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Suri Ratnatunga: limitless empathy


For Vimeo’s Suri Ratnatunga, empathy knows no limits. But how can we champion the human element in an age of automation?

An interview with Suri Ratnatunga, Senior Director of Community and Support at Vimeo, the popular video sharing platform. As if Vimeo’s 150 million customers weren’t enough, Suri has a 24/7 team of support agents to keep happy. The key to delivering employee and customer excellence, she says, is limitless empathy.


  • Maria Almeida, Head of Editorial, Unbabel
  • Rafaela Cortez, Editorial Manager, Unbabel



Suri Ratnatunga: I have always really enjoyed understanding other people and I think support conversations often start with a person being frustrated and we can't always solve the root of their frustration, but at the very least we can like acknowledge and understand their frustration. And those are like very like meaningful connections.

Maria Almeida: That’s Suri Ratnatunga, Senior Director of Community and Support at Vimeo, the popular video sharing platform. We’ve met her last June when she joined us in Lisbon to attend the Customer Centric Conference. She’d been in a plane for hours on end, she was jet lagged, with barely a couple hours of sleep, but was still happy to meet us in that tiny, improvised studio.

Suri Ratnatunga: I do a lot of different things. (…) I run the support teams (...) I also run our trust and safety team. I also run our external budget, which is pretty big (…) I'm like the internal advocate for our community.

Maria Almeida: Suri wears many hats. She’s not just responsible for keeping Vimeo’s 150 million customers happy, she’s also supporting her own global, 24/7 team. Plus all that other stuff she mentioned. She set out to be a journalist, studying politics and economics, but life hardly pans out the way you think it will in your twenties. She started working in tech, and fell in love with it.

But the thing about tech, the thing about a lot of companies, really, is that it’s easy to get lost in product roadmaps, or the new shiny feature sales and marketing want to push. But support is the one team who’s talking to customers every day. They know what needs to be built, tweaked, prioritized. And yet, more often than not, support is only visible when something goes wrong.

That's where Suri comes in. For the past four years, she’s been at Vimeo, working closely with Marketing, Product and Engineering to make sure Vimeo’s community is the main driver in all of their products.

I’m Maria Almeida.

Rafaela Cortez: And I’m Rafaela Cortez.

Maria Almeida: And welcome to the Customer Centric Podcast, an original podcast from Unbabel where we’re bringing humanity back to the customer experience, one conversation at a time.

On this episode: what happens when you finally give customer support a seat at the table.

Suri Ratnatunga: I say that we need people with limitless empathy. Um, and that's tough. I mean, like not every customer is like great to talk to. (…) No matter what somebody is writing in on, like I want somebody who, yeah, there might be a ton of vitriol in this message, but they can cut through and be like, okay, here are the three things that this person's actually upset about and speak to those. Um, and not every customer responds to that, you know, as well. But I think some people, I've gotten so many, I used to be a VIP support manager, so I used to handle like our most like irate customers. And so the number of times where like I took a deep breath and I was like, wait, what is this person actually upset about underneath all of this? Uh, you know, and took the time to write a response that answered all their questions. Uh, I've gotten so many apology emails from customers over the years just from that approach. So yeah, I mean, empathy is key.

Rafaela Cortez: Something we see a lot when when we're talking to someone that works in customer support is that we find that a lot of times that kind of mindset of empathy and that sensibility kind of permeates all of their aspects in their life. So they're a lot more sensible to some issue that a coworkers going or maybe even at home they have, they listen more. Do you, do you find that that happens in your life at that given that you're working support that kind of mentality of empathy kind of goes into other aspects of your life?

Suri Ratnatunga: Yeah, I think that's true. I think the empathy permeating, it's like true of like everyone on my team. Like, uh, I feel silly that I'm saying this because I'm like the head of community at Vimeo, but I promise you that people say that like the community team at Vimeo is like very special. And, um, you know, we've definitely, like the team has been special for a very, very long time and you know, there've been people who've left and we've had to hire new people and yet somehow we've been able to like maintain that magic.

It's very important for my team to know that if I'm giving them feedback where I'm like, you've missed something or this wasn't up to the standard that I wanted. I'm always asking them like, is there something else I should be knowing about? Like, give me the complete information to understand where you're coming from, if you know you were struggling on this project. And yeah, I mean sometimes people, you know, they'll share, there's tough stuff going on in their life and they need a few days off, and they haven't been encouraged to do that at previous jobs, to like take time for themselves. And yeah, it's just been very important for the way that I run the team of Vimeo and how people interact with each other. Is that like we're not operating from bad faith. Like we always ask the question, you know, if something isn't what we expected, we always ask the question like, is there something else I should be knowing? Um, yeah. And then yeah, encouraging people to speak up if they, if they need help.

Maria Almeida: What about Vimeo spoke to you? Like why did you join?

Suri Ratnatunga: Wow, look, I've joined four years ago it was such a different company. But I've always loved the Vimeo brand. It's so strong. It represents like creative people. Um, like if you think about when Vimeo was founded, which was like back in 2004, you know, technology was changing a lot back then. And Vimeo helped like the most creative people in video, like filmmakers and production companies be able to like represent their work in the best way possible online. The business has definitely evolved.

When we first started or when I first started, most of the folks were based in the US um, you know, at some point we realize that like, and we didn't have weekend coverage as well. So it was just like, you know, we had like a regular working schedule and then, you know, 50% are our users are actually outside of the US and on Monday mornings we'd come back to this like giant pile of tickets that there was no way that we could handle. And so, because we started supporting more businesses, we became more intentional about having 24/7 coverage. And so yeah, being available whenever our customers need us is definitely something that's changed in the past few years.

Rafaela Cortez: I realize that when, when you do something like that with all these different kinds of features, that the way the product evolves over the years, has a lot to do with the feedback that users give on those specific features. Um, and you said in an interview with Zendesk that one of the most magical things about Vimeo is how much of an influence your support team has been able to have on the product over time. Can you talk a little bit about that kind of influence?

Suri Ratnatunga: I think product managers, they're great at what they do. You know, they have to rally a lot of troops together to get a feature launched. But I think sometimes, uh, you can have blinders on, like you're only looking at your one feature. And again, the Vimeo feature set is so broad, it's really like an ecosystem. And so one of the things that my team has been able to do is sort of give, give color to what users like full use cases that Vimeo is only a small part of, you know, and so, we've been able to make connections that I think product managers haven't been able to make intuitively. But again, there was like such a strong culture of community and, and product working closely together that, you know, we're, we're looped in at the, here's what we're thinking about working on in our roadmap.

And so we go to the off sites and then, um, when there's like, you know, wire frames ready, we review those as well. And then obviously before the final feature goes out, we get a walkthrough with product and, you know, we actually write all of the documentation, both external and internal for the company about our product. And so I think that's another way in which we, we've been able to work closely with them.

Rafaela Cortez: Yeah that sounds like a very healthy relationship.

Suri Ratnatunga: Yeah.

Maria Almeida: Yeah, and we’ve been talking about how important customer experience is and that it's really important to have customer feedback. I imagine that with your, you know, 150 million users that you have a lot of feedback.

Suri Ratnatunga: Yeah, yeah. Well, thankfully they don't all contact us at the same time, uh, but yeah, they do.

Maria Almeida: So how do you filter that, all the feedback that you receive?

Suri Ratnatunga: Yeah, I mean it's tough. I think one of the best ways we've been able to do it is there's so much information from the Vimeo database that we like pull into our support CRM, Zendesk. So without the agent having to really do anything manual, we're able to pull in like subscription type or the year that they joined, or like did they stop paying us at some point and use that information that we already pointed Zendesk to like cut the data and look at like the feedback from that population of users. Um, yeah, we also just, you know, we put in a lot of time to have like a really great categorization system. We have really, we use a ton of, and this might sound bad, we use a ton of canned messaging. We would use a ton of macros in Zendesk, but it's not because the replies are very generic. It's all about sort of applying the right tags, designed SLS to track feedback that is related to that message. So, um, you know, if somebody is wondering about when Vimeo is going to launch, like chaptering or something, we have like one macro that we use for whenever somebody writes in about that. And so like on any given month we can just tell our product team, it's like, yeah, another 50 people reached out about that and you know, half of them have been bought their meal yet. Um, so yeah, that's, it's, it's, you know, we have this culture of like documenting everything.

Rafaela Cortez: And you have an engineer in your support team, right?

Suri Ratnatunga: Yes, we do know, Zena, she's magical and so colorful. She actually started as our video support specialist and she worked, she was, you know, all engineers are great, but I think, you know, depending like some of them are more backend and you know, our, our player or player team, I think Zena had a very like special relationship with them and was able to get through to them about, like user feedback. Uh, and so she ended up, yeah, just working very closely with engineers and sort of realized that she had a strong interest in it as well. And she's actually like fully self-taught. Um, then then at some point we were like, you should just be our engineer. Yeah.

Maria Almeida: That’s very cool. But how different was it when you had an engineer working with you?

Suri Ratnatunga: It was transformational. I mean, there is, uh, having to like beg and borrow engineering resources, you know, it gets exhausting. And so being able and also like, because of how complex like the Vimeo business is, like given that we have all these different subscription plans, you know, and we have all these different internal tools, that we've built to, you know, make our agents lives a lot easier. Having an engineer like obviously helps us like maintain those tools, but it also sort of helps us adapt very quickly when things are changing at the company. And so, you know, we are a big enough support organization that we do need an engineer who's constantly working on our projects. I think it would be hard to think of myself as like the true owner of support if I constantly had to go to engineering being like I need one of your developers to help me meet my goals.

Rafaela Cortez: Yeah. And the idea is that if you make your agent's lives easier then it's a lot easier to make your customers’ lives easier too.

Suri Ratnatunga: Yeah. I mean anytime you save for your agents gets passed along to customers and you know, I think we, ideally you're hiring customer support agents because they have a ton of empathy and they're, you know, they're really good at talking to your users and so you're not hiring them because they know how to search through 13 databases very quickly. Or they always remember to check that one box, you know, for a certain thing. Like we try and like, you know, make sure we're either automating that with like elegant systems or simple processes as opposed to having like expectations on our agents that are beyond focusing on our customers.

Rafaela Cortez: I'm not sure if this is true, but I've read that Vimeo’s average customer lifetime is five years.

Suri Ratnatunga: That is true. Yeah.

Rafaela Cortez: That is amazing. Uh, what do you think is the key for a successful long term relationship with the customer?

Suri Ratnatunga: I think from a support perspective it's like recognizing it. We proactively surface information like when the user joined Vimeo, like directly in the Zendesk, ticket view so the agents could just see it at a glance. It definitely informs, you know, whether it user is new or old. We obviously want to give them the same level of support, but just like knowing, you know, whether they've been on the platform for a month or 10 years, I mean there are definitely people I've talked to who've been on the platform for 10 years like makes a difference in like how you talk to them about the platform. I mean, some of these people would just see, you know, Vimeo is like a tool that they use every day. And so if somebody is writing in about an upload issue for example, we're not going to assume it was their first time uploading. Like, we're going to take it more seriously. There's probably definitely a bug going on if somebody has been on the platform for 10 years, this thing something's up.

I think it comes back to that, that empathy question, because when somebody reaches out to us about, you know, I'm having an upload issue and they work at a production company, we're like, oh man. Like they are trying to, they probably have like a deadline for a client.

That's why our response times are very quick. I think it's a differentiating factor for us is like (…)

We want to be a tool that they rely on, but we also know that we're not the center of their universe, but they should be the center of ours.

Maria Almeida: It’s funny that when we're talking about customer support, people usually obsess over customer satisfaction. But that’s not the only metric you should be looking at. Like, employee experience, for example. If you can’t keep your employees happy how can you expect them to keep your customers happy, right. So how do you look at employee experience?

Suri Ratnatunga: We spent a lot of time investing in that. I think the obsession with CSAT is, you know, CSAT is an important metric. It's always going to be like an important external metric. Like it's something we report up to our leadership all the time, but, that's never going to be like the one metric that, we judge our agents on. I mean partly because it's a function of how many people respond to your survey. So actually one of the things that we did at Vimeo which I really liked is that we have like A/B testing built into our Zendesk. And so like every ticket is assigned a number between zero and 11. And so we can AB test or ABC test, right? A, B, C, D test. And we did a lot of AB testing around what time we send out our CSAT survey.

And it literally jumped from like 17% to like 25% just on like spending a few weeks like seeing. And then CSAT became a much better metric. Like 95% CSAT based off of like 17% response rate is like not as strong obviously is one that has like a 25% response rate. Um, but yeah, I mean, like I said, we, we spend a lot of time talking to our agents, trying to understand their problems. (…) I talk about this all the time as well at work. It's like we don't build systems that are based in like mistrust. Like we're never like, oh, we need to make sure we have a way of hiding these tickets from these agents. Like, that's, that's like building something from mistrust. We try and always, like whenever we see like agents not working in the way we expect or the way the system was designed, um, we ask them why and like, we try and encourage them instead of, you know, uh, working in this different way, Just tell us what your problem is. Like, what is the system not capturing that you could tell us about? Um, yeah, I mean, like a, a good example of that is that, uh, you know, we have like a complex SLA system that assigns, you know, different countdowns to different tickets based on their subscription type. And agents are supposed to work top to bottom. They're not supposed to skip tickets. They're not supposed to like start on a ticket that's two pages down. But we noticed, you know, some of our best agents were, we saw that they were handling tickets that warrant the next one that they were supposed to handle. And instead of being like, how dare you do this, like work in the way that we told you. Um, we were like, why do you do that? And they were like, oh, well sometimes free members who don't have, you know, like their response times aren't, you know, the normal one hour we give to our paid members, sometimes we noticed that they were really urgent issue and we had to send them a response and we're waiting for them to write back in.

And so we just built a way that they could just like check a box when that happens. And then that free member has a much shorter like response time. Um, and that information is out captured in the system and it's not in like some employees brains. So, um, yeah, like wherever possible, like we're, we're talking to our agents all the time asking what their problems are and like relying on them to drive efficiencies.

Maria Almeida: Do you feel that Vimeo is a customer centric company?

Suri Ratnatunga: Uh, yes. In fact it is our first value, “creators first.” Um, so we know how lucky we are to have like the community that we have. Um, you know, for folks to want to pay for the platform for an average of five years is, is pretty great. Um, and so it's, you know, the values are a huge part of how we make decisions at the company. And the fact that creators first is our first value is, is, is evident when we, you know, are making decisions about features to launch or policies to implement. Um, it's all about whether or not we're, we're doing things that, that meet our creators needs.

One of the things that I think has always been really cool about the Vimeo community team is that the people on our team use a platform. Like the first few hires on the community team were like super users of the site. And so, you know, we definitely hired people with a more diverse background right now. But at the end of the day, everyone on our team is like constantly using the platform. Um, and so it's not like when a user writes in, they're talking to somebody who's telling them about a feature that they've never used. And so I think that makes a huge difference. Another thing that really helps is that we don't have very high turnover. You know, we are constantly hiring people and that our team is growing, but we're not constantly losing people who know the platform very well. And then having to train up people who don't know it.

We also do have, we call it volunteer calm deer and calm deer is like an old term for community director and it was basically folks who are on other teams can volunteer to do a support shift. And so there'll be usually two to three people, ideally in the same department. Um, and it's an opportunity for, you know, them to get to know what support is like at Vimeo and what customers reach out about. But then it's also an opportunity for the people on the support team to get to know the people in that department and like how they think about our community and how they think about Vimeo, where it's going. And I think, you know, being able to understand how different departments think about the same brand and company we work at is pretty magical.)

Maria Almeida: Now moving to a bit of a different topic, um, cause obviously we need to talk a little bit about automation.

Suri Ratnatunga: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maria Almeida: How do you see the role of automation in customer support in what you do at Vimeo?

Suri Ratnatunga: Uh, I think it's great. I mean, I think automation when like, when it works well, it's like saving everyone time, right? It saves your customers time, um, saves your agent's time. And so there's nothing like inherently bad about automation. I think the only times where, uh, I think it, it goes wrong is when you're, you're, you have a bias towards leading on automation when a situation really deserves more of like a human hand guiding it.

Maria Almeida: How do you introduce automation to the team. Are people skeptical about it?

Suri Ratnatunga: I mean what was interesting is, uh, to the team, I don't think there's been any skepticism. I mean, our ticket numbers are constantly growing. And so from an agent perspective, it's not fun for them to have to like constantly answer questions that they know exist in a help center.

They don't want to handle, they don't want to be solving the same problems everyday, especially if answers already exist to those problems for our users.

Rafaela Cortez: We usually say at Unbabel that automation is only okay if it makes someone's lives easier, even if it's the agent's like, otherwise there's no point in doing it just because it's cool.

Suri Ratnatunga: Yeah. Actually, that's so funny that you mentioned this because I was at New York airport and, um, there is this like weird hologram that was like some sort of like ad that was like in the airport and it was just so jarring and I was like, oh, this is like one of my pet peeves when like, as like a huge, like as like the human race, we've been able to create this incredible technology and then we apply it in these stupid ways. Like I just, yeah. Applying technology just for the sake of applying it is just, yeah, that's a great point.

Rafaela Cortez: And you were saying earlier, uh, that you do a lot of things at Vimeo. So I'm guessing that it's kind of hard to manage all the work you do, but also have time for yourself. How’s your work life balance?

Suri Ratnatunga: I've definitely gone through phases where I was like truly a workaholic. Um, but I think those days are behind me. Um, honestly it helps. I mean, uh, my girlfriend's an artist and so it's like very interesting dating somebody who doesn't have like a nine to five. Um, it's like a really nice contrast to like what I'm doing on like a daily basis. Um, you know, I always, I was late today, but generally try not to be late. Um, you know, when I have social engagements it's like I try not to cancel ever. I know these sound like really simple rules, but it's like not being late, not canceling on people. Like in the moment when you're at work, you can feel very overwhelmed and you're like, I just need to handle this thing. Um, and at Vimeo we're not generally saving lives.

And so I try and like give myself a moment to be like, well, if I cancel on this person, how's that gonna make them feel. I think about how there's this other person that I was going to hang out with and I, and you know, they don't deserve to be, you know, canceled on. But, uh, um, yeah, it's just, I mean it helps. Yeah. I mean the things that I think really help are just like having something that is a contrast to work that you enjoy. Um, and I, I am very available. Like if I see slack pop up in a weekend, I will handle it. Um, but I also know what not to handle and there are things where I'm like, that can wait till Monday and I'm going to continue hanging out in this park on a Sunday afternoon.

Maria Almeida: I was actually very curious about something because I read that you volunteered as a Barista.

Suri Ratnatunga: Oh yeah. I actually used to do that unfortunately, but I mean I could, yeah.

Maria Almeida: Just tell us a little bit about that experience and why did you decide to do that?

Suri Ratnatunga: Yeah, I, um, what did I decide to do it? I mean, I, I've been very like fortunate in my life in a lot of ways. New York City is an amazing place to live, but it, it's ruthless as well. And, you know, there are tons of people who ended up without a home for all sorts of reasons. Uh, try not to get too political, but usually their healthcare. Um, and so, you know, the housing works was founded during the aids crisis to provide shelter for HIV positive people. Um, and you know, if you're in New York City today, being a gay person is, is you're able to be exactly who you are. And it felt important for me to figure out a way to spend my time in service of what the longer history is from my community. And so, when I volunteered at the housing works as a Barista, I mean it, (…) there were students who want to just like study around a bunch of books. There were people I saw every day who came in and just got a cup of coffee and just sat there because it was like a warm place to be for a few hours. I also volunteered there like shortly after the financial crisis, which was like a particularly tough time. But yeah, I mean in general I think it's important, you know, (…) especially when you're part of a community where not everyone is doing well, to figure out a way to, to give back.

I guess another thing that I think is really important in support and just being like a human is like to not pretend everything is okay. (…) Don't open a ticket and assume the platform's completely fine. And so this user that is writing and saying there's an issue, they're probably not using it correctly. Don't assume those things. In the same way, if you know something's wrong, don't like dismiss that to the user. I think it's really important to acknowledge what's going on, explaining what we're doing to try and make it better. But the way that the world is, it's like, yeah, just don't pretend everything's great and it's all going out for cocktails and hanging out with your friends. I think it's important to like acknowledge when things aren't exactly the way we'd like them to be, and put in the time to try and help them and fix them.

Rafaela Cortez: Definitely. There's also times for cocktails.

Suri Ratnatunga: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Rafaela Cortez: There has to be. Otherwise we’ll go crazy with everything that’s wrong.

Maria Almeida: This was another episode of Customer Centric, an original podcast from Unbabel where we're bringing humanity back to the customer experience, one conversation at a time. I’m your host, Maria Almeida.

Rafaela Cortez: And I’m Rafaela Cortez.

Maria Almeida: This episode was produced by Rafaela and myself, and it was scored and mixed by Bernardo Afonso.

You can listen to Customer Centric on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or any podcast app, and subscribe to get these episodes as soon as they come out.

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Rafaela Cortez: Coming up next episode,

John Collins: No one really cares what marketers think. They want to, you know, if you're reading an article about design, you don't want to see it written by the, you know, the content marketing team. You want to see it written by a designer.

Rafaela Cortez: That’s John Collins, Director of Content at Intercom. In the five years he’s been there, he’s grown the editorial team from basically just him and co-founder Des Traynor, who at the time was pretty much running the blog, into a smooth operation of ten editors, producing everything from blog articles, to podcasts, newsletters and books.

John Collins: There's huge amount of content out there that's produced and it doesn't get read, it doesn't get listened to, it doesn't get watched. And I think it's because people are afraid to have an opinion and when they start producing content and kind of goes back to the use of that term, they think they kind of have to play it safe and they don't want to, you know, they want to piss anyone off or annoy anyone. But like the reality is if you don't have an opinion, why is someone going to read it?

Rafaela Cortez: We talk about why the term content marketing doesn’t really capture what they do at Intercom, and how editorial can help you start conversations and engage the right audience.

That’s next, on Customer Centric. Thank you for listening, and see you soon!