Email has been declared dead so many times that it may well have been George R. R. Martin’s inspiration for the liturgy of the Drowned God on Game of Thrones: “What is dead may never die, but rises again harder and stronger.” It’s true in this case — email remains popular, having survived assassination attempts from RSS, Google Wave and Facebook.

Why support teams use shared inboxes

When your support volume is low or you only have one or two people answering customer questions, using a shared email inbox as your primary customer contact point does have some benefits:

  • Email is widespread. Essentially all of your customers have access to email, so you don’t need to sell them on the idea.
  • Email is simple. You don’t need to train your customers or your staff on using email, and you can set an inbox up in minutes.
  • Email is free. Anyone can sign up for a Gmail, Yahoo or Outlook account and contact you at no cost.
  • Email is conversational. It’s a medium built for back and forth communication without time pressures or technical barriers.
  • A shared inbox allows for collaboration. You can have multiple people working with customers at once, through a single contact point.

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

While a shared inbox might work for your support needs in the beginning, as your business grows, the shortcomings 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 all the extra staff 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, where 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 using 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 that eventually impacts on the customers.

The pitfalls 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 to 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, which 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 which 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.

Choosing the right help desk option

Switching your customer service team to a new system isn’t a step to take lightly. It takes some investment and can be disruptive if it’s not handled carefully, and if you’ve had experience with “enterprise solutions,” you may be rightly wary of forcing your support team and your customers into using a much more complex tool.

When you understand exactly what your needs are, you can pick the right tool and maintain all the great benefits of a shared inbox while avoiding the problems.

The right tool has many benefits:

  • Adds capability without adding complexity — Your customers don’t even need to know that you’re using a help desk — they can continue to email you directly. They’ll only notice your better level of service!
  • Allows for additional channels — If you decide to add options like chat or phone support, a help desk tool can help you integrate those channels and avoid splitting up your customer knowledge.
  • Gives your support team context — By connecting your CRM, customer history and internal systems, a help desk can help your support team give more personalized answers more quickly.
  • Allows for ownership — Clearly assign conversations to the right person, with internal notes to explain what needs to be done, and get the conversation out of the way of everyone else.
  • Avoids confusion and wasted time — It’s much clearer who is responding and which customers still need help.
  • Allows for automation and scale — Categories, labels and workflows help keep things organized so your team can spend more time talking to customers and less time managing email.
  • Lets you learn and adaptMeasuring your performance (and acting on what you learn) is much easier when using a help desk tool that can generate clear reports from all your customer conversations.

Shared inboxes don’t scale

Your requirements for a great support tool grow and change alongside your team, product and customer base. While email works in the beginning, it isn’t built to provide customer support at scale. The right tool for the job has the capability to grow with you and helps you build those customer relationships, no matter how many conversations you’re having.

Considering moving from a shared inbox to a help desk tool? To help you think through the experience you want to offer and what sort of tool you’ll need, read my article Choosing a Help Desk.
Mathew Patterson

About the author: After running a support team for years, Mat Patterson joined the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.