How luggage brand Away uses Slack to speed up production and gather feedback

As digital-first customers demand quick action from retailers based on their feedback, luggage brand Away is using Slack to collect it and evolve product designs faster.

Away is using Slack as a central hub to collect all customer feedback, through dedicated channels for customer ideas for product-specific strategies. As employees collect customer feedback, they add it to subject-specific Slack channels, and all employees are invited to collaboratively decide on the next steps. Since Slack is connected to Away’s vendor partners, it can also consult them within a moment’s notice to determine the quickest time frame for realistically achievable results. It’s a more flexible product development process that stands in contrast to the legacy “waterfall” method, where each product update must follow a set of rigidly defined stages.

With this more agile production process, Slack helped Away meet its biggest challenge yet: an airline ban on lithium batteries early this year, which created a roadblock for Away’s “smart luggage” products that include rechargeable batteries. It could have been a death sentence: Similarly positioned competitors Bluesmart and Raden shuttered business following the ban. But Away said quick communication through Slack was a major reason why it was able to address the problem. Customers suggested the company retrofit the carry-on with an ejectable, removable battery, so an Away teammate flagged the idea internally in the #customer-ideas Slack channel. Within the first couple of months after the ban was announced, Away rolled out a new model of its suitcases equipped with an ejectable battery pack.

“Slack is our everything process,” said CEO Steph Korey. “It’s our physical product design process; it’s the hub of everything. A traditional company might have many months of user testing and feedback, and we’re able to use the immediacy to get feedback and, within a week or two, get extremely rich insights and data.”

Slack creates a flatter organization where teams can work horizontally, Korey said. The company’s 200 employees use the platform for all internal communications. On the product development side, Slack lets product developers, designers and employees who test the products collaborate in a shared virtual space. While these teams still have conversations in person, Slack allows them to understand broader trends around customer feedback in a central place; should vendors or partners need to be brought into the discussion, it offers staff members quick access.

Slack has influenced the brand’s product line in other ways: The company has also used Slack to involve customer feedback into the design of packing compartments it calls “packing cubes”; specifically, customers suggested that the packing compartments be transparent. And based on customer suggestions brought together on Slack, Away decided to relaunch a limited-edition pink suitcase line last year in response to customer demand. Employees are responsible for adding customer feedback to applicable channels; the company doesn’t use Slack to communicate with customers.

“We used #customer-love and #customer-ideas [channels] to share feedback, and channels like #product-strategy and #blush-launch to work cross-functionally on the launch,” Korey said. “Slack allowed our team to be nimble and to not only listen to what people had asked for but to respond by coming up with the best solution.”

Slack doesn’t eliminate the need for customer surveys, however; it just makes it easier to collect input. It also offers a ready-made record, which functions as a repository of decisions and a resource for staff training purposes, and connects store employees at the company’s physical locations.

Slack is capable of integrating with customer service ticketing systems such as Zendesk or Salesforce, which allows a brand to have a direct line of sight into the customer journey, said Lauren Pietersen, director of products and partnerships at Merkle-owned digital marketing company HelloWorld.

“Companies are now using Slack’s Customer Service solution as an aggregation point for nearly all channels of customer feedback about products and services,” she said. “Consumer brand mentions on Twitter, for example, whether rant or rave, can be fed directly into a dedicated Slack channel that allows not only appropriate customer service responses but also allows product teams to spot trends and make changes to roadmaps quickly.”

Other retailers have begun using Slack to connect directly with customers; recent examples include fashion brands like Modern Citizen and Glossier that are creating Slack groups to initiate conversations with customers who, in turn, provide insights and advice for product developers.

Despite the appeal of Slack as a means to enable quick product development, using it effectively may also mean ring-fencing it with appropriate controls. This means training staff members on how they use the information that’s collected and making sure product feedback collected isn’t overrun with bias or misinterpretation.

“I’m always a proponent and an advocate of saying if we can find tech to streamline processes and focus on customers, it’s a win. Slack, in theory, does that,” said marketing consultant Judge Graham. “The thing I would be nervous about is [that] every brand needs to be able to control the message, and if staff members aren’t properly trained in customer service, what they are empowered to do and what they aren’t able to do, then you can open it up to chaos.”

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