Customer support is about building relationships — not barriers.

Shared email inboxes (such as in Gmail and Outlook), unfortunately, often act as barriers. While they work wonderfully for personal email, using shared email for team support can end up making you look clumsier than an infomercial:


When you’re trying to manage incoming customer emails and sharing the same inbox with members of your team, there’s a point at which you start to run into each other. Further, there’s no way to report on any of your dealings with customers, handle slightly more complex workflows or organize information.

This isn’t a criticism of anyone using shared email for customer support — rather, it’s a public service announcement.

A better way to share email with your team

The number one reason teams start searching for a help desk is a support mishap. The floodgates open, and companies are forced to finally address the issue.

You can control a lot of aspects of your company, but you don’t have a say on when and where a crisis will hit. (See Buffer’s case study.) It’s out of your hands. Influence here is limited to having the tools and training ready to react like a professional.

Any software in your stack should be providing greater benefit than the cost. The reason teams hesitate to switch from shared email to a help desk is because it’s not always easy to envision the potential gains on time, organization, user experience, and customer experience. This explains the tendency toward fence-sitting and “wait and see” behavior. Of course, procrastination seems perfectly fine until the levee breaks.

A diffused process is a cumbersome one

Within email, you’re only able to operate at the final stage of a customer conversation: sending the reply. What goes on outside of that is often the real meat of support, however.

Without a unifying point of contact, figuring out tough problems for customers becomes a headache for everyone involved, especially new hires. While email itself might be second nature to them, your existing workflow and processes will be a mystery.

When your “behind-the-scenes” communication is dispersed among a handful of back channels, you’ll run into nonsense like this:

Conversation back channels

What works best is a workflow as comfortable as email, but with a back end that offers a single touchpoint for your team. To invoke a silly metaphor, you need multiplayer email on steroids.

Why scatter your support process when you could have solved the meandering situation above with built-in Notes that only your staff can see?

Help Scout Notes

Keeping support in the support inbox helps non-technical and new hires receive guidance without friction. It also maintains everyone’s sense of calm by not piling on unnecessary IMs, chats, and Slack mentions that needlessly spread key information about the solution across multiple channels.

Friendly support is frictionless support

Call up your local big bank or cable company — before anyone will lift a finger to help you, they’ll ask for a pile of personal information, account information, your deepest fear, and a blood sample.

Customer service at your company shouldn’t have to suffer from this cold rigidity. But when your support runs out of a shared email, you force your customers to ride the frustrating merry-go-round of context-less support.

Support Conversation in Gmail

The personal touch of email is lost when it forces impersonal probing for information. Why pester when you can delight?

Robust profiles help you talk to first-contact customers like they’re old friends. Context is given and understanding follows — there’s just no substitute for knowing your customers.

Help Scout Conversation with Customer Sidebar

You could spend time asking for account data, or you can dive right in to solving problems. You’d be surprised at the number of meaningful conversations you can have when you no longer have to stumble around in the dark.

When collisions cause unprofessionalism

Ever try to contact a company’s support with what should be a simple request — trying to return a pair of shoes, for example — and received multiple responses from different employees?

They’re likely running their customer support out of Gmail or another shared inbox. These otherwise well-meaning teams have no system in place to stop duplicate replies.

Collaborative efforts and shared resources can often become whirlwinds of activity; the unfortunate but common result of this is constant “stepping on each other’s toes” by accident. Unless you’re OK with having situations like the above become the norm, you’ll need a fix that sharing email doesn’t offer.

Traffic Cop is our personal answer, but regardless of what you use the ability to proactively stop a three-employee pileup is key. Here’s an example of how this would be handled:

Help Scout Traffic Cop

When you don’t have to second guess yourself, everyone can confidently reply without hesitation. Like bowling with the bumpers up, you don’t need to worry about missing.

Getting 20/20 vision on feedback

Product and marketing departments make iterative improvements with the help of a slew of data. Although great data cannot guarantee good decision-making, it’s better than the average state of most support departments, and the exact state of every Gmail inbox.

Why rely on “It feels like we spend a lot of time on this issue…” when tags and reporting can easily eliminate the guesswork? This is an important but overlooked issue in support: Too much focus is given to the frequency of issues over the average handle time for each.

Rather, that’s what your world looks like before support metrics. Your world after is clicking the “Time Tracking” tag and having immediate access to data that tells you how many emails you receive about the feature, as well as how long it takes your team to handle the conversations.

Help Scout Reports

Data is what you make of it, but think of the improvements you can make to your support process when you replace hunches with statistics and guesswork with verifiable patterns.

This cascades into how you build your product. After all, support is more than saying “I’m sorry!”; it’s the place where you get the feedback needed to assess current customer friction. Being able to see through the haze of thousands of emails is illuminating, and an important step is knowing which issues your team spends their time on.

Losing time you can’t get back

Inbox zero isn’t a zero-sum game; productivity needn’t be at odds with creating memorable conversations. It really comes down to habits — what’s easy to do gets done consistently.

Say you want to improve your response time for customers asking for refunds. They’re probably upset, and a quick turnaround will help cool the situation off. The difficult, slow way to do this is setting up complex filters and pinging the appropriate people when a new email comes in.

The frictionless way to do this is by setting up a Folder, triggering a Workflow for all emails with the keyword “Refund” in the subject line, and auto-assigning these emails to the appropriate person. What took some initial effort to set up now pays dividends.

Help Scout Workflow

Minutes and hours also slip through your grasp when you’re not actively building on top of the system itself — for instance, although tools like TextExpander can help decrease time spent in email, there’s no unity in execution or in your team’s voice and tone. What one person uses isn’t used by another — there’s no consistency, and if there is one word that describes an excellent support process, it’s “reliable.”

As support trends start to emerge, you build upon your shared saved reply archive. Now the whole team can access pre-built replies to cut down on everything and the kitchen sink.

Last but not least, you save time by not having to “dig” even a second longer than necessary. Set up Notifications for any emails that haven’t received a reply in 48 hours (instead of searching manually). Get an overview of how support is doing with data instead of eyeballing or spreadsheets — now you get to spend more time on what’s meaningful: helping customers.

Download Your Free Guide

Download Your Free Guide

Think it might be time for your team to switch from a shared email inbox to a help desk? From your initial search to final purchase and setup, this (unbiased) resource will make the process a breeze.

Nothing more valuable than conversations

“An obstacle downstream propagates upstream.” Paul Graham

Friction impedes valuable tasks. A shared inbox creates friction, and there is no task more valuable than candid conversations with your customers.

Evaluate what’s lost when support isn’t outfitted with the tools it needs. You wouldn’t skimp on marketing software — hold that same standard for support. Never skimp on anything that directly affects customer communications.

Out-supporting the competition is the way to go when you can’t outspend them. Getting it done requires creative thinking, but it also requires tried-and-true methods like showing up with the right tools for the job.


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Editor’s note: This post has been updated for accuracy and freshness. The original version first appeared on the Help Scout blog on Dec. 3, 2014.
Eli Overbey

Eli Overbey

Eli is the Head of Growth at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.