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Ten things we learnt about Helpdesks on Slack

ClearFeed started with a mission to reduce noise in the workplace and find actionable items using AI. We began by looking at Slack

Joydeep Sen Sarma

ClearFeed started with a mission to reduce noise in the workplace and find actionable items using AI. We began by looking at Slack - one of the biggest sources of information overload. And in particular, use cases of Slack as a Helpdesk - for both internal and external customers. In the last few months, we talked to many companies about the problems they faced in this area.

We are kicking off our blog with some observations from these interactions. Admittedly, our sample set is small and biased (towards SaaS companies for example) - and we would love to chat (on Slack where else!) with more people on this topic.

1. Slack as a Helpdesk is a Universal construct

Almost all companies use Slack internally as a Helpdesk in different departments (like IT, HR, Sales Ops etc. A lot of SaaS companies use Slack Connect to serve their customers and interface with their partners. Customers love Slack as a way of interacting directly with key people in the company. (Eg. their CSM, Product Leadership, etc.).

2. Startups love Slack for Customer Support

Almost all companies (ourselves included!) find it natural to create a shared Slack channel with their customers and provide direct support over it. You spend your entire day on Slack - so why go elsewhere for Support after all?

The immediacy of response promised by Slack, the ability for many key stakeholders (including product and engineering teams) to interact directly with customers, the lack of licensing and other friction imposed by traditional Ticketing software - all of this make Slack an obvious choice on Day-1.

3. But Ticketing is hard to avoid

For products that have a large user base, Support interactions with such a large user base are infeasible on a shared Slack channel. In such cases, a formal ticketing system like Zendesk, Intercom, is required.

Access to Support is also required over multiple touchpoints - like Email or in-App interfaces for software products. Slack, by itself, does not provide these interfaces.

4. Support over Slack can be hard to scale

Independent of the previous point, Support over Slack itself can be hard to scale as the business grows. While the issues are often company and product-specific, we found some repeated patterns across different companies:

  • The lack of a queuing system means there's no way to route requests to different Support agents.
  • As customer service professionals multi-task, requests on Slack can often go unattended for sometime. Commitments to follow-up later - are often not honored.
  • Some customers ask simple questions over Slack - and there's no way to deflect such queries by providing responses from existing knowledge bases.


5. It's difficult to do Capacity planning on Slack

This is a common pain point across all use cases of Slack for Support (both internal and external). Support teams are used to using Service metrics like

  • Response Time.
  • Volume of Requests.
  • Time Spent per request.
  • Number of requests solved by each Support person.

to understand the volume of Support requests and to plan capacity in response (and also to measure how well they are doing). Slack is a black box though, and it's impossible to get these metrics when providing Support on Slack.

6. What about Teams and Discord?

Many enterprise customers are on Microsoft Teams. As startups scale their business beyond other companies like themselves - they frequently run into customers who want to use Teams for inter-company communication.

Similarly - Discord is rapidly emerging as the tool the Tech community loves to use for chat and is widely used in Open-Source communities. This persists even if the company driving the community uses Slack for their internal communication.

The results of this fragmentation vary. Sometimes employees have to be present on multiple tools. Sometimes there's just no common meeting ground between customers and vendors.

7. Shadow Channels for private comments

Slack channels do not have the notion of private comments (unlike Ticketing systems). Moreover, executives (like a CTO/CPO et al) may not want to be in a customer Slack connect channel directly - but often want to observe and participate in the proceedings.

As a result - many companies often setup a Shadow channel for each customer for internal collaboration around a specific customer. Some even setup a common channel where discussions across different Customer channels are mirrored.

An internal Discussion channel being used to track external Customer conversations

8. Slack + Zendesk + Jira is a common reality

(Zendesk/Jira here are representative of Support Ticketing/Engineering task management systems)

Because of the issues scaling Slack for Support, it is common to revert to a Ticketing system for formal Support. The Slack Connect rooms do not go away (after all customers love them!) - but most Support teams start coaxing their customers to file Tickets instead.

Meanwhile, the Engineering team uses Jira (or similar) for task management and many Customer interactions have dependencies on Engineering tasks. Support and Customer Service professionals end up using a triumvirate of Slack, Zendesk and Jiras for their daily workflows.

9. Collaboration has moved from Jira/Zendesk to Slack

It used to be that people would collaborate on Jira or Zendesk comments (to use the same two popular examples). But increasingly, people just prefer to discuss things on Slack instead.

While this has helped the cause of collaboration (it is indeed far easier to collaborate on Slack and unlike some tools - everyone in the organization has access to Slack) - it has led to fragmentation of knowledge. Triage discussions related to a Ticket, design discussions related to a Jira - all these happen on Slack and are never reflected back in the system of record.

Slack is taking over Collaboration

10.  Slack plugins from Ticketing/Task tools are sub-optimal

Most popular tools like Jira, Linear, Zendesk et al provide Slack plugins of their own. Surprisingly, we learnt that these plugins are often fairly sub-optimal and require users to copy-paste multiple messages in a thread and painfully download and upload attachments across tools. They also don't keep the conversation in Slack in sync as it evolves. Users can end up spending several hours every week transferring data across these tools.

It is not easy to convert Conversations into Tickets/Tasks

11.  Emoticons are a mixed bag

Many teams use emoticons to signal status on requests on their helpdesk. Some also use emoticons to create tickets. However, not everyone loves emoticons. In particular - they are intrusive in customer-facing channels. And lots of people also simply just don't use them.

Emoticons popular in Slack Helpdesks

12. Not just Slack conversations that are hard to track

(Surprise - we have a bonus eleventh item in our Top Ten!)

Many individuals reported that while they have to keep on top of their Slack channels - it is also important to be on top of updates from other tools in the company. Some examples:

  • The customer has asked for an update on an important Ticket on Slack. I need to know when there's important updates on that Ticket and relay it back on Slack.
  • The customer has an important bug or feature on which they are blocked. When Engineering closes this item - I would like to provide an update back to the customer.

The picture that emerges is that in a customer centric world - updates from different tools wrt a single customer are important.

Customer-centricity requires monitoring updates from different tools

Our mission and what's next

Finding actionable insights across the information deluge is a core mission for us at ClearFeed. We have learnt a lot from early users and are building software that will help solve some of the problems above that users narrated to us. If you want to stay tuned for our product updates or want to discuss the challenges you are facing - please drop by our Community Slack and exchange notes with fellow Slackistas or register on our Website and we will get in touch.  

We are also hiring for some key roles in Engineering and Marketing. If you love this problem space -  ping one of the founders on LinkedIn - Joydeep / Lalit / Ankit or apply here.