You find them on the Contact Us page of virtually every Web site—email addresses such as sales@mycompany.com, info@mycompany.com, and support@mycompany.com. You can put such addresses to work in your company or organization. You just need to add a mailbox to Microsoft Exchange Server and give various people access to the incoming messages.

In this article, I'll describe a plan for setting up such a mailbox for a customer support group and making it available to the staff through an icon on the Outlook Bar. I'll also look at an alternative approach, using a public folder. First, however, you need to make a key decision: How do you want the staff to respond to messages?

Types of Responses
Do you want the customer support staff to respond with their own email accounts, or behind the anonymity of the Customer Support mailbox? Or do you want a little of both options? You can let the customer know that the message reached Customer Support successfully and that a real human being is answering it. You must decide which response is best for your organization.

Some companies prefer to use support@mycompany.com as the return address on all support responses, mainly to ensure that all incoming messages continue to flow to the group mailbox rather than to an individual support staff member. However, to build a personal relationship with the potential customer, you can configure a group mailbox for sales@mycompany.com to require that a sales representative respond with his or her individual return address.

Table 1 shows your choices for return addresses and the mailbox permissions that make them happen. As you can see, Send As and Send on Behalf Of are not the same thing. Any user can grant the Send on Behalf Of permission on his own mailbox, simply by appointing a delegate. However, as I'll demonstrate, only the Microsoft Exchange Administrator program has the power to apply the Send As permission.

Create the Customer Support Mailbox
Create the group mailbox with the Exchange Administrator program, using the same techniques involved in creating a mailbox for an individual user:

  • On the General tab of the mailbox Properties page, enter the Display Name (e.g., Customer Support ) and an alias (e.g., support). For the Primary Windows NT account, create a new NT account just for the mailbox.
  • Use the E-mail Addresses tab to check the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) address that Exchange has created for this mailbox and edit it if necessary. For example, you probably want to make the Customer Support mailbox reachable via the Internet with a fairly standard address such as support@mycompany.com.
  • Decide whether you want users to be able to send messages with the return address of the Customer Support mailbox, rather than with their personal return address. If you do, on the Permissions tab, grant Send As permission to each user. (If you are also an NT administrator, you can use User Manager for Domains to set up a group containing all the Customer Support staff members. Then use this group to assign the Send As permission.)
  • On the Permissions tab, grant your administrator account the User role, so that you can use Outlook to access this account and set folder permissions and delegate access. You can remove that account from the Permissions tab after you configure the account.

You might wonder why I don't recommend using the Delivery Options tab in the mailbox properties to give people Send on Behalf Of permission. Strangely enough, Exchange Administrator won't let you use distribution lists there, so you'd have to add users one by one. Therefore, the Delegate method I describe later makes more sense.

Create the Customer Support Response Distribution List
Next, in the Recipients container, create a distribution list. You might think distribution lists are only for sending messages to a group of people. However, an important trick of the trade for Exchange administrators is to use distribution lists wherever possible to control permissions. Adding someone to a distribution list is much easier than going into an object's properties and adding an individual to the object's access permissions. In this case, use Exchange Administrator to create a Customer Support Response distribution list. Add as a member everyone who needs access to the group mailbox.

I suggest you call this distribution list Customer Support Response to distinguish it from any separate list you use for sending email messages to the support staff. If you want to let the support supervisor manage access to the group mailbox, make the supervisor the owner of the distribution list. The supervisor can then change the distribution list membership by using the Address Book in Outlook to bring up the distribution list's properties from the Global Address List (GAL). Or you might want to hide the distribution list from the GAL after you've set it up, so that people won't be able to send messages to it. You'll find a Hide from address book check box on the Advanced tab.

Set Folder Permissions and Delegate Access
To finish setting permissions, create a profile for the new mailbox, and start Outlook with that profile. (To learn how to create a profile, see "Outlook Tips and Techniques," September 1998).

If you decide to use Delegate access to give users Send on Behalf Of permission, choose Tools, Options, and then switch to the Delegates tab. Clicking Add displays the Delegate Permissions dialog box, which you see in Screen 1. You can give the distribution list the Author or Editor role on the Inbox and set permissions on the other folders to None.

The next task is to set the appropriate folder permissions. Start with the top-level mailbox folder. (In Outlook 98, this folder is the Outlook Today folder.) Bring up its properties, and on the Permissions tab, grant Reviewer permission to the Customer Support Response distribution list, as Screen 2 shows. This permission lets users see the Customer Support mailbox's Inbox in the Folder List and add it to the Outlook Bar.

If you're not using Delegate access, you also need to grant at least Reviewer permission on the Inbox to the Customer Support Response distribution list. (If you don't grant Reviewer permission, support personnel can't see incoming messages.) After you set up the mailbox, exit Outlook. Now it's time to show the users how to access and send from the new group mailbox.

Accessing the Group Mailbox
Users can access the Inbox of the Customer Support mailbox from the menu or from the Folder List or Outlook Bar. From the menu, choose File, Open, Other User's Folder (Outlook 98) or File, Open, Exchange Server Folder (Outlook 97), and specify that you want to open the Inbox of the Customer Support mailbox. The group mailbox's Inbox opens in its own window. If that window is still open when you close Outlook, it will automatically open the next time you start Outlook.

However, a support staffer needs quicker access to the folder than the menu method allows. The Folder List and Outlook Bar offer speedier access. Mailboxes appear in the Folder List only when you add them through the settings for the Exchange Server service in the user's mail profile. Each user can add the group mailbox, with these instructions:

  1. Choose Tools, Services, then bring up the properties for the Exchange Server service.
  2. Switch to the Advanced tab, and click Add.
  3. In the Add Mailbox dialog box, type Customer Support, and click OK. Outlook will find the Customer Support mailbox on Exchange Server, and add it to the Open these additional mailboxes list on the Advanced tab.
  4. Click OK twice to save the change, and return to Outlook.
  5. If you don't already see the Folder List, click Folder List. This action will display Mailbox - Customer Support, along with your personal mailbox.

Users will see only the Inbox folder for the Customer Support mailbox, because you granted the Reviewer role only to that folder.

For users who depend on the Outlook Bar, instead of the Folder List, add these instructions:

  1. Display the Folder List, then drag the Inbox folder from the Customer Service mailbox to the Outlook Bar to create an icon for that folder.
  2. Right-click the new Outlook Bar icon, then choose Rename Shortcut.
  3. Type Customer Support Inbox as the new name for the Outlook Bar shortcut, then press Enter.
  4. Click Folder List to hide the Folder List again.

Now the user will have an icon on the Outlook Bar that opens the Customer Support mailbox's Inbox.

Sending from the Group Mailbox
To reply to a message in the group mailbox, a user simply selects the message as usual, then clicks Reply on the toolbar. If you want users to reply with their own email address, that's all there is to it.

However, if you either granted Send As permission or used the Delegate access technique, users must choose View, From Field to display the From box on the message form, as you see in Screen 3. They can either click From and pick the Customer Support mailbox from the Address Book, or they can type Customer Support in the From box and let Outlook's automatic name-resolution function resolve the name to the group mailbox. After setting the From address, the user can complete the message and send it as usual.

If you used the Send As technique, recipients will get a message from Customer Support; if you used the Delegate access technique, recipients will get a message from a particular staff member on behalf of Customer Support.

Where Do Deleted and Sent Items Go?
Reading and responding to messages in the group mailbox is a straightforward process. However, you might be surprised at what happens to those responses and to items deleted from the group mailbox (assuming you grant a user permission to delete items).

Deleting a message from the Inbox sends the message to the Deleted Items folder in the user's mailbox—not the Deleted Items folder in the group mailbox. If you want to let users delete messages but want the deleted items to go to the Deleted Items folder in the group mailbox rather than the user's mailbox, you need to make a Registry change. Follow the instructions in the Microsoft article "Items Deleted From a Shared Mailbox Go to Wrong Folder" (http://support.microsoft.com/support/kb/articles/q168/6/25.asp). You'll probably also want to grant users Reviewer access to the group mailbox's Deleted Items folder so users can see all the messages the support personnel have deleted.

Outlook stores responses sent to messages in the group mailbox's Inbox in the sender's Sent Items folder, not in the group mailbox's Sent Items folder. In other words, if you are using a group mailbox, you can't easily track responses to incoming items.

I've encountered many strategies for dealing with this dilemma, using various combinations of profiles, rules, scripts, and manual labor. One simple strategy requires users to move items from their Sent Items folder to the group mailbox's Sent Items folder. Another approach is to use an Exchange Event Service script on users' Sent Items folder to do the moving. I know of at least one company that has its people use Reply to All rather than Reply. This puts a copy of the response back into the group mailbox's Inbox, where a rule or script can grab it and place it in the Sent Items folder. Another relatively simple method is to have users switch between two different Outlook profiles, one to access their personal mailbox and another to access the group mailbox.

None of these approaches is entirely satisfactory. Either a strategy is too hard to configure (e.g., it requires installation of a rule or folder in every user's mailbox), or it relies on the user remembering to do something unusual, such as moving items to another mailbox.

Another Approach: Public Folders
Why not use a public folder instead of a group mailbox? Public folders have SMTP addresses; therefore, you can just as easily make incoming messages to sales@mycompany.com go to a public folder as to a group mailbox. As you'll see in a moment, using a public folder can also greatly simplify the management of deleted and sent messages.

My public folder plan uses one folder, a simple server-side script, and two slightly customized forms. You don't need to add rules or scripts to users' mailboxes. The end result is a folder with a threaded view of inquiries and your staff's responses to them. The staff can post their comments in the folder. You can easily distinguish each of these different types of items by its unique icon.

The next few sections tell you how to customize the forms and set up the folder so that it uses these forms. For this example, I'll build a folder for the Sales department to use for inquiries sent to sales@mycompany.com.

Set Up the Public Folder
Using Outlook, create a public folder called Sales. In the folder's Properties dialog box, grant at least the Reviewer role to the sales staff members who need to access the folder. Use a distribution list, as I described earlier. Make sure the Default user has Create items permission, as Screen 4 shows.

Switch to the Agents tab. If the tab doesn't appear, the Microsoft article "Agents Tab Is Missing from Folder Properties" (http://support.microsoft.com/support/kb/articles/q1801/1/21.asp) offers suggestions for adding it. Tony Redmond's Windows NT Magazine article "Closing the Messaging and Groupware Gap with Exchange 5.5's Scripting Agent" (March 1998) explains how to install the Scripting Agent.

On the Agents tab, click New to create a new agent. In the appropriate boxes on the New Agent screen, which Screen 5 shows, enter a name for the agent, and select A new item is posted in this folder as the event that will trigger action; click Edit Script. A sample script will open in Notepad listing the subroutines that folder events can trigger. Under Public Sub Folder_OnMessageCreated, type the code in Listing 1. This code uses Collaboration Data Objects (CDO) to change the message class for incoming messages from the default IPM.Note to IPM.Note.Sales, a custom form I'll create in a moment. (Thanks to Stephen Gutknecht and Siegfried Weber for sharing their insights into the CDO code required to change the message class.)

Close the script, then click OK until you're back in the main Outlook window. You've completed the Outlook portion of the configuration.

Using Exchange Administrator, on the E-mail Addresses tab for the Sales folder's properties, change the default SMTP address for the folder to sales@mycompany.com or whatever address you want external senders to use. If you want support personnel to respond to inquiries with sales@mycompany.com as their return address, grant them Send As permission on the Permissions tab. You'll find it convenient to use an NT global group for assigning this permission. On the Advanced tab, clear the Hide from address book check box to facilitate adding the folder to the From and Bcc fields in the custom reply form I'll create next.

Create the First Custom Form
The first form you need to make is the one for replying to messages sent to a public folder. This form will also automatically send those responses back to the folder by putting its address in the Bcc field. Follow these steps:

  1. Create a new message, then use the View menu to display the From and Bcc fields.
  2. Start the Outlook forms designer, using Tools, Forms, Design This Form (Outlook 98) or Tools, Design Outlook Form (Outlook 97). On the Message tab, right-click the Bcc field, choose Properties, and then switch to the Value tab. Check Set the initial value of this field to, type sales@mycompany.com (the SMTP address for the public folder) in the box for the initial value. If you want users to send with sales@mycompany.com as their return address, carry out the same steps for the From field.
  3. Switch to the Properties tab, and change both the large and small icons so users can easily distinguish these replies in the Sales folder. I used Recalll.ico (large) and Recalls.ico (small). Icon files are in the \ProgramFiles\Microsoft Office\Office\Forms and \Forms\Config subfolder under your Windows or Winnt folder. Give the form a version number, and increment this number each time you change the form, so that users always load the latest version. Leave the box for Save form definition with item unchecked, so that recipients outside your organization will see responses using the standard Outlook message form, not this custom form.
  4. Publish the form to the Organization Forms library with the form name Sales Response and the message class IPM.Note.SalesResponse. Choose Tools, Forms, Publish Form (Outlook 98) or File, Publish Form As (Outlook 97).

Create the Second Custom Form
The other form will display the incoming messages sent to sales@mycompany.com and let you reply with the IPM.Note.SalesResponse form.

  1. Create another new form in Outlook, then start the forms designer and switch to the (Actions) tab. Select the Reply action, then click Properties. Under Form name, click Forms, then select the Sales Response form from the Organization Forms library. Click OK until you return to the forms designer. Select Reply to All, and repeat the previous steps to use the Sales Response form for that kind of reply, too.
  2. Switch to the (Properties) tab. Change the icon, and add a version number, as you did with the other form.
  3. Publish the form to the Organization Forms library with the form name Sales and the message class IPM.Note.Sales. Make sure the message class is the same as that in the script you added to the Agents tab of the public folder.

Wrapping Up the Public Folder Concept
Screen 6 shows the finished folder with a few messages, responses, and comments posted by the sales staff. I left the Message Class field in the view to illustrate how users can distinguish each item type by its icon.

Here's how the process works. The server script converts a new message to the IPM.Note.Sales custom form. When a sales department staff member replies to the message, the Reply action on the IPM.Note.Sales form launches the IPM.Note.SalesReply form. The sales@mycompany.com values for the From and Bcc fields resolve to the Sales folder, so that the recipient sees sales@mycompany.com as the return address and a copy of the outgoing message goes into the Sales folder.

The public folder approach offers several advantages over the mailbox:

  • Incoming items and their responses are in the same folder. Try using the By Conversation view that Screen 6 shows to view them as ordered threads.
  • Users can add the public folder to Favorites and track unread items. An icon in the Outlook Bar pointing to the folder in Favorites automatically shows the number of new items.
  • Users can use the Post Reply in Folder command to add comments to the incoming messages and responses.
  • If you use the Outlook HTML Form Converter, you can make the contents of the public folder available to your staff through a Web browser. Look for the Form Converter in \Server\Eng\Formscnv and the Exchange Server 5.5 Service Pack 1 (SP1) CD-ROM.

Did you notice that public folders don't support Send on Behalf Of? Users can respond either as the folder (if you granted Send As permission) or as themselves. If you use Send As, you might want to modify the form used for replies so that it includes a Created By field, as I described in my October 1998 "Outlook Tips & Techniques" column. Such a field tells you who sent the response.

Key Techniques
In learning the mechanics of setting up a group mailbox or public folder to collect messages from a special address, you have learned some key techniques:

  • How to use the Send As permission to hide the real sender of a message behind another mailbox
  • How to use a distribution list to control permissions
  • How to make particular folders from a secondary mailbox appear in a user's Folder List or Outlook Bar
  • How to use a public folder as the destination for an SMTP address—you can also use this technique to subscribe public folders to Internet mailing lists
  • How to add an event script to make a folder use a custom message class to display incoming items
  • How to modify a form's (Actions) tab to reply with a custom form

Although the public folder has significant advantages, the group mailbox is still useful, especially when you don't need to track responses.