When your business is small and you have a low volume of support requests, using a distribution list or group Gmail or Outlook mailbox may be an effective way to handle customer service. After all, it’s simple — everyone knows how to use email — and it’s inexpensive.

But it’s important to remember that distribution lists and group mailboxes aren’t built for customer service. As your company and support volume grow, they often create more problems than they solve, leaving employees frustrated and customers itching for a better experience.

Instead of forcing your email client into a role it was never designed for, consider the benefits of a shared inbox tool — software deliberately created to enable great customer service.

The different types of shared mailbox tools

There are several different types of tools that allow multiple members of a team to access and manage email sent to a single email address, such as support@. Each tool has its own set of features and, in some cases, limitations:

Feature Distribution Lists Shared Mailboxes Group Mailboxes Shared Inboxes
Receive email from a team email address
Send email from a team email address
Access a group inbox to view all sent and received emails
View reports
View historical customer data
Assign requests to individual team members
Add private, internal notes to support requests
Prevent duplicate replies

Choosing the right option for your team is a matter of deciding which features you need to deliver exceptional customer service. If you only need to work from a single queue and have no need for the additional collaboration, reporting, and productivity features that shared inboxes provide, a group mailbox may work perfectly for your team.

But it’s also important to think beyond what your team needs right now and consider what you might need in the future as well. As your business grows, the shortcomings of group mailboxes will become apparent.

Where group mailboxes fail

A new pizza shop opened recently near my home, and I gave it a try. The store was full of staff, but the food was painfully slow to arrive. There were so many people working that they were constantly bumping into each other, disrupting each other’s tasks and being forced to wait for access.

A group mailbox can be very much like that: a system that once functioned perfectly suddenly collapses under its own weight.

In the clip below, Angela Bradburn, Senior Communications Coordinator at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, explains some of the reasons why her team decided to make the transition to shared inbox software.

Angela describes a situation typical of the problems teams face trying to share an inbox for customer support — confusion, inefficiency, and frustration for the team — issues that ultimately impact customers.

Shared inbox software won’t automatically create a great experience for you, but it can provide the structure and systems that allow your team to provide better service more consistently.

5 signs that you need to upgrade to a shared inbox

If you’re running into issues with efficiency, working over each other when trying to collaborate, or need more sophisticated reporting tools, it’s probably time to upgrade to a shared inbox. Here are five clear signs that it’s time to consider adopting a shared inbox tool:

  1. Team members have replied to the same customer email with duplicate or contradictory input.
  2. You don’t know who handled a customer support issue, and it takes some digging to identify the person and the solution they offered.
  3. Your customers are regularly sending follow-up emails to ask about questions/requests they sent in that didn’t receive a response after a few days.
  4. You’re struggling to create a schedule for your team because 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 are all meaningful clues that your team is in need of a better solution. The first time any of these situations arise, it may be time to start looking at shared inbox options.

A shared inbox designed for customer service

Help Scout’s shared inbox comes with many features designed to make it easier for customer service teams to stay productive, collaborate seamlessly, and deliver exceptional email support.

Reduce complexity for your customers

While some help desk tools interrupt your conversations with ticket numbers and login portals, Help Scout is invisible to your customers. All they get is a helpful response to their questions.

email response in help scout

Additionally, when your customer service team picks up a customer conversation, they have immediate access to that customer’s full profile: what they’ve asked you before, their account histories, and quick links to other internal systems.

customer profile in help scout

With the full context readily available to them, your team can give a much more personalized and useful response without slowing their response times, and your customers don’t have to suffer through a back-and-forth email chain of you asking for account information.

Respond to customers and collaborate as a team in the same space

When you’re working in a group mailbox but need assistance from another member of your team, you typically have to take that conversation out of your inbox; otherwise, you run the risk of accidentally copying the customer on a message that was intended to be private.

Help Scout’s shared inbox solves this problem with private notes that appear in-line with customer communications but are only visible to members of your team:

private notes in help scout

Stop stepping on each other’s toes

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

traffic cop indicators in help scout

Plus, Traffic Cop doesn’t allow you to send a message to a customer if another user replied during the time you were working on that response.

response blocked by traffic cop in help scout

Take and assign ownership of customer questions

Conversations in Help Scout can be assigned directly to an individual — or handed to the right team — so that it is clear who is responsible for getting that customer an answer.

You can also 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.

sort conversations by assignee in help scout

Save time and effort with workflows, tags, and saved replies

Your customer service team members are most valuable when they’re spending time understanding your customers’ problems and helping them figure them out — not when they’re clicking around in a messy inbox sorting emails.

Use Help Scout to apply tags and create workflows to automate common tasks. For example:

  • Automatically assign billing issues to the finance team.
  • Identify urgent issues and raise their priorities.
  • Give your product team an easy way to review customer feedback on particular issues.

workflows in help scout

Additionally, as support trends start to emerge, you can start building a library of shared replies to save you the trouble of having to type the same responses over and over.

Use your support conversations to create a better business

Help Scout’s reporting tools help you turn a stream of customer conversations into usable insights. Understand your customers better than ever by answering questions like:

  • When do my customers most need help, and how responsive are we during those times?
  • Which support channels do my customers want to use, and how is that changing over time?
  • What do my customers think about our new feature, and what language do they use to describe it?
  • Which types of questions are we best at answering, and which are associated with lower customer satisfaction?
reports in help scout

Provide more than just email support

A shared inbox is just one of the tools your support team gets access to when you sign up for a Help Scout plan. You can also use Help Scout to create a knowledge base, offer live chat support, and send customers proactive messages while they’re browsing your website or using your app.

And if your company offers phone support, you can use Help Scout’s integrations to funnel those conversations into one location. Your team can prioritize and work more efficiently with all your customer knowledge in a central source.

Upgrading to a shared inbox

While a distribution list or group mailbox may work well for your team when you’re just starting out, these tools simply aren’t built to provide customer support at scale. The right tool for the job needs the capability to grow with you and help you build customer relationships no matter how many conversations you’re having.

A streamlined, transparent workflow through Help Scout empowers teams and scales as a company grows, ensuring that your best customers never slip through the cracks of a shared email account.

Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.