If you’ve ever experienced an issue, lost your way, or needed help using Slack, it’s likely at some point you’ve spoken with one of our 70 or so Customer Experience agents. Bridging the gap between customers and product teams, every day the team responds to hundreds of tweets and support tickets, files bugs, troubleshoots issues and reports feedback. In a way, they’re the heart of Slack.
Over the last year, they’ve grown from 19 members to roughly 70 people supporting over 2 million daily active users. We’ve got teams in Vancouver, Dublin, San Francisco, Melbourne and a smattering of remote workers peppered all around the world. Despite how quickly they’ve grown, and the influx of issues they contend with each day, they remain some of the cheeriest, happiest people around. How is that possible?
(Before we go any further, if you’ve arrived here seeking practical tips on setting up Slack for customer support, rest assured, you can find that here.)
This is how they do it: One part love for users …
In the early days of building Slack, Ali Rayl (now Director of Customer Experience and QA) signed on as the first Quality Assurance engineer working closely with engineering and product design teams to build and test the product. To figure out what to build next, and get a sense of what the team should prioritize, Rayl’s go-to solution was to talk to customers.
“From the beginning,” says Rayl, “we wanted people to feel comfortable telling us anything they had on their minds about Slack.” Which is why, to this day, Slack’s support system is the more all-encompassing email@example.com rather than the issue-focused firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re not just here to answer questions and clear the queue. We build relationships, we’re part of the customer’s experience.”
Two parts emphasis on being human
To emphasize the importance of building relationships (not just clearing queues), team members aren’t measured by individual achievement (how many tickets or tweets a person responds to in a day), but rather on their ability—as a group—to respond to inquiries in a way that shows a human is listening. Which doesn’t mean that ticket response times aren’t important—they’re just not the team’s sole measure of success.
“We’re not just here to answer questions and clear the queue. We build relationships, we’re part of the customer’s experience,” says Tuan Tan, Customer Experience Manager at Slack.
It can be easy to resort to canned responses when handling inquiries from lots of people in a day. To help new team members avoid this trapping, part of their training includes getting paired with a veteran agent who helps them find their voice and practice writing responses in their natural tone.
Rayl recognizes this kind of work as the epitome of emotional labor.
“It’s the idea that empathizing, supporting, listening and responding in-kind is a form of work, and it’s emotional work. It’s not something that is easily quantifiable” she says. “The support team is responsible for carrying our company’s emotional labor load, and one thing about performing emotional labor is that you need to recharge, which is why I insist that people work hard, but not work a ton. They need time to be with themselves.”
Three parts teaching what you know
Within Customer Experience, it’s everyone’s responsibility to share the knowledge they glean—whether that’s passing on feedback heard directly from customers or sharing internal updates from various product teams and departments at Slack. There are two main programs especially designed to help CE agents and product teams better support and empathize with customer needs: The “Possums” program and “Everyone Does Support”.
The “Possums” program was created nearly a year ago, when Rayl and a group of Slack’s lead engineers were discussing the growing volume of bugs reported. They were at a point where they needed someone to manage bug report tickets and direct them to the right people and channels in Slack.
“We need some kind of bug (mumble)”, suggested Nolan Caudill, Chief of Staff. Everyone heard “Possums” and the name stuck. (For the record, he said “bug boss”.)
“What we’re trying to do here is make small teams of people that feel truly connected to the pieces of the product, and the customers, they’re supporting.”
Now we have “Possums” (experts) in all areas of the product — like extended family members — keeping tabs on what’s happening and reporting back to the core Customer Experience team. Need to find out if there’s a known issue with the iPhone app? Seek the wisdom of iOS possum Stephen. Have a question about the new website? Look no further than marketing possum Antonia.
In the “Everyone Does Support” program, product managers, designers, and engineers receive the same training as Customer Experience agents, and sign on for weekly support shifts as part of their core work. With this, everyone experiences first-hand what users are going through, increasing empathy across the organization and informing the way we think about, and build, the product.
“What we’re trying to do here is make small teams of people that feel truly connected to the pieces of the product, and the customers, they’re supporting,” says Ali Rayl, Director of Customer Experience at Slack.
Four parts playfulness
Peeking into the #ce-team channel is a curious thing. There they are: reams of hilarious, outlandish messages posted by Triage Captains (the person charged with monitoring support ticket volumes, assigning tickets to the right area in Zendesk, and providing summary reports at the end of their shift):
So maybe you’re thinking: “Look at all that detail, that must take them a long time!” (It doesn’t). Or you might be thinking, “These people are so busy faffing around, they must hardly do any work!” Quite the contrary, this playfulness doesn’t counter productivity, members of the team say it inspires it.
Play also serves a higher purpose: It helps team members get to know each other. It adds levity to their daily emotional labor load, giving everyone a little respite from a long day spent troubleshooting and supporting. But the biggest benefit is that more familiar relationships between team members means they’re more comfortable, and so more likely, to lean on each other for help and rely on each other to work out issues.
Put it all together and what do you get?
Amazing teams are rarely the result of happenstance. Building happy, united teams requires vigilance, constant experimentation, and steadfast leadership. As Chief of Staff Nolan Caudill once wrote:
“Every company builds two things: the products they sell, and the culture inside the company… Culture — which we understand to mean the systems that dictate how employees relate to one another, the work to be done, and the customers — often forms without much oversight. Like any random experiment, the results of letting culture form unchecked can vary between fair to disastrous.”
Judging by this example, it seems the key to building (and scaling) a happy team relies on creating an environment where each person is encouraged to support their peers, follow their curiosity, and maybe have a bit of fun along the way. With enough downtime to recharge.
Lima Al-Azzeh is a writing possum.