Best Practices

Startups, Embrace Continuous Communication

July 29, 2021
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As a startup, you compete by shipping products and features the market wants as fast as possible. This fast pace of development means product changes happen constantly, making it increasingly challenging to keep internal teams and customers updated on what's new or different. Services teams like Support, Customer Success, and Implementation Engineering all rely on these updates to help them be proactive, helpful, and knowledgeable, so they can deliver the best customer service. Product and Engineering teams need to know how and when they are impacted by each other's releases, so if another team ships a breaking change that requires immediate action, they can respond quickly, preventing any disruption to the user experience.

When shipping velocity outpaces the ability to communicate what ships, companies hurt their ability to deliver value to their customers, beyond just products and features. After all, if a feature ships and nobody knows about it, did it even really ship?

To deliver value to customers in a holistic way, companies need to work towards continuous communication.

What is continuous communication?

Releases are a team sport that includes coordination across multiple teams within a company. Each team owns some aspect of the value delivery to the end-user, whether that's the product or service itself, the support experience, or the documentation experience. Sharing the right update with the right audience at the right time can make the difference between a positive and a negative customer experience, but managing and maintaining these complex information streams can be a nightmare.

Continuous communication is automating information streams internally among teams and externally to customers during the software release process to improve cross-functional alignment so companies can deliver a world-class, unified brand experience.

Why is continuous communication relevant now?

With the consumerization of B2B software, customer expectations are higher than ever.

Customers expect not only a flawless experience with your app, but also fast, helpful interactions with your Support and Success teams. When they look through your documentation, they expect it to be clear and up to date with the latest changes. In their minds, the product is more than the application itself, it's every touchpoint they have with your company. Every touchpoint (good or bad) impacts their brand perception - every touchpoint is an opportunity to build trust with customers or break it.

In addition to rising customer expectations, companies are pushing more changes more frequently than ever before. Growing adoption of product development approaches like Agile and continuous delivery means that, rather than shipping large releases twice a year, many companies now ship every month, every two weeks, or even multiple times a day. But, while companies are moving faster, their communication streams haven't kept up. Constant changes, multiplied by the various teams that need to act on them, create an explosion of information streams that teams require to keep them aligned and delivering customer value.

Let's take a look at a fictional app and the information streams required for a major release!

Example app: Toastmates' information streams

Toastmates, the on-demand toast delivery app, is working on a new feature allowing users to customize the amount of butter they want on their toast. This feature will be released initially on iOS and then eventually on Android and the Toastmates web app. To ensure a successful release, the product squad working on this feature needs to keep multiple stakeholder groups updated on the progress of the release.

PM <> Other Engineering Teams

The Android and web app teams need a heads up on the release of the butter feature since one of Toastmates' goals is maintaining feature parity across platforms to deliver a consistent user experience across devices.

Tactically, the feature requires a change to Toastmates' backend order management system to store the butter preference field, which also means adding a new field to the API payload and updating the API documentation accordingly.

PM <> Support

The Support team expects to field questions from users around how they can access the new butter feature and when it'll be available on Android and the web app. To ensure consistent answers across their 10 person team, the team lead keeps their macros and text expanders updated with the latest information. Support also needs to update their help articles and FAQs with updated UI screenshots and questions like, "Is the butter salted or unsalted?" and "Can I select the amount of butter I want?"

Key Accounts Team <> Restaurant Partners

Weeks ahead of the release, the Key Accounts Team creates training materials for Toastmates' restaurant partners: namely, where on the order screen they'll see the various options light, buttery, extra buttery appear, what those options mean, and recommendations for order timing and packaging (since buttered toast gets soggy 2x faster than plain toast, especially in a closed container). Since Toastmates prides itself on delivering a consistent, high-quality toast experience each time, they need to ensure the restaurant partners are ready on day 1 of the release.

PM <> Analytics

To measure the success of the release, the PM might need to work with Analytics to set up a new Segment tracking event for the feature as part of every order: Added butter preference. This allows the PM to create dashboards and reports ahead of the release to monitor progress toward goals like feature adoption and increased order frequency per user. It also helps quantify the teams' wins, allowing each team see how their efforts contribute to the bigger picture at Toastmates.

PM <> Marketing

Marketing plans to launch a "Butter It Up!" campaign the week of the release to promote the new butter feature. This includes: an update to the website, a press article, email and push notifications to existing users, Twitter monitoring and response, and Facebook ads. They may also need to work with Analytics to make sure they can track conversions and attribution for the campaign. Keeping Marketing up to date on the release timeline and functionality helps them to both coordinate the launch execution as well as make sure that launch content and copy are accurate on the release day.

To truly quarterback a successful release, the iOS Product Squad needs to adopt a continuous communication approach.

What does continuous communication actually entail?

Continuous communication replaces haphazard, manual communication updates. It's intentional and involves the use of planning, automation, and orchestration to mobilize other departments throughout the software development lifecycle.

Planning: Have a playbook for releases of every size

Not every release needs a huge product launch. Some might just need an update to docs and a heads up to Support. A release communication playbook is a series of well-defined action plans for each type of release, from patches to minor and major releases. Being explicit helps by removing any ambiguity, preventing confusion, and making sure nothing slips through the cracks.

Done right, the action plan serves as an internal asset that can spark important discussions, like, "How do we define a 'breaking change' as an org?" and "How transparent do we want to be about bug fixes?" By creating a release communication playbook, teams are more intentional about how information is shared and for what purpose.

Automation: Compile updates from the source to reduce human error

Whether it's a PM, Engineering Manager, PMM, Technical Writer, Project or Product Ops Manager who does it, sharing updates manually is incredibly expensive, especially as a company scales. When you add up the time spent every week in stakeholder alignment meetings, writing status updates for various teams, and managing dozens of Slack messages and threads, the amount of overhead is staggering. But that's not the real cost that companies incur. The real cost is to customer experience when important updates fall through the cracks.

This is where the use of automation can help. Most development teams already track a tremendous amount of context in tools like GitHub, Jira, Clubhouse, and Linear. It may take a bit of upfront work to capture this context in a human-readable way, but doing so enables you to automate the compilation of updates. By using labels like feature , bug, improvement on Jira tickets or GitHub pull requests and using standard, human-readable titles, Engineering and Product teams can autogenerate structured release notes with templates and reduce the time-to-communicate throughout the organization.

Here are some tools that can help with this automation:

In addition to compiling and autogenerating updates from the source, automation can also be used to distribute these updates in multiple channels at once to mobilize go-to-market and field teams to reach out to customers, update documentation, or create campaigns to drive adoption of newly released features.

Distribution: Be consistent with channels and teach others to rely on them

Once you know what to share and with whom, the last mile of continuous communication is the actual delivery of those updates.

Whether it's email, Slack, an internal or external changelog, or in-app notifications for each update, be consistent with the channel(s) you decide on for each release type. This helps train teammates and users to rely on those channels. Mixing and matching channels can lead to frustrated users who can't find the information they need where they expected it to be. If the goal is to build trust, keeping information hubs consistent for users helps.

Summary

The stakes have never been higher for software companies to compete in today's environment. There's mounting pressure on teams to ship faster and simultaneously raise the bar for customer experience. As a startup, it's tempting to be laser-focused on shipping new features fast, but almost every company tries to compete with this strategy. The ones who ultimately come out on top are the ones who realize that delivering an exceptional customer experience hinges on how these new features are communicated.

Managing the multitude of information streams that stem from every release, big or small, requires a proactive, coordinated, and intentional approach. By prioritizing continuous communication early, companies can optimize their internal operations to deliver a consistent, holistic customer experience while also embracing continuous delivery to compete in today's market and scale with ease.

Author headshot

JJ Nguyen

Founder

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