Making Sense of Spontaneity: Amplifying the Customer Voice at Slack
I grew up in a home that valued academic excellence. I was adept at deconstructing complex thoughts and processes to reveal hidden meanings and underlying assumptions, and I was rewarded and praised in school for doing so. I moved into the Ivy League, and from there to Cambridge and Oxford, where I soon discovered there was more to life than breaking things apart.
One cold, rainy night, I was walking along the High Street in Oxford when I heard laughter from the third floor of a building. On the ground floor was a pub. I went in and climbed a narrow staircase into a dark room where a group of people was performing improvisational comedy. I didn’t know it, but my life was about to change.
The Art of Improv
Improv is unscripted and relies on performers reacting to each other's words and actions. I knew I'd be terrible at such a thing because I'd never worked the skill of reading someone's arguably stupid idea as brilliant and exploring what happens from that place. But I was enamored, intimidated, and perplexed by this activity—which meant I had to give it a try.
One of the first things I learned was that you cannot master improv. It’s a dynamic art. The players are always different, and you have to flex between leading and following. To succeed, you have to relinquish your appetite for control, and giving up that habit is liberating.
That discovery changed my life. I wrote and directed an improv sketch show while at Oxford and studied at the Upright Citizens Brigade and Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) upon returning to New York City. Over the years, I performed, taught, coached, and spent several years with Story Pirates, an arts education organization that collects kids' stories and adapts them for the stage and as podcasts.
Balancing Unpredictability and Simplicity
Ironically, the thing that attracted me to improv also attracted me to the world of enablement. Enablement is all about balance. In sales enablement, you develop a simple sales process that looks great on paper and have to balance that with the inarguable fact that sales is relational, messy, collaborative, and very much improvisational. The balancing act was extremely appealing to me.
I worked at several software companies and landed at Slack in October 2018. I began as the Global Lead of our Sales Enablement team and was named Senior Manager, Global Sales & Success Enablement, in February 2021. My task is to facilitate, train, and create an environment that honors dynamism and unpredictability while providing a scaffolding that lets our people flourish, succeed, and grow.
I view my role as expanding the narrow aperture of traditional sales practices. I aim to give my sales reps, direct reports, managers, and peers the tools to become their best selves as they strive to achieve the desired ends. These include sales targets and positive behaviors that make us better, stronger, more resilient, increasingly curious, and better informed.
The First Time I Heard the Gong
I discovered Gong on a customer call that I joined to discuss Slack’s approach to sales and success enablement. At the beginning of the call, I heard the voice notification that we were being recorded. I was intrigued by that initial interaction and called the customer back that same day to get more info on the service.
Our customer explained that Gong was part of their onboarding process. They recorded customer calls and replayed them for new hires to hear the voice of the customer. At that point, my improv background kicked in. Here was a way to teach my reps how to react to customers' actual words and actions instead of learning from a script or a case study.
I did some research and discovered that Gong is more than just a call recorder. It is a revenue intelligence platform. It captures customer-facing interactions during web conferences, VoIP and telephone calls, in-person meetings, and email. You can replay conversations, read the transcriptions to verify customer agreements, and learn what sets your top performers apart. You can also use Gong's in-depth call analytics to build personalized coaching recommendations.
I liked what I saw, but I had to clear a few hurdles. The first was meeting our security standards and getting approval from our legal and privacy teams. They took a deep dive into Gong and granted permission to move ahead. The second hurdle was making sure it integrated well with our primary enablement tools: Salesforce, Zoom, and of course, Slack. Once it passed that test, I then cleared the last hurdle, which was to let people loose within Gong and start to get feedback on the platform.
We ran a pilot with teams in the U.S. and India, and we noticed that without our guidance, individuals started organically sharing snippets and clips of their own call recordings with their peers and managers. That was the moment I realized that Gong was different than anything we’d seen before.
Context for Honest Conversations
In sales enablement, we strive to facilitate peer learning by creating an environment where peers willingly complete activities, not because we push them. We also try to introduce learning programs, processes, and communications in the context in which they happen: the customer conversation.
Unfortunately, our partners in marketing, operations, product, and customer support are structurally removed from these conversations. As such, they can’t contribute fully to the enablement process. But Gong makes the voice of the customer and the voice of the rep available to everyone, and this opened further conversations between reps, marketers, operations, support, and leadership. Information started to flow like never before, and the success and sales enablement team was given new pathways to further empower our reps.
From a learning perspective, it means that when I, or someone on my team, develops a competitive messaging playbook or a persona-based sales play, it is no longer done in the abstract. It isn't predicated on that single golden customer story that is so polished it almost feels fake. Instead, it’s based on real interactions with real customers, be they beautiful and praiseworthy or absolute flaming disasters. We couldn't create that type of content without Gong.
Sales as the Epicenter of Collaboration
There’s a lot to explore within Gong and its capabilities in terms of analytics, manager coaching, deal management, and other enablement tools. But more broadly speaking, we’ve seen sales become the epicenter of collaboration and cross-functional work within our organization and companies like ours across the industry.
When working across teams, there's often information degradation even when everyone is in alignment. For example, when you're a sales rep and given a deck from marketing, it often feels tone deaf. They don't have the same experience of hearing directly from the customer day in and day out, and the content initially reflects that.
Gong lets my enablement team act as an intermediary between sales and everyone else. We are better positioned to cut out the noise and amplify the voice, the needs, and the fears of the customer. We can then use what we learn to build products and find value propositions that resonate with our customers and reflect Slack’s vision as a company.
A Deliberate Approach to Adoption
Despite being such a cool tool, sales reps aren’t always receptive. When you tell a rep that we’re going to record all of their calls with a customer, their immediate reaction is, “Go f*ck yourself,” and appropriately so. At first glance, the act of recording and sharing conversations threatens the sense of individuality and autonomy they hold so dear.
Deployment, therefore, requires a very deliberate change in management strategy. We did a lot of work building internal champions prior to Gong's broad release. From engineers to customer success managers, we found people who understood the primary use cases and could test the platform in a way that targeted their specific needs.
Managers don't have a lot of spare time, so we found a smart way to package our Gong training into bite-sized morsels that made it easy for them to learn the platform and see its value. We also rolled out a targeted microlearning campaign called "Gong in 60 Seconds," a series of weekly one-minute videos that focused on simple use cases for managers. Topics included setting up call submission mechanisms for reps, mobile app basics, setting up call cues, listening to calls, and building engagement. We slotted training into their busy schedules instead of adding to their workload, which would have caused further resistance.
Once we were up and running, the Gong/Slack integration proved to be amazing. Any team or individual with a call monitoring use case can home in on the data they need using parameters that include call participants, sales territories, and purchase agreement value. For example, a sales manager can pull all stage-one calls with our VP of IT in the lower 48 states resulting in sales exceeding $50,000, and then share and discuss them in a Slack channel. We couldn't have imagined such a use case a couple of years ago.
The Slack Connect Launch
In March 2020, we used Gong to help launch Slack Connect, which allows users to work with individuals and teams outside their organization without leaving Slack. It was our biggest product launch ever. We set ambitious KPIs and put tons of money and substantial marketing muscle into the effort.
But Slack Connect is free, so we needed to incentivize reps to position the product as an advanced use case for Slack that would drive other sales. We used Gong on the back end to see how our reps talked about Slack Connect and at what point in the sales cycle the product resonated most with customers.
After a deep analysis that merged all the call data with product signals to determine how to best pitch Slack Connect, we rolled out a sales incentive plan that included a low-dollar spiff and a leaderboard in Slack. It was one of our most successful enablement programs because it incorporated product data and the customer voice in a way that provided context to our reps' success.
Intentional Go-to-Market Success
Though I am on stages less often now, I remain an improviser to the core. In my experience, the most impactful designers, trainers, facilitators, coaches, and leaders listen with the depth and openness of the improviser, assimilate new information with the rapidity of the improviser, and make bold choices with the fearlessness of the improviser. They are intentional about their choices and execution.
The vendor community is creating incredible tools in the content management, training, and email automation spaces that are critical for sales enablement professionals like myself. So we have a choice: Are we going to be led by the tools? Or are we going to be intentional about the culture, competencies, and cadences we want to build for our teams and use these tools to support that? It is up to us to create the conditions that lead to market success.
I feel good about the conditions we’ve created so far at Slack. Slack employees have mentioned Gong 15,000 times in our internal Slack channels. That's 15,000 times our sales reps might have learned from each other, 15,000 times our marketers wouldn't have needed to hire researchers to tell them what customers are thinking, and 15,000 times our analytics team could have built dashboards that merge product data with customer sentiments.
It’s also 15,000 times—at least—that Gong has brought Slack closer to our customers.
I'm very proud that we at Slack are providing a great customer experience—something I've always aspired to do, both on and off stage.