Shared Inboxes: What They Are & How to Use Them

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Productivity : 9 min read

Shared Inboxes: What They Are & How to Use Them

Let's say your website encourages visitors who are interested in learning more to fill out the contact form. All of these messages go to the inbox of your admin, who then forwards the messages to corresponding team members or creates tasks for them in other systems.

But what happens when that admin is out sick? Or they accidentally delete the message in a rush to clean out spam and get closer to Inbox Zero? Or they quit and you haven’t had time to onboard the new hire yet?

Leaving something as important as your company’s external communications to one person’s inbox is risky.

Using shared inboxes is one solution to this problem—but tread lightly. There are certain limitations you should be aware of before jumping in..

Below, you will find everything you need to know about:

Pro-tip 👇

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What are shared inboxes?

You know what a normal inbox looks like. You log into your email provider (like Gmail) and send and receive messages using an email address that belongs solely to you:

Individual Inbox in Gmail

Your professional email address probably looks like one of these:

A shared inbox, on the other hand, is created by an administrator. It’s not a new Gmail account though. It’s just an email address that multiple people are given access to.

Access to a shared inbox allows users to see messages that have been sent to the inbox’s email address, respond to them, and delete them. Admins can adjust these privileges for each user.

As for accessing a shared inbox, it depends on how it was created. Some shared inbox tools work within Gmail while others take you outside of the email client. (More on that below.)

Here’s an example of what a shared inbox would look like if you created it using Hiver:

Hiver Shared Inbox

This new section is where, in this example, the Accounting team would receive new messages sent to their shared inbox email address. You can see that additional folders have been added to track shared inbox performance and to share email templates with the team.

When naming the email address for your shared inbox, it’s a good idea to make it as general as possible:

This is useful for a number of reasons.

For one, you won’t need to rely on forwarding and CCs and BCCs in order to share emails within your company.

Secondly, a shared inbox masks the identity of the person or people behind the email address. This gives your company a much larger and professional appearance as inquiries are directed to whole departments.

Most importantly, a shared inbox helps foster a more collaborative environment since it’s no longer just a single person who’s on the hook for dealing with incoming messages.

That said, a shared inbox isn’t a be-all-and-end-all solution to collaboration within email.

If you want your shared inbox to help your team be more productive instead of hindering their progress, keep reading.

The pros of using shared inboxes

There are many ways shared inboxes can come in handy:

  • To provide light support for a product or service.
  • To aggregate sales requests.
  • To manage marketing and other digital projects.
  • To receive incoming employment or contractor applications.
  • To enable multiple assistants to handle general requests from a queue.

Essentially, shared inboxes allow you to automate the process of sending relevant email communications to the teams that need to handle them.

It gives your company a more professional outward appearance.

There’s nothing wrong with doing business with a small company. However, if your business is new and wants to instill trust in leads who’ve never heard of you before, a generic email like sales@companyname.com can make you seem larger and more established. (“Wow! A whole sales team!”)

There’s no need to forward messages or CC other recipients.

This keeps team members from “forgetting” to pass on an important message or someone completely disregarding a message because they were blind-copied on it. Instead, it’s easier to take ownership of all messages since the inbox is theirs to manage, too.

It safeguards against unexpected absences, overloaded employees, and human error.

You can’t afford for a message to go missing or unacknowledged for too long.

In this digital age where everyone’s connected 24/7 and expecting faster and faster responses, the “Sorry, I took a long weekend!” excuse won’t always fly.

By creating shared inboxes, you can rest assured that there’s always someone watching out for incoming emails.

There are clearer boundaries.

When you set up shared inboxes for different departments or tasks, you don’t have to worry about people trying to wear every hat. You assign people only to the inboxes they need to have visibility of.

It’s easier to get to Inbox Zero.

With everyone working together to tackle the open queue of messages in a shared inbox, it’s easier to get to Inbox Zero.

The cons of using shared inboxes

Shared inboxes aren’t without their faults. Here are some of the setbacks:

Email is only email.

What happens when a prospect calls one of your team members directly? Or a support request comes in over social media because the customer can’t figure out how to reach you otherwise?

The notes from those exchanges outside of email need to go somewhere. Shared inbox tools just aren’t prepared to capture those kinds of details since they’re primarily email focused.

If you want to create a true multi-channel communication system, then your team needs a more efficient way to track conversations no matter where they take place. In the next section, you’ll learn how to use a CRM to fill in this gap left by shared inboxes.

It isn’t great for scaling.

A shared inbox is great for when a company is still small. A team of two or three could handle a light stream of messages safely enough.

But what happens when your team grows? Team members are bound to step on each others toes as they rush to answer emails in the inbox. Or you may find that everyone steps away from it, waiting for someone else to take the lead on managing it and delegating messages to the rest.

Without a system for monitoring, assigning, and handling of a shared inbox, things could quickly get out of control.

Duplicated responses are bound to happen.

Unless you assign team members to monitor the shared inbox at certain times of the day, or you have someone actively monitoring and tagging emails to be handled by certain people, wires are going to cross.

For instance, let’s say a customer sends a message to accounting@companyname.com, wondering what the charges on an invoice were for.

Sarah responds with a templated message. At the same time, John is working on responding to the message. However, he’s forgotten that there’s a template and sends a different response.

In the end, your team members will be frustrated that they’re duplicating each other’s work and your customers will be confused by the apparent lack of consistency from your team.

Record-keeping isn’t great.

Email clients like Gmail aren’t always great for record-keeping, especially when important details from conversations can get lost in lengthy threads. Or hidden in someone’s Sent or Trash folder.

Even if your team members were to save every email into a specially designated label or folder, that information doesn’t live in the cloud for all to see and use — except if you sync your email with a tool like Copper, which automatically collects relevant email history for your contacts.

Down below, you’ll see how you can prevent important data from getting lost (even in shared inboxes) when you add Copper to the mix.

There’s little to no context.

Unless someone’s been diligent in providing information about who they are and why they’re emailing you, there probably won’t be a lot of context about their situation.

This can make responding to emails in a shared inbox difficult to handle; at least, not without the assistance of another tool to cross-reference account information.

Again, if you're using a CRM that hooks up to Gmail like Copper, it can do exactly that, so your team can quickly and effectively respond to emails in a shared inbox rather than try to piece the story together on their own.

How to create shared inboxes

The logical place to create a shared inbox would be your email provider (e.g. Gmail, Outlook, Office 365). But it’s not the only solution out there.

Here are your three main options:

1. Create shared inboxes with Gmail/G Suite

Truth be told, shared inbox solutions provided by email clients aren’t usually helpful unless you have a very small team (i.e. only two or three people). Even then, you have to be crystal-clear on how incoming messages should be handled.

There’s a tool called Google Groups which people also refer to as Gmail’s collaborative inbox. This is what it looks like:

Google Groups

Pro-tip - Part of the problem with using Google Groups to create a shared inbox in Gmail: your email address must use the domain name @googlegroups.com.

One of the main reasons why many people want to create a shared inbox is to improve the reputation of your business with a professional looking email address like support@companyname.com—not something Google-branded like company-name-support@googlegroups.com.

To get around this, you’ll need to upgrade to a G Suite account. You can then create the email addresses you need. For instance:

When you return to Google Groups, you’ll be able to use your custom email address and add as many (or as few) team members to the group as you need:

Gmail Group Members

Once people start emailing your shared inbox email address, all members in the group will be able to read, respond to, and delete those messages from your inbox (which exists in your Google Groups forum, not in Gmail):

Google Groups Message

Just be careful with this option. As noted above, if there are no systems in place for assigning messages to team members to handle, you could run into trouble.

2. Create shared inboxes with a shared inbox app

There are a number of software providers who’ve attempted to solve this dilemma of how to create a usable shared inbox. Front and Hiver are some of the more popular options available today.

In order for these tools to work well, project management capabilities need to be built into the platform. Here’s an example of how Front builds project management into its shared inbox software:

Front shared Inbox

At first glance, you might think this is nothing more than another platform to manage your emails from (which it kind of is). But notice the “Assign” button in the top-right. This is what makes it different.

Rather than stress about whether one of your teammates got to an email in the shared inbox before you did, the project manager will make sure each email is assigned to someone to handle.

This way, your shared inbox is more safely organized and managed.

Hiver, the example shown earlier, has a similar assignment tool built in as well:

Hiver Project Management shared inbox

Unlike Front though, Hiver works directly on top of your Gmail account, making for one less tool you need to log in and out of.

Of course, these options aren’t without their flaws.

For instance, you’re still deprived of the context of a conversation or a customer’s back story, which can make it difficult to respond. Secondly, these are very basic task assignment tools. You can’t set due dates, levels of urgency, and so on. So, you still have to rely on your team to be accountable to the shared messages that end up in their queues.

While shared inbox apps provide a better solution for email collaboration, they’re not perfect.

3. Enhance your shared inbox workflows with Copper

Whether you use G Suite or Google Groups to create shared inboxes, or you use a third-party tool like Hiver, you’re still going to be missing a number of critical elements.

But rather than give up on shared inboxes altogether, or force your team to use a broken system, try using a tool like Copper to fill in the gaps.

Let’s look at how it works.

The Copper extension for Chrome places a mini version of the CRM app inside your Gmail inbox:

assigning tasks in copper crm

This allows you to assign tasks from a shared inbox to anyone on your team. You can get super specific with the details, too, so that expectations of how to handle and resolve emails and tasks are crystal-clear.

Another tool you can use from Copper’s arsenal is the Google add-on, which sits conveniently next to your open emails like this:

Copper Contact Context

When you open an email from someone in Gmail with the Copper add-on activated, this sidebar will appear. If the person who messaged you is in your contacts, their details will appear in this sidebar:

Copper Profile in Gmail

This allows you to see the lead’s or customer’s information, any previous conversations you had with them, and so on. Hey, you need this kind of context to be able to properly handle all incoming emails.

If the person doesn’t exist in your contacts yet, this add-on gives you the option to add them to Copper right within Gmail. You can add notes about what the reason for the message was and how it was resolved, too.

Shared inboxes: are they worth it?

Unless you can move your conversations into a help desk software or a project management system (both of which only work for certain use cases), shared inboxes are pretty much the only way to manage messages as a team.

And if that’s your only option, you have to ask yourself: what's the best way for you and your team to use them?

While the shared inbox tools may be flawed, there are processes and tools that you can use to iron out the kinks relatively easily.

So, the answer to that question is “Yes, shared inboxes are worth it.” You can more effectively organize emails coming into your company, give off a more professional appearance, and share the responsibility of receiving and responding to inquiries—but only if you take control of it.