Zendesk Triggers vs. Automations: what's the difference and when to use them

Written by
Jude Kriwald
Zendesk Consultant
April 10, 2023
min read

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As a Zendesk administrator, two of the most powerful features you’ll want to sink your teeth into are Triggers and Automations.

Despite the names given to these features, both Triggers and Automations are automations (lowercase “a”; in the generic sense of the word), in that you set up a rule and they automatically run when its conditions are met.

Even for simple tasks like answering emails, Triggers and Automations are the first game-changing difference you’ll notice when switching over from your previous email client. They allow you to save your agents bundles of time, improve your customer experience and ensure that all useful data is captured properly to be reported on later.

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One of the most common questions I hear from new Zendesk administrators is, what is the difference between a Zendesk Trigger and a Zendesk Automation? When we know that there is something that needs automating, how do we decide whether to use a Trigger or an Automation?

In this article, I’ll explain the key difference between the two and when to utilise each of them.

Triggers Vs. Automations - The Similarities

Let’s start by looking at what Triggers and Automations have in common.

They both require a name, condition(s) and action(s).

Another trait they have in common is that they both work in the realm of tickets, meaning the conditions you set will be based on attributes of a ticket (rather than a user, for example).

The conditions and actions are where the magic happens. 

Conditions - The ticket attributes which must be present in order to fire the given actions.

Actions - The steps you’d like Zendesk to automatically take when all of the conditions are present.

Note, Triggers and Automations do not interact with Closed tickets.

Triggers Vs. Automations - Key Differences

The key difference between Triggers and Automations comes down to timing.

Triggers - Every time a ticket is created or updated (e.g. an agent clicks “Submit”, or a new message is added by the requester), Zendesk checks to see if that ticket now meets the conditions of any of your triggers. If it does, the actions you set get to work.

Automations, on the other hand, are not update-based but are instead time-based. Once per hour (but not necessarily at the top of the hour), Zendesk will check to see if any of your tickets meet the conditions of any of your Automations. If they do, the specified actions will fire.

Thus your Automations will only ever apply to a ticket at a maximum rate of once per hour (although this use case is unusual), whereas Triggers can fire very frequently, up to every time a ticket is Updated (e.g. to send a notification to Slack for each new message on a given topic).

Triggers - Good for Instant Actions

Let’s imagine a simple use case. When a ticket is created in Zendesk by a customer, and the Priority is set to Urgent, we want Zendesk to contact an external app over API (webhook).

As a Trigger, we could build this with the following conditions:

This trigger will fire the second the ticket (with matching conditions) is created, giving us an incredibly simple and fast way to automate our actions.

What if, however, we wanted this automation to fire three hours later, and only if the ticket still hadn’t been handled by an agent? 

Automations - Good for Delayed Actions

To achieve the same outcome, but with a time-based rule, we must switch to using an Automation. This is because Triggers are always checked for when there is an update to a ticket, whereas an Automation allows us to add our desired time-based delay.

The above gives us virtually the same outcome, but with our added 3-hour delay rule.

You’ll notice that we’ve also had to switch our first condition. Automations and Triggers do have slightly different attributes available to them but, with a little bit of creativity, we can achieve the desired result.

Here, we have substituted “Ticket is Created” (meaning the ticket has just been made) with “Ticket Status is New” which suggests the ticket has not yet been handled by an agent.

It’s worth having a browse of Zendesk’s available time-based rules under Automations. You won’t find the same options available when creating a Trigger.

You’ll also notice that some of the non-time-based attributes that are available for Triggers are not available for Automations, such as looking to see if a particular phrase is included in a ticket comment (only available to Triggers).

A neat workaround for this is to create a Trigger that adds a tag when the criteria (that you can’t directly specify in an automation) is met, then make that tag a condition of your Automation.

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To conclude, we’ve learned that Triggers and Automations are generally very useful for automating ticket-based actions with Zendesk.

We covered what they have in common, such as both requiring conditions to fire, and then an action as that final step.

Finally, we further explored their key difference, in that triggers are event-based rules, whereas Automations are time-based.

With this knowledge, ask yourself what handy Triggers or Automations you could create for your Zendesk instance. The possibilities are limitless!

Written by
Jude Kriwald

Jude Kriwald first learned to administer Zendesk in 2015 and has been helping businesses improve their customer operations as a freelance consultant since 2018. Offline, he can be found making maps, paragliding or exploring remote places.

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