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Mike Molinet is Co-Founder and COO of Branch, the leading Mobile Linking Platform and MMP serving over 70,000 apps and thousands of enterprise customers. At Branch, Mike built and scaled the GTM functions, including sales, customer success, support, and field engineering. Since 2015, Branch has used external Slack channels to help serve customers better and give them an unparalleled experience.
In today’s world, everyone in the tech world lives in Slack (or Teams). Thanks to Slack’s platform upon which companies have built countless apps, it’s become the centralized place where teammates collaborate, customers and vendors discuss questions, and where people take action on things that used to be done in different apps or sites. At Branch, Slack has been transformational in how we service and support our clients, and with the impending recession ahead it’s becoming even more critical in shoring up our customer experience, improving our retention, and improving our efficiency.
With the rise of Slack and messaging platforms as the preferred means of communication, there’s been a substantial shift in how customers like to interact. Today, customers are accustomed to real-time communication and resolution of questions and issues. They also don’t want to jump to between an online support portal, email, help pages, and other applications to solve their need. Instead, they’re accustomed to operating in Slack.
We started servicing customers with external channels before it was cool. We started with guest accounts before Shared Channels were a thing, and once Shared Channels entered Beta, we were one of the first companies to adopt it because we saw how critical fast, real-time customer communication was to our growth and retention. Fast forward a few years, and we now have over 500 Shared Channels with our customers (plus partners and vendors) to serve them better, faster, and more personally than other companies.
The shift to messaging platforms as a primary communication method creates a massive opportunity for those B2B companies willing to adapt to the changing landscape. By doing so, companies can differentiate themselves with better customer service, and with the right structure can also service clients more efficiently.
Customer Success - and more generally customer experience - can sometimes be overlooked, but in my experience growing Branch, it can be the most important piece of the customer lifecycle journey.
In a survey SuperOffice did with 1900 B2B companies, “Customer Experience” was the top priority for these leaders over the next five years.
There are a lot of reasons for that.
1. Customers Grow, and it’s 5x more efficient to acquire new revenue from existing customers than from new logos. For B2B recurring revenue businesses, it might cost you $1.50 to acquire a $1.00 ARR from a new logo, but growing an existing customer in revenue is significantly more efficient, on the order of $0.20-0.30 per new $1.00 ARR.
2. The current macroeconomic environment is changing the game towards profitability and efficiency. For startups, the game has shifted towards profitability and survival, so gone are the days of “100% growth at all costs”, and in its place is a game of efficiency. The most efficient way to improve profitability is to retain customers more highly by giving them great service and support. While that new ARR dollar might cost you $1.50 in Year 1, for an existing customer, your servicing costs are more liiely to be $0.30 in expenses for each year they stay with you - that’s where the profits are: in Year 2 and beyond.
3. Churned Customers cost your business a lot. SuperOffice’s post highlights that “$62 billion is lost each year due to bad customer service. Meanwhile, another study found 91% of unhappy customers leave a brand without complaining.” Bad customer experience is costly - but there are ways to fix it.
Below is how we at Branch have used Slack (and Teams) to better service our customers, retain them more highly, and ultimately grow them more effectively, which in turn has helped lead to Branch’s success in turn.
(1) Onboarding services during implementation
Closing a deal is just the beginning of the customer relationship, and the implementation phase that follows is the biggest factor of whether that company is successful with your product in the first 6 months. The SaaS business model works due to recurring revenue, and in most cases, you need to retain a customer for 2-3 years in order to break even, so if you don’t onboard them well, you’ll just end up burning cash due to high churn.
This is where Slack comes in. The customer is most eager right after signing the deal, so take advantage of that momentum. To do this, create a Shared Slack Channel with the customer, invite your teammates (sales, CS, Implementation team, Managers, Executive Sponsor, etc), and have your customer champion invite their teammates. This gives you real-time access to the customer’s team members who will be instrumental in getting your product adopted, and it gives their engineers quick access to your team in order to keep the implementation running.
The reason real-time access is key during this phase is momentum. If the customer has an engineer who’s blocked off time to implement your product and they get blocked on something, you have minutes - not hours or days - to help get them unblocked before they move onto something else. And if you miss that opportunity and they move on, getting them back to your implementation can sometimes be near impossible. I’ve seen this countless times over the years - everyone is busy, so when they feel blocked, they’ll move on, and then it’s a challenge to get their attention back to your implementation. So real-time access, rather than asynchronous email, can help unblock the customer during the implementation phase and keep the momentum high.
Once you have the channel established, leverage it for things beyond just regular messaging. We use the channel to post about weekly progress, including callouts to people who have Action Items or are blocked. We also share our implementation tracker (a spreadsheet with milestones and dates) and bookmark it in the channel so anyone - new or old to the channel - can easily reference it at any time. The channel also gives us a place to post metrics updates and share relevant product news.
Finally, during the implementation phase, the engagement - or sometimes lack thereof - is also a leading indicator into the future health of the relationship. Most of the time companies are heavily engaged, sometimes inviting >100 people into the channel and sharing dozes of messages a day. But if a shared channel is dead quiet during the implementation phase, that can be an indicator that something is stalled or blocked. That early insight can enable you and your team to get more involved to identify the issue early before it becomes a bigger problem
(2) Customer Success
Once the customer has implemented your product and gone live, it enters the Customer Success phase, during which your job is to help the customer get the most value out of your product. By doing so, they’ll be more successful, they’ll be happier, and they’ll grow - all of which in turn help you by retaining them more highly and also creating opportunities for product cross-selling and upsells.
The best Customer Success Managers engage actively and regularly with their customers in a variety of platforms. While regular meetings and async emails are still happening, we’ve seen a massive spike in the engagement of customers with our CSMs in Slack. In fact, I’ve found that in the past few years, Slack is the highest engagement channel for our customers. Emails tend to get ignored regularly, meetings get skipped, but just about everyone engages heavily in Slack. With that comes the opportunity.
Our CSMs are able to engage actively and real-time with our customers. This builds a much closer bond and connection between our team and the customer. It also helps resolve things much more quickly so the customer can get more value out of the product earlier.
A secondary benefit is the increased visibility and responsiveness across the account team, both for learning as well as supporting customers. With email, it’s common for a private email to get sent to a CSM, who might be tied up and unable to respond for 4 hours. However, in a Slack channel, someone else on the account team might be able to jump in and help resolve the question or issue while their teammate is tied up. Additionally, everyone gets to see the answer and learn from the interaction.
(3) Support Services
While it’s great having CSMs engaging heavily in Slack with customers, there are also drawbacks if it becomes too distracting answering a high volume of questions on a daily basis. Ideally you want your CSMs being strategic partners to the customer, engaging with key stakeholders, driving product adoption, and guiding their champion to help extract as much value out of the product as possible.
Enter your Support team. At Branch we try to allocate our CSMs for strategic customer work, and rely heavily on our stellar Support team to help answer more product-related questions and troubleshoot issues. When a question or issue comes in, we’ll typically triage it either as a CSM-related question (e.g. “How can I increase conversion rate from my site to my app”) or a Support-related question (e.g. “How do I implement this SDK” or “I can’t get this ad network to attribute properly”).
Historically, we’d ask customers to send an email to our support email or use our support portal to submit a ticket. While great for tracking, this led to a dropoff in the customer actually asking a question or submitting a ticket. That’s because any extra steps lead to friction, and that friction led to many customers suffering in silence. What’s worse than having too many tickets is customers that are having issues but not reporting them, ultimately leading to them not adopting your product and then churning because they never got value out of it.
So how do you solve this? Support them where they’re working. When your customers are asking questions or reporting issues in Slack, don’t tell them “Can you re-send this to our support email alias”. Instead, convert that message to a ticket and connect it directly to your Support team. More on how we do this with Thena at Branch below.
(4) Knowledge Continuity
One of the key benefits to having these longstanding channels with customers is knowledge continuity by leveraging the channel as a repository of sorts. In tech, people are regularly moving jobs, changing companies, or getting promoted. With this comes a change in account team members. If all that knowledge is trapped away in email - or worse, Salesforce - it’s unlikely the new account team members will ever find it. But when the full conversation history is captured in Slack inside the shared customer channel, it’s accessible for anyone in the future, whether they be at your company or the customer’s.
(5) Marketing Content
In addition to everyday support and Customer Success of our customers, Slack has also been instrumental in marketing important content to the key people at the company, such as Product Updates, relevant blog posts, and upcoming events.
Historically, we’d only use marketing emails to send updates to a large mailing list, but there are a few problems with only sending marketing emails: (1) a limited number of people are subscribed to them and get the content, and (2) people are conditioned to ignore marketing emails.
By sending relevant content in Slack newsletter format, you can break through the noise in a new way where people are actively engaged. You also get much greater visibility on the content because everyone in the channel will see it. As a comparison, we looked at one of our customer channels which has over 200 of our customer’s team members. That same customer only had 12 people subscribed to our marketing emails. That meant our Slack newsletter had a 15x reach at that company compared to email.
At Branch, we send a monthly Slack newsletter to our customer channels, and will also send ad hoc short announcements when something important happens (e.g. a big product launch). This also brings you and customer closer through regular communication and staying top of mind.
(6) Direct Comms
In addition to shared channels, with Slack Connect, you get a few advantages that help you connect more directly with your customers via DMs.
(1) You get better responses in Slack from a lot of people than you do email. Let’s be honest - some people aren’t the best at responding to emails. For those folks, I’ve found that Slack is a much more effective method for getting a response.
(2) You can access people you otherwise wouldn’t be able to email. If there’s someone that’s in the channel, you should be able to DM them. Compare that with email where you need to know their email already, or take a guess based on formatting of others’ emails. Even then, your email is likely to get overlooked.
While Slack has been an incredible tool for better serving our customers, it also creates some challenges, which we used to hear about from our CSMs and Support team.
1. You’ll get a much higher volume of questions and issues reported to you. While this is a good thing overall (because the customer is at least telling you), it can be overwhelming and distracting for CSMs. It can take a lot of time to manage all the communications that happen in a CSM’s 30 customer channels.
2. You’re more susceptible to missed messages in Slack. While email support tools have more configuration for OOO rerouting and alerting when something goes unaddressed. Slack messages can be a bit more ephemeral and with less oversight, leading to messages getting missed.
3. There’s no tracking on volume of tickets, SLAs, or any other metrics. Because Slack doesn’t connect with anything else, your support team doesn’t get these messages tracked in their standard support system (e.g. Zendesk), and management has no idea how much time or energy is spent supporting customers in slack.
4. Systems are disjointed and don’t talk to each other (e.g. Support personnel aren’t in shared slack channels). This can lead to messy situations, such as a lot of copy-pasting by the CSM, or people having to jump between two or three different systems just to help the customer.
Enter Thena. All those problems mentioned above are exactly what Thena solves, and it’s what’s enabled us to continue supporting our customers where they want to engage (Slack) while also making our CSMs’ lives easier, reducing the workload for the account team, making it easier for the Support Engineers, and giving better insight and tracking to management.
Thena helps automatically convert a customer’s Slack message into an issue or request for our team. It creates a two-way connection between Slack and our support system so support personnel can be assigned to tickets and communicate in their tool without needing to switch to Slack, while the customer can still stay within Slack. Management can get escalations, alerts on missed SLAs when things are slipping, and overall metrics to see where things are healthy or unhealthy. And we’re able to use engagement information to tell early if a customer might be in trouble. This helps turn Slack from “yet another place to check” into the central place where customers can engage with us.
Messaging platforms in business communication will continue to rise in popularity as the preferred method for customers to communicate. Embracing Slack through the entire customer lifecycle enables us at Branch to better onboard, support, retain, and ultimately grow our customers, and Thena makes it possible at scale.