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Customer support is all about your people: an interview with Wefarm’s Francisco Araújo

Franciso Araújo’s journey in the world of customer service started back in 2014 when he joined Uniplaces, an online marketplace where students can search for and book accommodation. A few years later he moved on to Monzo, an online-only bank, which he joined as a Product Manager for the Scaling Customer Operations team, working directly with the customer service operations side of the business.

He currently works as a Senior Product Manager at Wefarm, a social network for small farmers in the developing world. Yet he remains a fierce advocate for good customer service and its importance for business. That’s why we thought he’d be our go-to person to talk about everything that goes into building, and maintaining, an effective customer service team.

(Re)structuring support operations

Francisco recalls a time at Uniplaces when the decision was made to completely restructure the operations teams, with a particular focus on the support teams. “That was a fun one,” he exclaims before explaining the three main reasons behind it.

First, he says, it’s natural for things to break. As the company scaled, both externally, in terms of the number of customers and languages supported, and internally, with more people joining different operations teams, the tools, structures, and processes that were in place were no longer supporting the amount of work the customer service teams were handling.

Second, as he puts it, “it’s really hard to manage what you can’t measure.” There was a lack of consistent data they could look at to better analyze problems that were arising, complaints coming from customers, and other metrics. Eventually, operations found themselves unable to get to the root of the issues they needed to solve.

And finally, after reassessing some critical questions around customer support, such as “do customers need more support at their origin or their destination country?” or “what languages do my agents need to speak?”, they decided to completely restructure the support team and split it in two. “At that stage, we decided to change and we took the approach to be truly customer-centric and split between origin and destination”, to be able to better cater to both the pre-booking and the post-booking side of their operation.

The example is unique to a specific company at a certain point in time, but the lessons he learned from it, Francisco explains, can be held as something all customer service teams should take into account. It’s important to keep track of data, to be able to continually look at performance and results, identify pain points, and “shift things around” whenever needed.

Team organization and continuous development

Another factor customer service teams should take into account is team structuring. Over the years, Francisco has identified two roles he believes to be essential — a content manager, who oversees materials (self-service content, for example) and makes sure they represent the brand; and a systems administrator, who makes sure all technical aspects are running smoothly.

But more important than hiring for these very specific roles is to implement a solid middle management layer. Francisco explains: “I’ve seen, again and again, companies hiring all these agents, setting up teams, having a systems admin, and then all those people are either left on their own or a single manager is overseeing too big a team.” This middle management layer, he says, should consist of people who have experience in customer service, but are also great people managers and who can be dedicated solely to coaching, training, and having recurring sessions with each team member, to steer them in the right direction and help them grow as professionals.

I don’t think people realize every problem is a people problem, regardless of what you’re dealing with in a company.

Customer centricity, listening to feedback, and building a network

For Francisco, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to building or (re)structuring a customer support team. When he compares his professional experiences, they couldn’t be more different from one another. At Monzo, he explains, there are no physical branches like in traditional banking, so the company invests heavily in customer service which lies at the core of their whole operation. So much so, that they even built an in-house tool to replace CRMs available in the market that didn’t quite fit the team’s needs to support their tech-savvy customers. Wefarm’s customers, on the other hand, are rural farmers from remote places in Kenya, Uganda, or Tanzania, for example, so the support that is given to them has to be different. “It is very offline-driven, we even do it on the radio,” says Francisco.

More than searching for the right tools or trying to follow a formula that worked for one business, but won’t necessarily work for another, to have a successful customer service team is about focussing on the people. “It’s going back to the principle of customer-centricity. You should optimize for your customers and users, otherwise what’s the purpose?”

On the one hand, businesses should let their customers know they’re there for them and truly listen to their feedback, good and bad, and take it into consideration. Francisco is an advocate for having members of all teams, not just customer service, talk to customers for a while. Even the company’s founders, “because being exposed firsthand to problems, complaints, and questions is the best and fastest way to learn what matters and build something that people love.”

And on the other hand, it’s about listening to the people from the inside, the agents, who do the work every day. At Monzo, for example, when they were building their in-house support tool, they asked the agents what they needed to handle their daily tasks in a faster and more efficient way. Not only were the agents involved in the process, but they also felt empowered by, in return, having a tool in place that was built with them in mind.

Finally, Francisco stresses the importance of building a network inside the industry. Some companies are ahead in terms of scale, others made mistakes that can be avoided by sharing that experience. It’s a matter of not shying away from reaching out to people to be able to learn from them.

The best tool is to start with people always.

For as long as there have been commercial transactions between people, there has been customer service in some shape or form. It is a very mature industry, so instead of trying to reinvent the wheel of customer service, companies should focus on their core business problem.

For Francisco, that, along with customer centricity and starting from where you’re at, and not where you want to go, is key to building and maintaining successful customer service operations. There isn’t a formula, a set of tools, or a fixed team structure that all businesses can resort to that guarantee their customer support will be efficient. But putting people first is a good place to start.