For what it would cost you to hire a VA per hour you could be doing something a lot more valuable to your business than reading those emails. I would recommend setting up two email accounts one that your general inquiries go to and one that only people you know get to have, that way you can hand over the general account to a VA and have them wade through the emails, forwarding to you only those that dont fit your rules, the others can be answered by the VA using Canned Responses. Think about your hourly rate and then think about the cost saving a VA would get you. Drop me a line if you need a recommendation for a VA (no I am not one, nor affiliated with anyone in particular).
    Simon

  10. Patrick says:

    I use canned responses, and love it. But I have noticed similar shortfalls. The two big improvements I would make are numbers 1 & 2 in your list. After the first time I mistakenly deleted a canned response I copied each one into a draft in my drafts folder so that if I did that again I wouldn’t need to rewrite rm scratch. That move saved me more than once.

    I also don’t like how you can’t include the e-mail you received (or your signature) in your response. I go ahead and add an extra step and click on the canned response, open it, copy it, discard the draft, then open a new response and paste in the canned response. It adds 15 seconds, but gives a more professional response, so it’s worth it in my book.

    Thanks for the extra tips!

  11. Veereign says:

    In my life, I have never seen a man be so selfless in helping others around him to get along and get working.

    I feel good that there are people like you too, Darren. Thanks for this great weblog of yours. Its surely going to get me to go to higher places!

  12. Eric says:

    Wow! I haven’t noticed that feature in gmail yet. That. Is. Awesome!! :D

  13. YOU CAN!

    You can make canned responses automatic.

    I have firefox, and i think through the extension bettergmail (lifehacker) they add a drop-down in the top right of a message where you can choose “filter messages like this”.

    When you choose “filter messages”, you’ll be able to set the criteria by which the filter will be automatically fired.

    When you hit “next step” you can select at the bottom of the list “send canned response”

    caveats:
    1. i think it is through the ff extension bettergmail that this “filter messages like this” is an option, there’s a lower-functionality drop-down built into gmail i think (i’ve been using this extension so long i’m not sure what the default is anymore!

    2. since i don’t have any canned responses, i’m not sure how many responses you can select to be fired off.

    BUT:
    you might want to be careful, some of those emails might fire off multiple responses.

    hope this helps, Byron

  14. Rick says:

    Another reason to love gmail! Thanks for the topic, Darren.

  15. Jeri Dansky says:

    I use Typinator – another text expansion tool on the Mac – and I notice the same results: It takes me much less time to respond, and the quality of my responses is better. I too customize the responses, but getting the core of the response in place with a few keystrokes is wonderful.

    Unless I wanted to do automatic canned responses, I can’t see any reason I’d want to use that feature rather than just continuing to use Typinator.

  16. I use a program for canned responses (or shorthand) that’s EXTREMELY versatile! PhraseExpress.

    You just type a couple letters and it will type out your entire response even several paragraphs into your emails, blog comments, forums, directory submissions – anywhere you frequently need a common reply.

    For instance I don’t do any email support, all my support is done via my affiliate forum where I often get similar questions over and over.

    EXAMPLE: I type my shorthand code “hth” and it autotypes:
    “Hope this helps and best of luck!”

    It also saves everything you do to clipboard. So something you copied 12 steps back and 3 hours ago you can retrieve so you don’t have to retype.

    PhraseExpress is one program I can’t live without because I have carpal tunnel. It’s free for personal use and a small fee for business use.

    Linda Buquet

  17. Canned response seem great, when responding to the “same” e-mail. It doesn’t seem like a way to cheat, more of a way to organize your time more correctly.

    @Patrick If your using Firefox there is a plug-in called WiseStamp that inputs your signature in any email “draft” its a great tool and easy customizable.

  18. Robby G says:

    As someone said, a FAQ page on the blog that you can point emailers to could be really helpful. Great idea Nick (comment numero uno).

  19. I don’t use canned response, but I don’t get that kind of volume either. This seems like a great way to streamline things and a great post.

  20. Robin says:

    OMG that is a lot of mail. If you didn’t filter it, it would be completely impossible for one person handle. Even at 50-200, missing 1 day, leaves you witha massive chore. How do you find time to write…lol

  21. Team Nirvana says:

    Thats surely a count one would be scared to respond to.

    But, thanks to the technology and the features that provide more robust services when compared to years earlier.

    Thanks for making this post and providing the kind of benchmark one should attain if one needs to know the kind of readership Darren has.

  22. I haven’t got to the extend of using Gmail’s canned responses yet. I did create another Gmail account for notifier messages (used filters to send to the 2nd acct).

    The world was a much better place for me to live in after doing so. :)

  23. Hi Darren,
    I wish I had your problem of having so many emails that I needed Canned Responses! LOL. Well, I look forward to that day, and I agree with you that a canned response is much better than no response and frees up your time to write more personalized messages to those who present unique or new questions or proposals. I am still trying to learn how to use the multiple Inbox feature, which I also think is great, and I definitely love all the new Labs that Google is introducing. Google features regularly on my blog, because people ask me how to do things and very often Google has already thought of a solution to their problem, so I teach them how to do it with Google.
    Have a great day and thanks for being so consistently wonderful!

  24. I use Thunderbird and create template emails.

    Then when I get asked multiple times a similar question, I know it is time to make a template. I do Photoshop Workshops, sell Photoshop Actions, and have a blog catered to Photographers.

    I often get asked the same questions all the time regarding photography and/or photoshop. So this allows me to answer more of them.

    Glad you are letting people know of this idea – it is really the only way to handle volumes of emails.

    Jodi
    MCP Actions
    http://www.mcpactions.com

  25. budi says:

    i agree with canned responses

  26. Nice post @Darren. This post help me to know more and more about Gmail.

    thanks

  27. Mogul says:

    Awesome, had no idea about this new feature. I have to deal with an ungodly amount of mail as well, and this sounds like a great timesaver. Will check it out. Thanks for the heads-up.

  28. Lara Kulpa says:

    Hey Simon – He’s got one… ME!
    Even still, I’d probably used canned responses also in the event I was taking over these types of emails for Darren…

    It’s not about being artificial or not… it’s about having a way to answer valid questions with valid answers, quickly. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t actually READ the entire email and put some actual thought into which response fits the question… because you should. But why type the same thing over and over again when you could actually provide MORE information than they had expected, and come out the hero?

    Think about it… :)

  29. Lee Ka Hoong says:

    I’m using Hotmail (I do have a Gmail account as well) and I’ve never seen this feature (canned?) before. But I think I’ll be exhausted if I receive the number of emails that you received in a day.
    But these all means that you’re great, that’s why you received tonnes of emails. :)

    Regards,
    Lee

  30. Bibokz says:

    Google doesn’t always hit home runs. But when it uses its strength and ability to identify its audience and sell straight to them, it gains a distinct advantage.

  31. It would be a really cool and helpful tool for me because that’s the problem I am having. I am asked the same questions over and over again by my readers and I always write up the same answers. This tool will help me a lot. Thanks Darren.

    Mohammad Afaq
    Free Website Traffic

  32. I think filtering emails is kind of not so cool especially if someone has taken their time to write to you in need of help. But stiill 800 mail and up in a single day is alot. LOL I too have the same problem,but I get so happy that I have lots of royal readers asking me questions.I love to help and heey that’s why I blog or we blog.the aim is to help so if u write I will answer rather than filtering you off!

    http://Www.frogblogger.com

  33. Wow, this is very useful.. Thanks for sharing this and hoping I could implement it too.

  34. Kash says:

    Great Idea for managing bulk emails. I will note it down somewhere – Just in case if me and my blog become famous in Internet world!!.. :).

  35. I use canned responses from multiple accounts, and the things which bugs me is the lack of functionality to set the reply email address to match to your response.

    Gmail evolves at some speed so I expect this to come at some point

  36. Dean Saliba says:

    That is brillient! I wish Hotmail would offer something like this, I’ve had the same Hotmail address for about six years now and don’t really want to lose it. :(

  37. ramaraobobby says:

    Very useful information. Prior to reading this, I am not aware of this new wonderful feature added in Gmail even though using it daily to respond to my mails. This canned response feature would be a great help to me as well.
    You Rock!! Keep up the good work. Thanks for sharing

  38. that’s great , you can maximizing function of gmail…..I never use it before, thanks

  39. Certainly a busy blogger like you will have to find out some solution for this. As you cant afford to loose your readers and replying to every mail through scratch is very time consuming as well.

  40. On the surface, canned responses does seem impersonal in my opinion, but so does those Automated emails that many companies, individuals and websites have setup that make customers and members think that someone has actually responded until they open the email and find an automated response that says something along the lines of “This is a notice that your email has been received and will be reviewed in the next 24 hours or days or weeks….and by the way….this is a no-response email so any replies that you send to this address will not be looked at”….you get the drift!

    Those emails annoy me so much, especially when I’m trying to solve a problem or technical issue with a website or service.

    In this situation, canned responses may be the best way for you to be able to respond to emails and still blog and participate on all of the websites where you are a member.

    I do not believe that canned responses are impersonal when it comes to ProBlogger because you have to sleep, eat and have time for yourself and your friends and loved ones. It is a treasure that readers can still have the assurance that you are actually answering their emails instead of some hired assistant, secretary or blogging intern so I would not complain, even if I got one of your “Canned Emails”.

    Problogger, Digital Photography school readers and any other people that send you emails should take comfort in the fact that even if your response may be taken from your saved “Canned responses”, at least the response is still from you and not a computer. You did sit down and write them, so that counts for something. Readers should also take comfort in the fact that you take time to read your emails personally.

    I don’t think that readers could get that same service from the President, NASCAR drivers or many celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey.

    Those Canned Responses can save you a lot of time and effort from having to answer the questions that you have been asked before. It’s like having your own FAQs page or “Most asked Questions” page. It all essentially serves the same purpose and works for the greater good.

    Using canned responses, you can address the unique and original questions in a more effective manner without being overwhelmed from the typical questions that are asked frequently and are not original.

  41. Using it from long and it helped me in a big way to reply to all of my messages…

    Thanks for spreading the word…

  42. Vincent Ng says:

    OH my GOD! I’m glad I read this section. My e-mails are already reaching a high capacity, and I was worried about that. I don’t want to be a slave to my e-mails…so this is really good! I hadn’t even noticed unless this blog had mentioned it

  43. I’m impressed that you can handle that volume of email even with the filters helping out. I think I’d find over 100 in a day to be unmanageable with all the other additional distractions that life throws in one’s way.

  44. I really don’t know about this feature in GMail. I will try it right away. Thank you for the tips.

  45. Anne Wayman says:

    Great article, truly a time saver. Am thinking that since I’m not using gmail to get most of my email I’ll have to set up something similar. Word files could work as long as the replies are short. Word saved as txt would be slightly better. I love the idea of a drop down… mulling it all over as usual.

    Thanks

  46. iwank says:

    Hey this is new for me. Even i did not know about this feature before read this post. But any how i like use of Gmail only because of it’s features.

  47. Sounds like a great tool!

  48. Lesley Dewar says:

    Great post, Darren, and I am just starting to use gmail – so it’s very helpful there.

    One thing I find useful is to have a series of headings (or messages) set out on a word doc that is open while I am answering email. Quick Alt+Tab, find the right answer or heading, Ctrl C; Ctrk V and it’s done.

    You can have the auto responses set up so you can alway add a personal comment at the end.

    For Example: This is a great story and you can do a search in Twitter for ‘accident’ to find someone who has had this happen to them. By the way, (RT) do you know you can join Twitter from LinkedIn and have fun,too? http://tinyurl.com/d3ad8v

    Cheers
    Lesley

  49. Mmmh I gave it a short today.it’s kind of cool lool.

    http://Www.frogblogger.com

  50. Thanks Darrin, this has revolutionized my communications!