When your customer support volume is low or you only have one or two people answering customer questions, using a shared inbox can be an effective way to communicate with your customers and collaborate with your coworkers.

But despite what the Care Bears might say, sharing is not always caring, and as your business and customer service team scales, running support from a shared inbox like Gmail can turn from practical to problematic very quickly.

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What is a shared inbox?

A shared inbox is an email inbox that can be accessed and managed by multiple individuals. Everyone with access to the shared inbox can send and receive emails from a shared email address, view an archive of all sent and received emails, and save emails in shared folders.

In essence, a shared inbox lets multiple team members manage a central inbox in exactly the same way that they would manage their own personal email inboxes.

The benefits of shared inboxes

  • Email is a simple way for customers to contact you. All of your customers likely have access to email. You won’t need to sell them on the idea of contacting customer support via email, and you won’t have to train customers or team members on how to use email.
  • Email is asynchronous. Unlike live chat or phone support, email allows customers to communicate with you without time pressures. They can request support and reply to questions at any time that’s convenient for them.
  • A shared inbox allows for collaboration. You can have multiple people working with customers at once through a central contact point. And unlike with a distribution list, you can see which emails have been opened and replied to by other team members.
  • A shared inbox makes it easier to organize your support emails. You can create organizational folders that anyone can access for things like known issues, frequently sent responses, or praise for the customer support team.
  • A shared inbox becomes an archive of customer conversations. New team members can get up to speed by reading through historical emails or can search the archive of sent emails to find the answers to questions they don’t yet know the answers to.

Because of these benefits, a shared inbox might work for your support needs in the beginning. It’s certainly more effective than trying to manage customer emails sent to a distribution list.

But as your business grows, the shortcomings of shared inboxes will become apparent.

When shared inboxes fail

A new pizza shop opened recently near my home, and I’ve ordered from there a couple of times. The first time, the store was not busy. A few staff members moved smoothly around the various stations, and the pizzas were turned out quickly.

On my second visit, however, I experienced an almost literal example of “too many cooks spoil the broth.” The pizzas were turned out much slower because 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 inbox can be very much like that: a system that once functioned perfectly suddenly collapses under its own weight.

Angela Bradburn, Senior Communications Coordinator at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, has just gone through the transition from a shared inbox to a dedicated help desk tool with her team. In the clip below, she shares some of the reasons they decided to make the move.

 

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.

The disadvantages of shared inboxes

  • Loss of context. Email inboxes on their own don’t show who the customer is, and they aren’t able to use contextual information from prior interactions or internal data sources.
  • Collisions between team members. When multiple people have access to the same email account at the same time, it’s too easy for people to reply at the same time or leave it for someone else — a confusion that can lead to delayed replies.
  • Risk of miscommunication. Have you ever received an email reply that clearly wasn’t meant for you? Email does not allow for clear separation of internal notes and external messages.
  • Loss of knowledge. Email is where knowledge sharing goes to die. So much great information ends up lost inside email threads that are difficult to find later on.
  • Inefficiency and lack of ownership. Once an email conversation involves more than two people, things quickly become confusing. Who is supposed to follow up? Is the customer waiting for something? What happened last time?

You can work around some of these limitations by layering on browser extensions and tools, but that leads to an increasingly complex system that can break at any moment with just one conflicting product update. Rather than playing Giant Jenga with your customer service tools, it’s better to use something that’s built for the job.

Help desk 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.

Help Scout: A step up from a shared inbox

Switching your customer service team to a new system isn’t a step to take lightly. It takes some investment, and — if not handled carefully — it can be disruptive to your team and your customers.

The good news is that the right tool lets you maintain all the genuine benefits of a shared inbox while also addressing the limitations.

Get capabilities for your team without adding 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.

Help Scout email response

Meanwhile, your team gets all the benefits of Help Scout’s conversation handling, documentation, and customer management tools.

Be responsive on multiple support channels

If you decide to offer customer service through the phone, for example, Help Scout integrations allow you to funnel those conversations into one location. Your team can prioritize and work more efficiently with all your customer knowledge in one location.

Get more context about your customers

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.

sidebar profile

With the full context readily available to them, your team can give a much more personalized and useful response without slowing their response times.

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. The rest of the team can get on with their work, confident they aren’t missing anything.

Private notes make it easy to share relevant details or tag in a team member to help resolve the issue at hand. You’ll never have to worry about a customer going unanswered or receiving replies from two people on the same issue.

Private notes and mentions

Save time and effort with Help Scout workflows and tags

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.

example workflow

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?
  • How 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?

Help Scout Reports

Shared inboxes don’t scale

What you need from a support tool grows and changes alongside your team, product, and customer base.

While a shared email inbox works well in the beginning, it isn’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 those customer relationships no matter how many conversations you’re having.

Help Scout can help you deliver a better customer experience without your customers having to change a thing.

Deliver great customer service with Help Scout.

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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.