When your business is small and you have a low volume of support requests, using a distribution list or shared 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.
However, it’s important to remember that distribution lists and shared 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 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 email 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||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 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 in order to deliver exceptional customer service.
For example, 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 shared 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 shared mailboxes will become apparent.
Where shared mailboxes fail
A new pizza shop recently opened near my home, and I gave it a try. The restaurant 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 shared 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.
Bradburn describes some of the typical problems teams face when 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.
The 7 best shared inbox tools
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:
- Team members have replied to the same customer email with duplicate or contradictory input.
- You don’t know who handled a customer support issue, and it takes some digging to identify the person and the solution they offered.
- Your customers regularly send follow-up emails to ask about questions/requests they sent in that didn’t receive a response after a few days.
- 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.
- 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.
If it’s time for your team to upgrade to a shared inbox, start your search by comparing the seven shared inbox tools below.
1. Help Scout
Best shared inbox for providing customer support.
Help Scout is a shared inbox designed specifically for customer service teams with many features that help you deliver exceptional support, improve collaboration, and work more efficiently:
- Automatically assign and sort incoming emails with workflows.
- Answer frequently asked questions in just a few clicks by leveraging saved replies.
- Avoid sending customers duplicate replies with collision detection.
- Collaborate with teammates to answer customers’ questions with private notes.
Help Scout also offers pre-built performance reports and tags, both of which help you better understand why customers are reaching out, where your team is excelling, and where you have room to improve.
In addition to its shared inbox, Help Scout has many other features your team might need to deliver great support — including a knowledge base, live chat, and more than 50 integrations — all at no additional cost.
Price: Starting at $20/user per month for the Standard plan.
2. Outlook shared mailbox
Best for very small teams that are already using Outlook.
If your team is using Outlook and needs basic shared inbox functionality, creating a shared mailbox in Outlook may be a good choice. Essentially, it’s an email folder you can invite multiple people to use.
Since it’s not really a tool built for customer service, it doesn’t have any features geared toward delivering support, but for teams already using Outlook, it doesn’t come at an additional cost.
Price: Free for current Outlook users.
3. Google Collaborative Inbox
Best for very small teams that are already using Google Workspace.
Very similar to Outlook’s shared mailbox, Google Collaborative Inbox lets teams set up a shared folder from their standard email client.
Again, since it’s not built as a shared inbox tool, there aren’t any additional features offered beyond what is available in Gmail already. However, as with above, it doesn’t cost anything additional, so it can be a good option for small teams that are just getting started delivering support.
Price: Free for current Google Workspace users.
Best shared inbox for teams that want to use Gmail.
Another option for teams using Gmail is Hiver. Hiver acts as an add-on to Gmail to make it more robust and geared toward providing customer support.
With Hiver, you’re able to assign emails to specific agents and add in notes. There are also task automation and analytics features, but it should be noted that many of the more advanced features are only offered on their higher-cost plans.
Price: Starting at $7/user per month.
Best shared inbox for personal email use.
Most shared inbox tools are used to manage a group email address (support@, etc.). However, if your team wants to use both personal and shared email addresses to interact with customers, Front could be a great option.
Front offers some collaborative features like internal comments, and they also have more advanced features like analytics and automation on their higher-cost plans.
Price: Starting at $19/user per month.
Help Scout vs. Front
Customers rank Help Scout's shared inbox higher than Front on G2 and Capterra, with better ratings for ease of use and customer service.Compare side-by-side
Best shared inbox for social media messaging.
For teams that interact heavily with customers through phone messages like SMS or WhatsApp and social sites like Twitter and Facebook, Helpwise could be a great option.
Helpwise connects with each of those different platforms, meaning you can manage all of those conversations in one place to help limit confusion and make sure messages don’t slip through the cracks.
Price: Starting at $12/user per month.
Best shared inbox for support project management.
Shared inboxes are really valuable because they let teams be more efficient. ClientFlow took that one step further by making a shared inbox and project management tool in one.
By combining the two tools, there’s less siloed data, and all of an agent’s tasks are more transparent, helping make your team even more efficient.
Price: Starting at $19/user per month (minimum of two users).
Help Scout: 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.
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.
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 shared 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:
Stop stepping on each others’ toes
In Help Scout, collision detection 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.
Plus, collision detection doesn’t allow you to send a message to a customer if another user replied during the time you were working on that response.
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.
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 solving them — not when they’re clicking around in a messy inbox sorting emails.
- 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.
Additionally, as support trends start to emerge, you can start building a library of saved 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?
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 shared 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.