Email distribution lists and shared mailboxes may seem like the simplest ways to tackle customer service — and in some cases, they are.

If you’re a small company — or you started as a small company — it was probably the norm. Maybe you started with Office 360 Microsoft Outlook to tackle customer issues as they arose.

But the simplest and cheapest solutions aren’t always the best. The messiness of email distribution lists, as well as Microsoft Office’s shared inbox limitations, can leave employees frustrated and customers itching for a better experience — one they may look for elsewhere if you don’t create a better system.

When you’re handling all your customer conversations using tools like Gmail or Outlook, it’s easy to remember why distribution lists or shared mailboxes aren’t built for customer service. As your company scales, the benefits of switching to a streamlined process far outweigh the initial learning curve and investment of adjusting to a new system.

Email-based support solutions

These email-based tools are all slightly different, but they each create challenges for support teams:

Shared Inbox

One mailbox that uses an alias (example: The inbound emails appear in this shared inbox. Employees can log in and respond, which sends the message from the alias.

Email distribution list

This tool uses a dedicated email address for a group of people. When someone emails the list, the email is delivered to everyone. Employees respond from their individual email addresses.

Office 365 Group

A “Group” is Outlook’s approach to shared communication. It works like an email distribution list, but it also stores messages and includes the possibility of a shared inbox, calendar, notebook and library.

Google Group

This is Google’s tool that enables you to set up a shared inbox or email distribution list through Gmail.

5 signs you need to move from a distribution list or shared inbox to a help desk

Customer support workflows are so important because they (almost) always affect the customer experience. If someone isn’t happy with an experience and reaches out for a resolution, even the smallest glitch can send them packing.

With that in mind, here are several clear signs that you need to scale past your shared email account to a help desk:

  1. Customers follow up on emails that never received a response after a few days.

  2. Team members have replied to the same customer email with duplicate or contradictory input.

  3. You don’t know who handled a customer support issue, and it takes some digging to identify the person and the solution they offered.

  4. You have no reporting insights into the volume of emails you receive, how fast your team responds, who’s responding to what, or how happy your customers are with the responses they’re reading.

  5. Collaboration is difficult. There is no easy way to assign things to specific users or add notes and comments without forwarding emails to different teammates.

These clues that you’re ready to move past a distribution list or shared inbox make your company seem unprofessional and/or detract from your team’s productivity. The first time any of these situations arise, it may be time to start looking at help desk options.

Related: The Good and the Bad of Shared Inboxes

What to look for in a help desk

How do you even start the process of exploring a new help desk? Think about your priorities. At Help Scout, we’ve learned that there are a few essential elements almost every company needs. When you’re empowered with these benefits, you can deliver better customer service without the hassle of a shared email account.


Lack of transparency is a major issue with Office 360. There’s no way to know if other people are working on the same problem at the same time. If your team is extra productive, it can actually work against the company — multiple messages can go out from the shared email account at the same time — saying the same (or different) things. Imagine how frustrating it is for customers to open those emails?

In Help Scout, the Traffic Cop indicators enable everyone to see who is working on what customer service issues in real time.

Help Scout Traffic Cop

Traffic Cop

It’s a simple visual system: A yellow triangle shows you that another user is viewing the conversation, and a red triangle appears if someone else is responding to the conversation. Plus, Help Scout doesn’t allow you to send a message to a customer if another user replied during the time you were working on that response.

Help desks also make it easier to collaborate on challenging customer service issues. Instead of forwarding problems up to supervisors or awkwardly cc’ing your entire team, you can solve a problem together on Help Scout’s platform. Managers can check up on the status of an issue in an instant without needing to circle back to everyone.

Download Your Free Guide

Download Your Free Guide

From your initial search to final purchase and setup, this (unbiased) resource will help make choosing any help desk easier.

Accountability in the workflow

When multiple employees work on the same issue, there’s a huge productivity loss. Even if the customer doesn’t receive multiple responses, the amount of time it can take to sort out an issue will frustrate your employees. You can try to build workarounds, but in reality, Office 360’s shared inbox limitations (and frustrations) are set within their system.

There’s definitely a better way. Help Scout’s Assigned folder shows you everything that’s assigned to your team.

Help Scout Assigned folder

You can sort by assignee to ensure that nothing gets dropped in the shuffle if a team member is out for the day or leaves the company.

Help Scout Assignee

From there, you can remove the assignee from the task and attach it to someone else’s workflow. This easy solution creates consistency, not only for your team members, but for customers, too.

Invaluable insights into customers and employees

Even the most basic help desk offers customer insights far beyond what Office 360 is capable of. Interactions with customers yield a treasure trove of information: the problems customers experience most, what customers need, and how you can make their lives better with your work.

Help Scout enables you to track all kinds of metrics pertaining to your customers and your business. Here are a just a few:

  • Total conversations
  • Number of customers who need help every day
  • The busiest days and times for support requests
  • The most popular topics people write about
  • Changes in typical requests
  • Opportunities to automate processes

With Help Scout’s reporting tools, you can optimize every aspect of your business, from how many employees work each shift to solving key product issues that lead to dissatisfied customers.

Help Scout also gives you insights into individual performance and team performance with clear, up-to-date metrics. If someone sends out dismissive emails to customers, you’ll know it on their first day on the job — long before you would find out using an email distribution list. As a manager, these insights can help you coach for higher performance and reward successes. In short, they’re the bread and butter of leading an all-star team.

Transitioning from an email distribution list or shared email account to a help desk may seem intimidating, but it’s worth the jump. A streamlined, transparent workflow through Help Scout empowers teams and scales as a company grows, ensuring that your best customer never slips through the cracks of a shared email account.

Elizabeth Wellington

Elizabeth Wellington

Liz writes about business, creativity and making meaningful work. Say hello on Twitter or through her website.