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How Slack swarming and reacji boost premier support at Zendesk

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright July 16, 2019
Of course Zendesk uses its own products to support its top customers - but Slack plays a big role too in co-ordinating the team's work

Business people global communications © Maksim Pasko -

You'd expect customer support and CRM vendor Zendesk to use its own products to support its customers — and it does, of course. But messaging platform Slack has also become a vital part of the support process at Zendesk for escalating issues. Like many other businesses that depend on dynamic, distributed teamwork, Zendesk uses Slack techniques such as swarming and reacji to get faster results, as I learned from Dr Jonathan Brummell, Senior Manager of Premier Support at Zendesk, when we spoke at this year's Slack Frontiers event in San Francisco.

The Premier Support team provides the highest level of support and advocacy to Zendesk customers, with a named support engineer and proactive monitoring as well as priority response times. Zendesk says it solves urgent issues for its priority customers more than four times faster than in other cases. The ability to instantly access expert resources on a Slack channel as people 'swarm' around an issue clearly plays an important part in that statistic. Swarming is a word that was frequently mentioned at Frontiers to describe the phenomenon of various people all jumping on to a Slack channel at the same time to help resolve an issue. Brummel explains a typical scenario:

If a certain number of minutes have passed and you don't have a clear [resolution], then we give it a quick at-mention here or at-mention our team. People swarm in, we hit it in the thread. We'll fire up a Zoom right there from the Slack thread, it spins a meeting, everybody hops on. Within a few minutes, [either] 'Oh, okay, I've seen this' or, 'Oh this is real bad, let's get these guys.'

It has the ability to then zig and zag and accelerate and really elevate the conversation in a very rapid manner, that was before very challenging.

Slack excels in this ad hoc, dynamic collaboration to quickly bring in resources or hand over between teams, while Zendesk handles the more structured processes. Brummel explains:

All of our customer engagement, all our customer interaction, and all of the support experience is in Zendesk. But the fiddly bits if you will, connecting the people — I've got a global team in Madison, Manila, Melbourne, Dublin, London, and we have engineering scattered across the globe — we need a better way in real time to either come together or to pass information to the next team [across timezones] in a respectful way.

Automated processes between Slack and Zendesk

Slack wouldn't be an appropriate medium for managing the many hundreds of support requests that come in — that's the role of the Zendesk platform. Slack comes into play for those issues that need escalating, either because it's a priority customer or if there's a spike in the number of tickets around a specific issue.

The team also use Slack to highlight when something needs to be added or updated in the knowledgebase. They use an icon called 'Sherbert' to flag these posts and then an automated overnight process turns them into tickets for the knowledge management team to action.

This is one of several automated processes between Slack and Zendesk. Every ticket that comes in for a premier support customer triggers actions in Slack, for example:

When a service incident is triggered, it will do a number of things — spinning up custom Slack channels, sending out notifications across the company to different channels that something is going on. It'll pull the on-duty rosters [and] as they're paging them, it will invite them to that Slack channel. So it removes a lot of the cumbersome overhead.

The automation brings useful supporting information from Zendesk into the Slack channel. The team also uses a lot of reaction emoji — small icons that represent emotions or actions, also known as reacji — to quickly show the status of an issue or question in the channel.

There's a lot of information around there about, what's it about, what's the customer, what's the business impact? These are all custom fields in our ticket. But we also use the reacji to show 'Hey, I'm looking at it, I'm working on it, it's done.' Seems really dumb. But honestly, that little bit of information cuts down on so much confusion.

Humanizing the interaction

Another important aspect of using emoji is that they humanize the interaction in a way that isn't possible in a more transactional system such as a calendar or ticketing app. The ability to use Slack for sometimes playful conversations across a distributed global workforce is really important for building relationships, believes Brummel.

Slack has really empowered me as a manager to be able to do that with those, sometimes whimsical things, throwing the gifs around back and forth, maybe a little joke here or there ...

It's allowed me to take an asynchronous or even a multi-continental experience and put the warm human interaction back into it. And that's the hardest part. Because when you build those relationships, when you build that trust, and that connection between you and a colleague, it's the little bits that add up.

So when the stuff hits the fan, you have each other's back, you can instantly engage and you know each other, you have a relationship, and it massively speeds up our ability to help our customers, as well as internally level things up.

Having everybody on the same system is essential to get those benefits throughout the company, he adds.

It's much easier now to collaborate cross-team and cross-pollinate and then engage and pull in some teams that maybe you wouldn't have had access to or would not have had the resources to. So there is some blurring of the boundaries as far as scope and particularly where you are in a job. But it allows us then to bend and flex and, I would say, evolve with the needs of the client and customers as we move forward.

Importance of a single platform

Zendesk used to have several different messaging and collaboration systems, with support, engineering and sales each having their own. Now everyone uses Slack, with some channels for dedicated teams or topics, and other channels that are company-wide. There's also a separate instance of Slack that's open to the Zendesk developer community, where developers can help each other as well as interact with Zendesk product managers. Having a single platform is especially important as the company continues to grow, Brummel believes:

That unification is critical because without it, we're sunk. As we have more products, more employees, more continents, more offices, it's becoming impossible to know everyone in the company. But having the ability and a tool in which to do that, it becomes mission critical.

You have to get everybody in one house, you have to get them into the big tent. And I know this firsthand, as we were struggling with these tools ... We actually had to shut off a few of these tools in order to get everybody into the big tent.

My take

I recently wrote about how the technology industry has been an early adopter and thus a pioneer of digital teamwork techniques that all organizations will have to learn as they digitally transform. Zendesk has adopted Slack to help it handle many of the challenges of doing business digitally — fast growth, rapid change, global operation, and a customer base that demands highly responsive service. Brummel's account of Zendesk's use of Slack highlights several key elements that surface in most successful use cases:

  • Automated workflow from and to other core systems
  • Collaboration across functional and geographic boundaries
  • Rapid dynamic team assembly using @mentions
  • Easy transition from messaging into online conferencing
  • Use of emoji/reacji to rapidly communicate actions taken
  • Allow 'playful' interactions to help build relationships
  • Transparency fosters communication between different teams
  • Enterprise-wide adoption for maximum impact

To succeed in its mission, Zendesk must have rapid, efficient — but also human — internal communications that can bring together people on demand, along with the information and relationships that enable them to achieve an outcome. In providing a platform that fulfills all of those needs, Slack at Zendesk has become "mission critical to our success," says Brummel. 

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