Making sure that people feel welcome – that they’re always feeling included and considered – should be the core goal of any successful customer experience team.
Today, we’re dissecting the customer experience at one of the hottest companies around: Slack. As someone who’s immersed in customer-experience questions and concerns day-in and day-out here at Intercom, I was fascinated to hear how Slack’s entire team dedicated itself to thinking about the end-to-end customer experience. And I was excited to sit down behind the mic with Lane Collins.
Lane has such an interesting story: she joined Slack as the 50th employee back in 2015, when the support team was just eight people. She now leads the customer experience team, overseeing the help center, localization, user education and the app directory. In our conversation, we talked about how Slack manages the customer experience as a product and how the customer experience should evolve as the business grows.
Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways.
- Lane and her team are committed to radical convenience: they’re always trying to make sure people feel welcome, included and considered in any interaction. It’s part of the “hospitality” aspect of support.
- Slack focuses on four pillars of the customer experience: services, operations, the help center and localization. Together, they create a multidisciplinary approach that does everything from helping people use Slack in their native language to finding a great app that makes their workday that much better.
- Content strategy is part of your brand. It should show a little of your personality, but the first priority is always about making it highly usable – and easy to find exactly what you need.
- While most companies are rushing to automate, Slack is taking a different approach, opting instead to offer real one-to-one interactions. Down the road, however, they may play with automation in a self-serve context – if they can ensure that they’re showing customers relevant solutions.
- A bad support experience is one of the easiest ways to lose customer trust. In companies that don’t properly prioritize the customer experience, it’s up to support leaders to find allies in product and engineering – and to make sure you can help them truly hear the customer’s voice.
If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. You can listen to our full conversation above, or read a transcript of our conversation below.
Learning support at scale
Kaitlin: Lane, welcome to the show. Kick things off for us by telling us a little bit about your career journey.
Lane: I grew up in North Carolina, and there wasn’t a lot to do. So I got into the internet. I got into bulletin board systems at first and then AOL chat rooms, and then gradually I started to find communities around music. I taught myself HTML and Photoshop, and I started building my own websites. It led me into building communities around music, just as a teenager sitting at home trying to figure out something creative to do – and trying to meet people that I connected with. That’s how I got into community and support, ultimately, interacting with people from that age on and building communities around musicians that I loved.
“In early startup life, it’s great to have remote folks who are around the world for the follow-the-sun model”
I became one of the first support people at Twitter, working part-time, remotely, from New Zealand. In early startup life, it’s great to have remote folks who are around the world for the follow-the-sun model. This was back when Twitter was maybe 28 people. From there, I moved back to the States and ended up working for Twitter for about five years. I was focused as a support agent there for most of the time, but that’s also where I got into writing as a support discipline – particularly around writing macros, working on the help center. I ran the @support account, which I think is now @TwitterSupport. I started to grow up at that company. It taught me a lot, especially support at scale and seeing something scale from a tiny little company. This was 2008, and by the time I left, I think there were 3,000 employees.
From Twitter, I ended up going to Slack in 2014, about six months after it launched. I started there also as a content manager, working on the help center – which back then was just a few FAQs that Ali Rayl (now the VP of Customer Experience) and Stewart Butterfield (our CEO) had put together. It was just a bare-bones template with a handful of links and a few articles. It was a blank canvas. I started building out the help center there, and I had the opportunity to work with an amazing designer and engineer early on. And we started making the case for why we should build out a great help center.
Growing a great culture
Kaitlin: Turning our attention to your time at Slack, you joined in 2014, as mentioned. It sounds like you were the 50th employee or so. Much like I’m sure you saw at Twitter, you undoubtedly see the company grow in big ways. Are there any lessons you can share on how to maintain great team culture and focus during rapid growth?
Lane: There’s always been a lot of talk about culture and maintaining culture, but early on at Slack, I started to see firsthand how important it is to think about it as a culture you’re adding to, instead of just maintaining something. With every hire I’ve made at Slack, instead of just asking if they’re a fit for the role, I ask if they’re a fit for the team – are they going to add something? What kind of passions do they have outside of work? Who are they as a person? What are they going to bring day-to-day?
“There’s always another human at the other end of this, and you have an opportunity to make their day – or ruin it if you just aren’t giving them the attention they deserve”
That’s something that’s been successful at Slack as a whole. I’ve seen this company grow and scale better than I’ve ever seen it before. You do have to stay focused on a customer. You have to stay focused on that human-to-human aspect, because it keeps you humble. And one of the things about my boss, Ali Rayl, is that she’s just so good at reminding us all the time that there’s always another human at the other end of this, and you have an opportunity to make their day – or ruin it if you just aren’t giving them the attention they deserve.
In past experience at other jobs, it can be easy to see tickets coming in and just feel overwhelmed and feel like it’s just about the numbers or getting through your workday. But if you stop and pause and think, “What would I want if I was in this person’s shoes, even just for a split second?” it makes all the difference.
Kaitlin: You started at Slack when its user base numbered in the tens of thousands, but now you have millions of users. How has the company’s definition of the ideal customer experience evolved over time? Are there some elements that have stayed the same or what has changed?
Lane: What has stayed the same is our customer-centric approach. We talk about this concept: “radical convenience” is the term we use. I think it’s hard to live up to something like that consistently, but it is important to have an aspiration you’re always trying to strive for. For us, we’re always trying to make sure people feel welcome in any interaction – that they’re always feeling included and considered. I think that’s the real “hospitality” aspect of support: thinking about anticipating people’s needs. And what I’ve seen change about our consideration of customer experience is that we’re expanding that.
My team includes a lot of disciplines that aren’t always included in a typical support team. But for us, the reason we consider ourselves a customer experience organization versus solely support is that we own that whole feeling. It’s part of the brand, right? It’s part of the way people think about the company, and that’s definitely held true from day one. But even the things we include under our umbrella have expanded over time.
Slack’s four pillars of customer experience
Kaitlin: Can you tell us a little bit about the customer experience group at Slack? What is that customer experience group’s mission?
Lane: I’ll just tell you a little bit about the four pillars of customer experience at Slack and how we’re organized. We have two customer-facing support teams. We have what we call a services team, and we have an admin services team. For Slack, one of the interesting things about our product is that we have two sides of the coin. Most people are joining teams and are working away, and we also have this other side of people who own teams, administrate teams and work on the backend of billing. It can be more technical, it can be more enterprise. But we have these two core pillars of support that are one-to-one, including live support phone and other things.
Then we have an operations team. They oversee all of our tools, including things like Zendesk, but they’re also thinking about how can we make our tooling better and how we can innovate in that space to ultimately start to make our agents’ working lives better.
“It sounds like these things are a little bit disparate but, honestly, our shared mission is to help people everywhere discover the power of Slack, and we really believe in that”
Then we have my team, which is customer experience products. And so, we have several sub-teams within our pillar. We’re focused on the help center and, overall, the help experience within Slack and on all of Slack’s properties. If you’ve never used an app called Foundry, it’s our new app that you can use to train people on Slack. It’s a Slack app; you can install it, and people on the team can use it to learn about administering Slack or just working in Slack. So we’re working a lot on how can we teach people Slack in a really effective way.
Also, we have the app directory team. They oversee all of the apps that are submitted to our app directory, and it’s just another way of serving our customers. Because we’re thinking about the app directory as a whole and how we can recommend great apps, what apps belong there and what are our customers going to find useful. Finally, we have the localization team, which is also under my umbrella. So we’re localizing everything with Slack. We’re overseeing everything from marketing content, to the help center, to Slack itself.
It’s interesting, because it sounds like these things are a little bit disparate but, honestly, our shared mission is to help people everywhere discover the power of Slack, and we really believe in that. It’s everything from helping people use Slack in their native language, to finding a great app that makes our workday easier or better, to just teaching them how to use Slack in some way or another. That’s our core team, and we also have engineers and a designer. It’s a multidisciplinary team, and it’s just honestly a huge honor and so awesome to work with them every day.
Building a better help center
Kaitlin: One of the products you’ve talked about is the help center. As many of us know, help centers tend to have a bad rep as something that users go to as a last resort. Certainly, that’s the old-world way of thinking about customer support of experience. How do you make the help center experience so delightful that customers prefer to use it? And how does your team measure the success of the help center?
“Content should give people the information and get out of their way”
Lane: The first thing I was thinking about when I joined Slack, as I mentioned earlier, was that I had this amazing blank canvas to work with in terms of building out a brand new help center. We had this opportunity to create something from scratch that could be beautiful. It could feel like it’s part of Slack, like it’s part of the product. What I wanted with that was something that wasn’t going to feel like a boring manual. I wanted it to feel surprisingly helpful and delightful, and I wanted it to feel super easy to use in a way that – because we didn’t back then have user education available much at all – was going to be the first version of user education that we had.
There’s just so much that goes into it. One of the things I feel strongly about is that content strategy is incredibly important first and foremost, even before you start thinking about the look and feel of a help center. How do you organize the content? How do you phrase things to help people find what they need very quickly? And how do you stay concise? We talked about it at Slack: this idea that content should give people the information and get out of their way. It should just be there and fast – but it should also be actually useful and not be out of date or super dry. It should show a little of our personality, but the first priority is always about making it highly usable, highly scannable and easy to find exactly what you need.
“You know: when you look at a website that’s just got a white background, some black text and some blue links, your eyes gloss over a little bit”
Content strategy is part of your brand. It’s part of the customer experience. If people are going to a help center, and it’s outdated or hard to use or barely loads, that’s telling. It shows them how you’re thinking about your customers. Ultimately, I did a lot of competitive analysis and looked at other help centers out there and just tried to put together a design spec of what we were going for. I built a lot of it what I knew we didn’t want. But the idea of making it colorful and making it beautifully illustrated is about keeping the person’s eye engaged. You know: when you look at a website that’s just got a white background, some black text and some blue links, your eyes gloss over a little bit. It’s hard to find anything that you’re looking for. I just wanted it to feel Slacky. I wanted it to feel welcoming. And again, it goes back to that radical convenience value of just making sure that people can find what they need quickly.
Kaitlin: I’m sure it’s changed over the years, certainly since 2014. And at the risk of falling into a metrics rabbit hole, how does your team think about measuring success of the help center?
Lane: It’s definitely something that we are getting better at as a company in terms of just building better data muscle and infrastructure. We have to keep in mind the fact that we’re not a very old company at all. We’re still just basically a toddler’s age; we’re going to kindergarten right now. It’s something that we’re working on, but for the help center, we definitely look at some pretty standard metrics: how many tickets are filed from each article? How many people are viewing? Which ones are the top articles and why? And we have, of course, the “Was this helpful?” survey at the bottom of every article.
It’s not about just one of those things but all of those things together. And we’re looking at the signals: maybe this is the top-viewed article, but maybe that’s a good thing. We want to welcome people to Slack and have them read about more what it is. If people are coming to a help center for something like learning what a product is or how they can upgrade, those are things that you want. That’s part of your business. That’s driving conversion or, for us, workspace creation.
So we look at those metrics as well. It’s not just about how the content is performing in terms of its effectiveness; it’s also the question of whether we can be another beacon and whether we can be another part of the brand that helps people think: “This is a great help center. Their support must be great. Let’s try this thing. I think it could be really great.”
A cautious approach to automation
Kaitlin: At Intercom, we think a lot about how to keep the customer experience personal and true to our mission and values in the age of the internet. When you’re a small business, you can have those one-to-one conversations, like you were talking about during your time at Twitter. But that gets a lot harder as you grow. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on using automation: for example, chatbots to help scale the customer experience. What do you like in that space? What do you think is not so great?
“The idea with thinking about the help experience overall is, of course, thinking about self-serve. How can we make self-serve actually appealing and actually good?”
Lane: With automation, we have staunchly gone the opposite direction – and it’s hard in this day and age not to go that route. But the one space that we’ve played in is bots. For a long time, we’ve had a bot called Slackbot that we’ve experimented with. Unfortunately, we just never got to a point where it was very smart. You could type in a topic, like “direct messages” or “creative workspace”, and Slackbot would come back with some suggested help center articles or possibly some canned response. But we never got it to the quality we really wanted. For now, especially as we continue to scale as quickly as we have been, we just want to double-down on that one-to-one, person-to-person support.
One of the unique things about Slack is that we’ve built support into the cost from the very start, which means we can actually scale our support team. What I saw in my career at Twitter was very different, in that we were working on a free product, and maybe we had 20 people working on support for millions and millions of users. It was just overwhelming. Of course, with something like social, you’re going to get so many crazy support requests. It was just a totally different world, and we almost didn’t have the time or space to say, “No, this is a person on the other side.” We just had to keep going and try to stay above water. At Slack, it’s just so different.
I’ve deeply appreciated the thought that has gone into the business from day one. We’re going to continue to scale our support team as we can, keeping efficiency and things like that in mind. But that’s my team’s job. That’s one of the things we think about, rather than going down the automation route or rather than going down the auto-response route. It’s up to us to say: “Okay, of course there are always going to be people who want to reach out to us one-to-one, who want to call us or chat to us. And that’s okay. We should accept that as part of our business. These are our customers. They’re paying for our service.”
The idea with thinking about the help experience overall is, of course, thinking about self-serve. How can we make self-serve actually appealing and actually good? Down that road, there will probably be a little bit more automation just in terms of thinking about how we can show people things that are relevant to them. How can we show them content that is relevant, whether they’re new to Slack or if they’ve been around for a while? They probably need different types of help, right? That’s the direction that we’d be likely to go in, in terms of thinking about technology in that way.
“You have to build a lot of internal support within your company in terms of allies for the customer experience – particularly within product and engineering – to make sure you are able to help them hear the customer voice”
Kaitlin: We’re Slack users and big fans, and it’s clear that Slack is the gold standard when it comes to customer experience. What’s your advice for other support leaders who want to make the customer experience more of a priority for their company if there’s no safe form or organization around it like there is at Slack?
Lane: First of all, power to those people. One of the things that I found helpful is reading some market research. There’s a lot of information out there around the things that lose customer trust. Support, of course, is high on that list, if people have a bad experience. While it’s not something they would necessarily say that they’re thinking about when they’re evaluating something or signing up for a service, it’s definitely going to be something that’s going to impact their overall perception of your brand or even impact them in terms of them walking away or canceling their subscription of whatever it is.
I mean, think about any bad support experience you’ve had. It often gets you to the point where you’re like: “Screw this company. I want to walk away. I’ll take my business elsewhere.” I think airlines are a good example of that. You have a bad experience once – or even see the bad press from an experience that someone else has had – and you’re just like: “I don’t want to give money to that company. I don’t want to support that, I don’t want to have that experience or be part of that.”
“You have to lead that mission internally and stay customer-centric: always considering what the customer wants”
So you have to think about it holistically and consider, “What case can I build around why support is important and how it’s part of the brand?” It’s part of the marketing of the company. It’s part of the overall customer experience. I think from there, you have to build a lot of internal support within your company in terms of allies for the customer experience – particularly within product and engineering – to make sure you are able to help them hear the customer voice if they’re not working one-to-one within support. You have to lead that mission internally and stay customer-centric: always considering what the customer wants. There’s so much richness there to dive into but I think that’s the advice I would give.
Kaitlin: Well, thank you so, so much for joining us here on the podcast, Lane. And kudos for all of the great work at Twitter and certainly at Slack. So many companies and businesses out there, ourselves included, want to prioritize their customers and scale their business in the right way, and it sounds like you guys are onto something. Thank you for joining us, and thank you for sharing with us. It’s been great having you here today.
Lane: Thanks for having me.