We once hated the idea ourselves. A shared inbox gets a bad rap because of what it used to mean— five, ten, or thirty people’s emails in one inbox, with a dizzying amount of labels, folders, and tags to keep track of who’s responsible for what. But as better tooling options have become available, we’ve learned that a little bit of structure will go a long way.
A shared inbox done right means there’s minimum upkeep, and communication with customers is streamlined. It also means killing all the time-consuming things you hate about regular email:
Sorting. If you want to achieve legendary inbox-0 status, you’re caught spending more time reorganizing and marking as read, than you do actually responding to emails. As a result, you’re not even saving time, just reallocating it.
Browsing. You remember discussing an upcoming project with a big client, but can’t find the message amidst the 500+ email chains you’ve had over the last few months.
Forwarding. Whether you’re bumping an email, or forwarding to get a second pair of eyes on it, there are way too many actions you have to take for an email to not get lost.
The modern workplace emphasizes efficiency more than anything—with their stacks of productivity tools, open office layouts, and even flexible work policies. The fact that most teams don’t mind spending hours a day sifting through a heap of emails is insane. It’s time to bring our inbox up to modern standards.
Here’s how to set up a shared inbox that doesn’t suck.
Set Up an Automatic Workflow
Pre-industrial revolution, there used to be a job called a “knocker-up.” These people would be paid a few dollars a day to go around town and knock on people’s window to wake them up. After this process was automated with the invention of the alarm clock, these jobs became obsolete and people found better things to do with their time.
If you’re still manually sorting new emails into an organized system of folders, sub-folders, and labels, you’re being a “knocker-up” in the age of alarm clocks. That means that just to maintain a shared inbox, you need someone with an endless supply of patience to sort every single incoming email.
Practically every email client gives users the option of automating their email filtering— including Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo mail— although few people take advantage of it, because it seems like a pain to set up. But at the upfront cost of one hour from a single work day, you’ll save yourself several hours from every day in the future.
Be smart about what you filter and where. If your rules simply just distribute customers to team members, you’re still sitting on a wealth of untapped automating opportunity. Here are three less-intuitive filters that will make sorting considerably easier:
By keyword. Let’s say you have a support agent who knows the most about API calls. You can set up your inbox to route all emails that have the keywords, “API,” “make a call,” “returned error” to that agent.
By customer type. Instead of delegating a random batch of customers to one rep and another batch to another, you could use the same segments you do for support or email marketing. You can do this based on where they are in their user lifecycle (new user, practiced user, power user), or based on the industry they are in (marketers, developers, etc.) Simply create a filtered label for each segment in Gmail or Outlook, or a tag in Front, and use rules to automatically sort your inbox.
By time. Queries that are urgent are often in danger of getting lost and not dealt with quickly enough. Designate general questions to people based on their work schedules, so that you can minimize that response time.
Designate a Dispatcher
Another lesson we can take from the industrial revolution is one on specialization. If you have highly-specialized employees, they should be spending their time on the tasks only they can do. This way, the company can take advantage of the employees’ most valuable assets, and the employees feel more engaged and satisfied with their work.
When people start off at a company, however, they don’t have specializations yet. Use this dichotomy to streamline customer communication even further. Designate the role of dispatcher to an entry-level team member to add an additional layer between customers and highly specialized employees.
This means that there will be two distinct types of roles on your team:
Specialized. These individuals have a very specific, honed level of expertise that isn’t shared with other team members. When they answer general queries or emails that don’t fall under their expertise, their expertise is being squandered.
General. In the form of an office manager, this person will serve as the final filter before a specialized member is asked to devote time to a certain email. This person has a general understanding of basic operations and can answer the majority of one-off questions. They can also decide whether an email requires immediate action or can be scheduled for later.
This ensures that communication—whether it’s internal or with customers—never interrupts employees, and is also handled in the most efficient way possible. Each team member will be designated only the most timely and relevant email.
Keep Internal and External Communication Separate
Private inboxes weren’t built for communication in the modern workspace. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai— credited with the invention of email —simply created electronic versions of memos that were passed from doctors to nurses. Email digitized one-to-one messages, which explains why it often fails to properly serve the functions of the modern, collaborative workplace. Between forwarding, CC’ing, and BCC’ing the right people, a simple question can turn into an un-navigable nightmare.
Unfortunately, many shared inbox solutions don’t solve this problem. You talk to people internally, in the same thread that you talk to customers, externally.
But just because your emails are accessible to more people, doesn’t mean that your team is positioned for collaboration. In fact— it’s conducive to having too many cooks in the kitchen. Multiple team members might feel the urge to reply to the same customer, and any internal notes might be posted too late to be helpful.
Instead, pick a tool that separates internal and external communication. That way your team can discuss a customer issue, delegate a point person, and talk to customers without worrying that one—or several—teammates will send out a response prematurely.
Rather than keep the archaic email view for multiple collaborators, we’ve opted to make the view dynamic—so conversations can happen around the email, without changing the recipient, or cc’d party on the thread.
Much Ado About Emailing
Most problems of the modern workplace can’t be solved with the adoption of a tool, so take advantage of the few that can. You have everything at your disposal to kill everything you hate about email, while still maintaining it as a direct line to your customers.
It might seem like we’re making an awfully big fuss about emails. But a healthy relationship with customers, as well as a healthy, collaborative team dynamic starts with great communication. With a really strong system in place, you can address issues promptly, establish a great relationship with your customers, and ultimately improve your brand’s reputation—all while having time for other stuff too.
Written by Mathilde Collin
Originally Published: 17 April 2020