How product leaders at Slack & Zendesk approach excellent product management
To kick off last month’s Product Excellence Summit, our CEO, Hubert Palan, welcomed two very special guests for a fireside chat – Shawna Wolverton, EVP Product at Zendesk, and Tamar Yehoshua, Chief Product Officer at Slack.
During an interesting conversation that Hubert moderated, Shawna and Tamar explained how they approach customer-centricity, product strategy, and organizational alignment in two of the most successful companies in the digital product world.
In case you missed it, here’s a lightly edited version of the discussion.
Shawna, Zendesk was the first company that separated itself from the pack with easy to use and delightful customer support. As the company defining what customer support looks like, what does it mean to you to be customer-driven?
Shawna Wolverton: It’s all about this idea of coming to the market with a service-first lens. The whole culture of Zendesk is about helping and assisting. So when we think about the product development process, it’s infused with this idea of how we can help our customers get the work they need to get done in the easiest, most efficient, and most helpful way. We want to be helpful to our customers so that they can be helpful to their own.
“When we think about the product development process, it’s infused with this idea of how we can help our customers get the work they need to get done in the easiest, most efficient, most helpful way.”
We have dozens of ways that we’re listening to our customers. In our community, we have these amazing mindshare events where it’s not even about Zendesk – it’s about the lives of our customers. The opportunity to listen to them talk to each other about their work gives us incredible insight into the problems they have, so we can then go and find the solutions.
Tamar, Slack has revolutionized how companies communicate and was named one of the most customer-obsessed companies in 2019 by Forbes magazine. How does Slack think about customer-centricity?
Tamar Yehoshua: Customer-centricity is a team sport. Everybody has to be focused on the customer. We get feedback from so many different places, but the key is putting yourself in the customers’ shoes.
“Customer-centricity is a team sport. Everybody has to be focused on the customer. We get feedback from so many different places, but the key is putting yourself in the customers’ shoes.”
To add to what Shawna said, one thing we do when we kick off a new project is to bring everyone together – engineers, product managers, designers, UX researchers, and somebody from customer support. And whatever product is working on, we put ourselves in the customers’ shoes.
One of the unique challenges we have is that we use Slack all day, every day. We don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking we know what our customers need, because not all our customers are like us. Not all customers understand the product as well as we do, or use all the functionality.
So one trick we’ve done is to pretend we’re at a barbecue and somebody comes up to you and says, “I’m using this cool tool called Slack. You should try it out.” You have to pretend you have no idea what it is. By putting yourself in that mindset and then going through our onboarding flow, it’s incredible what a difference it makes. We see things differently when we try and put ourselves in the customers’ shoes.
Shawna, I know that at Zendesk, you have somebody with the title Voice of the Customer. How does that work?
Shawna Wolverton: We have a Voice of the Customer team. And now we have someone in our product organization dedicated to the voice of the customer. Feedback comes from so many different places, so having people who can help wrangle some of that information, who have deep ties to the product organization, really helps.
I think the voice of the customer is great when you can get up at 10,000 feet. But the risk of having too much feedback is that you end up obsessing over every single customer feature request.
There’s the old adage about faster horses. Customers rarely ask you to innovate. They ask you to sand down some corners or make small incremental changes. And those are critical. Delighting customers and delivering incremental improvements is great.
But if you go too far in responding to and engaging with every piece of feedback, you run the risk of becoming the people who walk the requirements from the customers to the engineers. And I think our job as product leaders and product managers is so much bigger than that.
So how do you deal with that? Tamar, I understand that you funnel all the feedback into Slack channels, and you have emojis based on that. Is that right?
Tamar Yehoshua: Yes. We have a lot of different avenues for getting customer support feedback. One is a feed from Zendesk, so tickets get sent into a Slack channel and get categorized. That all happens automatically, and anybody can look at this feed to see the incoming tickets.
A team can then use an emoji reaction, which is the emoji of their team, and this funnels that ticket to their team channel. It’s a way of telling people, “We’re on it!” We also have feedback channels with Twitter comments coming in. We have official tweeters responsible for responding to what we call ‘love tweets’ and ‘beef tweets.’
We have customer advisory boards that are much more structured and happen quarterly for different types of roles. And then we have shared channels using Slack Connect for each customer advisory board, so the people on the customer advisory boards can talk to each other, and we can talk to them.
There are all these different channels getting different types of feedback – feedback about bugs, feedback from small companies, feedback from large companies, etc. And as Shawna said, the Holy Grail for the product manager is: How do you balance all these, and how do you prioritize them?
You have to have an eye on the strategy. You have to think about it like, “This is what we’re trying to accomplish for our customers. What’s going to have the biggest impact for them?” And then you have to focus the organization. You have to give them parameters.
If you just say, “Here are all the things you could work on,” and it’s a scattershot of a million items, it’s hard for people to prioritize. Instead, you give them a framework and say, “Here are the top three things we think are the most important for our customers and our business for this year, or this quarter. Within that, figure out what is the biggest leverage point for our customers.”
And how do you approach this at Zendesk, Shawna?
Shawna Wolverton: We’ve done a tremendous amount of work taking the company strategy and then thinking through our product strategy as a guiding light or north star. So the thousands of decisions that get made every day within a scrum team – you know, should I do A or B – we look at them against where we’re going as a company.
Also, we are incredibly globally distributed. We do product development in 10 different countries. So we’ve done a lot of work centrally to have a consolidated top 10 across all those teams. This makes it easy to communicate to the organization and have a shared understanding of the most important things from an outcome point of view. It allows teams to have some autonomy in how they make decisions against those bigger goals.
2020 has been a crazy year. Thanks to COVID, everything is upside down. How have you reacted? Have you changed your strategy, or have you just adjusted the tactics?
Tamar Yehoshua: Our product strategy has stayed the same for many, many years. There are the tenets of the product strategy, and one of the most important ones is to build a product that people love and that works for any organization, large or small.
So the strategy tends not to change, but the tactics and the roadmap of how you accomplish that absolutely does. You have to be able to pivot on a dime. COVID happened, everyone went remote, and then we are like, “OK, our customers need something different.”
“The strategy tends not to change, but the tactics and the roadmap of how you accomplish that absolutely does. You have to be able to pivot on a dime.”
So we went remote at the same time that our customers did. We saw messages on our Slack channels increase in a day by 30%, and we saw the same thing with our customers. And what was more interesting, we saw a lot of new people turning to Slack that didn’t know Slack as well as the people who had come before.
So we pivoted our roadmap. We were already going to work on our onboarding flow, but we turned hard at making sure that it worked for new customers who knew very little about Slack.
We had free consultations on our webpage for companies going remote, and the whole company pitched in. Anybody in the company could sign up to do a 20-minute free consultation for any potential new customer. It brought the company together because, at a time where the world was turning upside down, people wanted to help other people. So that was a way of understanding where our customers were, and it’s now a part of our program, although now we have a dedicated team doing it.
So yes, we absolutely had to pivot and change. We also had to think about how we could help people with more asynchronous communication – because, as we all know, we hear a lot about Zoom fatigue. So we wanted to see how we could help with that problem in a different way and solve it in a way that’s authentic to our product.
Shawna, how has COVID affected your strategy at Zendesk?
Shawna Wolverton: We had a very similar experience. Our strategy didn’t change, but we were able to take a pause and reconnect with it.
This idea of making things easy – things that just work – is such a core part of our DNA. We had some long-running projects that weren’t really gaining a lot of traction. So we took the opportunity to stop doing some things we had in progress and to refocus.
We focused on that getting-started flow. Many people showed up who had been managing their support just fine in an inbox or spreadsheet before COVID but who now needed a lot more help. And the ability for us to deliver a product where a customer called us on Thursday and was up and running and taking tickets on Monday – that was incredibly impressive.
Then, we went back to some of our really powerful and commonly used features and reduced the friction to make it easier for our customers to continue getting great value as they scale.
How did you decide to focus particularly on the onboarding experience and new customers? How did you decide where to allocate your resources?
Tamar Yehoshua: There’s no easy road here. During the COVID crisis, a lot of our existing customers expanded Slack usage within their companies. So we had to balance making sure that our existing customers could expand while bringing in new customers. A lot of the help there was through our Customer Success team around dealing with change management. We have a dedicated enterprise team, and we have a dedicated onboarding activation self-service team, and there’s a lot of overlap. They work very closely together. They share a lot of components of what they need to solve.
Shawna Wolverton: We built a set of principles for COVID: the first one was to take care of ourselves and our employees, and the second one was to take care of our customers. It’s really galvanizing when the entire organization understands what’s most important.
“We built a set of principles for COVID: the first one was to take care of ourselves and our employees, and the second one was to take care of our customers. It’s really galvanizing when the entire organization understands what’s most important.”
You both mentioned to me earlier that the DNA and skill-set of product managers who focus on larger companies is different from those that focus on smaller companies. Can you expand on that a little bit? How do you think about that when putting teams together?
Tamar Yehoshua: We have many different customers. We have end users who are using the product. We have developers who are developing on the platform. We have admins who are supporting their organizations. And we have C-suites who are decision-makers. You have to understand that these customers have different needs, and you have to cater to them differently.
For example, in a large organization of 100,000 people, being an admin is a full-time job of understanding how to make Slack work for your entire organization. So, what tools do they need to make sure that their organization is effective? It’s a different set of features than the end-user, who is just looking at the core product.
Again, the decision-maker is looking at security and compliance. So you have to be able to cater to these different audiences and understand what they need from you and your product.
Shawna Wolverton: We have the team organized into functionality. Our end-users are our customers’ customers – people showing up at your help center using your answer box to find help. So we have a whole bunch of people focused on that part of the product.
Then there’s the agent experience – people who really understand agents. And then we have a lot of people thinking about the platform and the admin experience. And that’s where we’ve invested in people who really get what it means to administer software in an enterprise.
What about the relationship between product teams and other parts of the organization – sales, customer success, support? How do they overlap?
Shawna Wolverton: Unsurprisingly, we use Zendesk to bring in a lot of our feedback. It’s where a lot of feedback from the field gets routed into the product organization. We have regular syncs between the product organization and go-to-market, where they share what they’re hearing, and we share what we’re building, and we figure out where there might be mismatches there.
Our Success and Sales teams have the opportunity to be front and center with our customers all the time. So it’s critical that the people who are closest to the customer are bringing what they hear back.
We have a great funnel for future requests. And what I’m trying to get to next is a funnel for business problems – because feature requests are easy, but really understanding what the root problem is that we’re trying to solve is where the fun happens in product management.
“Feature requests are easy, but really understanding what the root problem is that we’re trying to solve is where the fun happens in product management.”
Tamar Yehoshua: There are a number of different touchpoints, but I would say the principle behind everything is that no matter how information is funneled, product managers need to be meeting with customers regularly.
There are lots of ways to funnel. We have what we call product specialists in our Customer Experience team who gather together bugs and work with the product teams. We have customer advisory boards, an amazing Customer Success team. There are many ways that information comes in, but nothing substitutes for the emotional connection you get when sitting with the customer and hearing what they’re trying to do.
“There are lots of ways that information comes in, but nothing substitutes for the emotional connection you get when sitting with the customer and hearing what they’re trying to do.”
So we have a product manager who manages all the customer relationships for the product organization and sets up opportunities. Because a lot of PMs want to meet with customers but don’t know how to. So you need a program. You need somebody who arranges these opportunities. In fact, we have a Slack channel for this.
There’s one more topic that I want to touch on – the concept of aligning the organization. What’s the best way? How do you approach this?
Tamar Yehoshua: We use OKRs, objectives, and key results. Right now, we are going through our planning for next year and our key company objectives – you have to start with the company objectives.
So first, there’s a three-year plan and a three-year strategy around where we want to go with the product in the next three years. And from there, it’s about what we need to get done in the next year.
The company objectives are high-level ambitions, not the tactics of how you’re going to get there. It’s telling the organization that these are the things you do first. Often, I’ve seen the mistake of thinking you have to include everyone in the objectives – you don’t.
Many things have to happen in a company – the site needs to be reliable, the accountants need to close the books, etc. The objectives are the highest leverage points. They are the biggest needle movers. They are the things that are going to change your customers’ lives and your business. So those are the things that you’re going to resource first, and you’re going to make sure happen – because if there isn’t a company objective around it, it might not happen, as opposed to something like closing the books.
So we do the company objectives first, and then we do our product design and engineering objectives that fall out from that. There might be some additional ones, then some that are specific to our organization, and those can change every quarter. But the company objectives don’t really change.
Again, we have a public Slack channel for every company objective, where we share progress, updates, and launches. We also have private Slack channels for every company objective, for the group working on it. And then we have public Slack channels for our product and design organization. And every week, we do updates on how we’re tracking to the projects that align with the company objectives. There’s a lot of public information about how we’re doing, where you can ask questions and have discussions.
Shawna Wolverton: For a long time, the distribution of our product teams set up an environment where there was a lot of autonomy and bottoms-up, independent work happening across the organization. As we’ve grown and thought more about how all the things we build need to come together, there’s been a shift from autonomous, bottoms-up planning to a more centralized approach.
We try to understand the most important things we’re doing. So we have a rolling top 10 that helps people who are out there building the product to understand where they fit in and the work they’re doing.
Then we’ve brought in monthly reviews, so people show the work that’s happening over time, and we have a chance to have conversations with the teams every month. It takes us a lot of time, but it’s a great way for us to stay connected when we can’t get on planes and go and visit those people.
Then there’s this idea of a rolling roadmap. I think people love the idea of planning for a year – there’s something about 12 months that makes people feel good. But when you are thinking in November about what you’re going to be delivering the next December, it’s an exercise in false precision. So much changes over time. So we’ve moved to this idea of a rolling roadmap.
“When you are thinking in November about what you’re going to be delivering the next December, it’s an exercise in false precision. So much changes over time. So we’ve moved to this idea of a rolling roadmap.”
We have our top ten, which really drives what’s important. We take the opportunity midyear to make sure those things are all still important. And then we’re making bottoms-up roadmaps that come after we’ve communicated the priorities in those roles.
Every quarter, we do an update of those with a lot of certainty about what’s in the next quarter, some pretty good ideas about the one after that, and in the third one, it’s a little bit less certain. It’s less about a commitment and more of a directional idea that can give the organization some ability to plan around us.