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Mara Figueiredo: going beyond complaints


An interview with Mara Figueiredo, Global Head of Customer Support at Pipedrive, the leading CRM software company. Along the long and winding road from call center assistant to CX authority, Figueiredo has developed a distinctive method for dealing with the unexpected in customer support.

An interview with Mara Figueiredo, Global Head of Customer Support at Pipedrive, the leading CRM software company. Along the long and winding road from call center assistant to CX authority, Figueiredo has developed a distinctive method for dealing with the unexpected in customer support.



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



Mara Figueiredo: Sometimes it's not just doing the right thing is being effective and efficient when things don't work well cause nobody's perfect. No business is perfect and these things happen. So it's, it's just being prepared for them.

Maria Almeida: That's Mara Figueiredo, global head of customer support at Pipedrive, the leading CRM software company. Working in customer service was never part of a plans. She held her first job as a call center assistant back in 2000. As weeks turned to months, months to years, the thought of coming to work every day to face the unexpected and help people solve their problems kind of grew on her. Nowadays, she couldn't really imagine herself doing anything else.

Mara Figueiredo: We always get the unexpected. So, and, and I think that's what, what makes it, for a lot of people that stay within customer service for more than a year, it's because they like this.

Maria Almeida: Fast forward 20 years later to 2020 and Mara Figueiredo has built an impressive career as a customer support leader. From implementing a customer centric strategy and one of the biggest telecom companies in Portugal to leading customer support at growing tech companies, Mara has been a tireless advocate for customer centricity and innovation.

Now, as the global head of customer support at Pipedrive, Mara is responsible for customer operations while managing a team of 90 across four different countries.

I'm 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 disaster strikes and great customer service saves the day.

Maria Almeida: So there's this article from First Round Review, which is called lessons from the woman who built Squarespace customer care team from 1 to 184. You're not there yet at Pipedrive, but you will be soon.

Mara Figueiredo: Yeah, I know.

Maria Almeida: And right at the beginning of the article, you can read this sentence: "if building a company were like, planning a wedding, customer service is frequently the second cousin who's invited when slots open up on the attendee list." Do you think this is how people think of our customer service as a second cousin who barely gets invited to the party?

Mara Figueiredo: Yeah. It's, it's a fair way to say it. I think, uh, usually I, I even speaking about my own experience, I always say that I've uh, dropped in customer service, uh, with a parachute, wasn't really planning on doing it, wasn't like in my plans to begin with. Um, and I think it's mostly that way. And, and even for most companies, it's like, it's thought of a nice to have.

Like, it's nice to have support if people need it. It's nice to have people there around, but, but the thing is like, the twist is to make it key to your business and we can be key.

Rafaela Cortez: What does it really mean to be a customer centric business?

Mara Figueiredo: Yeah. So it's, well, it can be cliche, but it is putting the customer first. Uh, and trying to understand what their needs are and being there for them all the time and all the way basically. Um, it's not just building a CRM or whatever, building a product, and then working our way around not to be there for the customer and trying to keep it as simple as possible and, and make it mandatory that they know, right.

People don't know everything. They don't have to actually. And whenever they want us to do things for them or with them, we should be there for them. Uh, so, and that's basically the end game with, with customer service is that even if you don't need us, but you don't want to do it yourself, you will always have there the support to do it.

Maria Almeida: I mean, and, um, you know, talking about this customer centricity, which, you know, some people think it's a buzzword. But you've had a experience in the past of implementing a customer centric strategy in a big corporation, which was Optimus at the time. What was that like?

Mara Figueiredo: That was amazing actually. As a company, we didn't believe internally that we were customer centric. And, uh, part of, uh, the business strategy was one: making the employees realize that, yes, this is a customer centric, um, operation and business. And two: how can we make it even more customer centric?

And so we deployed a series of, projects. Uh, some were cultural, some were operational, uh, and they all meant to have the customer first, we deployed new principles, we reinvented the businesses values and then deploy that and translated that into principles so that everyone knew, regardless of working legal, um, operations, uh, IT, they knew that they needed to think customer, for whatever they worked on. And then, uh, we deployed this customer journey mapping framework that helped every team. Again, regardless of what department they worked on to work their projects with the customer first and through the customer's perspective.

And that's amazing. So, that's corporate wide for, and especially for a big telecom company. I think that's was groundbreaking and still today, I believe that they are, uh, harvesting the fruits of what the, uh,

Rafaela Cortez: And that cultural part. you think that's the key to make sure the whole company's aligned around the customer, uh, with a customer mindset?

Mara Figueiredo: Yes. It starts there. If you don't believe in it, you want do it right. And at the end of the day, we know that it's a business. It needs to survive, eh, and you have competition. So you need definitely to be ready for that. You have to have costs in mind. But you need to think customer always. If you lose grasp of that, everything else will will fall.

Uh, cause you, you, you only survive if your customers keep purchasing whatever product you have. Keep talking about you. And especially when your business relies that much on a word of mouth, then you need to be even more customer centric.

Maria Almeida: And what do you think is the importance of, you know, customer feedback in having a customer centric strategy?

Mara Figueiredo: So I think there should be balance there. Uh, and coming from me, it's kind of, it's already, , amazing that I say this because I should be saying, "Oh, like always customer first." But to be honest, there needs to be a balance. Like if everyone, if we just listened to the customer, uh, innovating would be challenging, more challenging, because if we were listening to the customer all the time, there was a famous quote about this, we would still be having horses and carriages like big, beautiful carriages instead of cars, right? Someone needed to think beyond what people were asking and complaining at the time.

So, there will be balance always in a good corporation. But customer feedback, it's important because it's the basic stuff that we shouldn't lose grasp of. Uh, and, and we should definitely go there and check and keep it sane. Basically check what people are complaining about, what people are requesting, tackle that and keep innovating.

Rafaela Cortez: I think sometimes when people complain about something it doesn't necessarily go to the root of their challenge. Sometimes they don't know how to express that in a good way. Have ever tried to dissect a bit of what the complaint is or the feedback to try to get to the root of the problem?

Mara Figueiredo: Yes. There's a variety of approaches that you can do. Some are more structured, some are, more qualitative, uh, per se.

But I think it's, again, a balance between both is, is the, the right way to go. Usually what we do is like, whenever we launch something, the product team always comes back to us, say a week after launch and well, sometimes within days or hours, depending on the type of launch and asks for qualitative feedback, and then we gather that one at first. But then we go and deep dive and get structured feedback so that they know what's going on and what people are liking, disliking, wanting more, uh, or, and what's wowing them cause it's it, you need to tackle both basically. What do you don't want to lose track of, like, the things that are so nice and already working so well and the pain points, the things that you definitely need to correct.

Rafaela Cortez: I can imagine that in your 20 years of experience, you've dealt with situations where like everything went wrong because usually when does our disaster strikes customer service agents are the first ones to deal with it. Um, how did you and your team handle those situations?

Mara Figueiredo: Oh, well, customer service, people, we have them every week. Those things like that. Uh, we always get the unexpected. And I think that's what, what makes it, for a lot of people that stay within customer service for more than a year, it's because they like this.

They like that there are no two days alike. Okay. Working with the, with SaaS and with a CRM, well, there can be outages. So that means it can happen spur of the moment. Again, like unexpected and, and we have to be diligent and quick, and, um. As long as internal communication works, we can get things worked out quickly and, and even wow the customers.

It's funny because on weeks where we have, uh, like some bugs or some issues going on, those are, are most of the times, the weeks where we get, have the best customer satisfaction rates ever. Because we are quick uh, at turning things around and, and then we, um, we wow customers because of that. It's sometimes it's not just doing the right thing is being effective and efficient when things don't work well, because nobody's perfect, no business is perfect and these things happen. So it's, it's just being prepared for them.

Uh, when I worked, um, short term rentals, when things went wrong. Well, when things go wrong with someone's vacation, I mean, it's, it's like drama is there for sure, right? And so it's about killing someone's vacation and ruining completely months of preparation.

Right? So, so I think it was even more demanding for customer service reps at that point because not only did they need to uh, in an admin way, turn things around, right? Work with internal processes to turn things around, but they needed to regain a person's confidence and give them back their vacation.

So I think like, crazy stories there for sure. Uh, but I, we actually did the wow many, many times. There was this time where someone was spending their vacation in Amsterdam in a boat. And it was winter, so it was cold to say the least. And they complained that they were all cold and there was a fireplace there, but no wood.

So one of my guys came up with the idea of uh, ordering wood online. Uh, and, and so they ordered the wood onto the boat, but it was so heavy that it had to be placed in the dock. Like they had wood for months, but like the customer was really amazed. And at the end of the day, we saved the day in the, and the vacation.

It's like someone thinking out of the box. We didn't really have a process that said, yeah, whenever wood is missing, just go buy it. What he did.

Rafaela Cortez: Yeah. So little things sometimes. Yeah.

Mara Figueiredo: Yeah. And I think that's what makes the difference. Like you thinking if it was you there, uh, and, and being practical and pragmatic about anyone's complaint, anyone's, um, problem.

Maria Almeida: So you have to be a good problem solver.

Mara Figueiredo: Oh yeah, for sure.

Maria Almeida: You know, I, I used to work in customer success as well, like way back when. Um, and I had a bit of a problem because you had to deal with a lot of complaints, a lot of angry emails, and sometimes you'd get to work and it was, you know, barely eight in the morning and people were already complaining and so angry, and I would get, I would get very anxious. So how'd you deal with those complaints and all this negative communication that's coming through?

Mara Figueiredo: Well. There's no magic pills for that. It's, it's basically one day at a time for sure. But I think the key there is if you have a good working environment, you can cope with pretty much everything. And, and then it's all about soft skills, right?

Then it's all about putting it into perspective. It's not you, it's the issue itself, and in not focusing that much on the problems, focusing more on solutions. But that comes, I think with time basically. But if you get a very good working environment where people are happy to go there every day and start their day, uh, even if you get them the hardest challenge, they will embrace it.

For sure. Because they will value everything around that challenge.

Rafaela Cortez: We have a friend that she's been working in customer service for a few years. and at one point she was telling us about this thing that used to do in our previous work. Anytime things would start getting like a bit hectic, they would just stop everything.

No matter how many emails bring the queue. And they would just like go someplace else. And she would give them a dilemma. And it was, it could be something. It had nothing to do with work. And sometimes it was something, for example, should a woman ask a man to marry her, um, and so on. And so sometimes they would spend like 50 minutes talking about stuff that really wasn't about work at all.

Um, but that. That really worked. Like people would relax a bit and they, when they came back to work, they were a lot better. Do you ever implement like strategies to kind of have people relax for a bit?

Mara Figueiredo: I think that that's a really good idea. I never did that, but we'll try something. Uh, well, we, we have a policy of freedom basically.

Uh, and currently at Pipedrive people can work wherever they feel they they want to work. Uh, this morning I went to the kitchen and it's like half the team was there working and eating, uh, and they can work remote. Uh, so we trust them enough. We can measure everyone's performance the same way as if they were in the office.

So we give them the freedom to work, um, where they feel, uh, they will basically produce more and better.

It's not your typical call center. And we don't want it to be a cause cause that's, that's where people relax more. Uh, and, and, you know, be comfortable enough to do their work. Cause it's not an easy job to do anyways. So we want to make it as smooth as possible for them.

Rafaela Cortez: That makes sense.

Maria Almeida: I know this is something that you hold very close to your hearts at Pipedrive. What do you think is the role of humor in customer service?

Mara Figueiredo: Humor? Oh, it definitely needs to be there. Okay. Uh, with, uh, with a pinch of salt, cause, uh, you know, not every customer is the same. And, and I think that's the, uh, that's the key also, um, being your own self, uh, using humor is valid as any other approach that will take the edge of the conversation, uh, and, and help people focus more on solutions and getting there and getting there smoothly. Uh, other than getting this very formal, uh, tone of voice, um, very business formatted, uh, that is sometimes not even helping. You know, whenever I talk to someone that had a good experience with customer support, they never say, Oh yes, and then they put me on pause.

I mean, they don't even remember how that happens, right? Yes. And they used my name four times every two minutes. No. It, like they said, no, it was a really nice guy, a, like he totally understood my problem was really diligent so. We want our support to be personalized.

Uh, and we hire very well. Because of that. We want to have people that are good, uh, individuals that are valid, uh, contributors to society that really want to help people and that obviously know the business. Uh, and, and that can do a solid job in customer support. But we don't make it standard what to say and what not to say. And we use humor. We have the GIFs, we have the emojis, and we definitely use them. For sure.

Rafaela Cortez: The other day we were having coffee. You were telling us about these Harry Potter gifs.

Mara Figueiredo: Oh, yeah, so, so when I joined Pipedrive, I, I wanted to pass, um, the same on-boarding as any other customer support rep would.

So. To understand the experience and to be there, actually understand what they do every day. And, uh, I was shadowing, uh, this lovely girl Carolina, uh, and, and she was telling me, so, so this is what we do, right? I have a customer here, I'm gonna reply to him. It's going nicely. He now knows what to do. He did it.

And then she said, okay, so let me see. How do I say goodbye? So he's British. I'm going to put Harry Potter, saying goodbye going away in a train. And I said, Oh. My God, and like, like within minutes, the customer came back and rated the conversation with an Awesome score. And so it was like, it was well done.

It was taken care of. And she used humor actually. So she did the wow there just because of using that GIF. Uh, and I think that relates very much with, with our mission in support, at Pipedrive, which is getting, uh, fast and useful solutions with a human touch.

Maria Almeida: So you hire people with a good sense of humor then?

Mara Figueiredo: Oh, yeah. Yeah, for sure. It's, it's a, we have a lot of, uh, interview, uh, stages. Uh, and in every stage we look for, for specific things, obviously related to, um, technical stuff that people really need to know. And we also see if, if they can click with the rest of the team.

If, the sense of humor is the same as, as ours, if, uh, um, they can collaborate with the team. Like, no man is an island in support, right? Especially in a SaaS world where you need to innovate constantly and renew stuff and, and reinvent stuff. It's always about learning and teaching.

So if you don't click with the rest of the team, you will definitely be there alone and not be able to get that much information in. And then teach someone. So, so that's balanced there is very important. Then we definitely hire with that in mind.

Rafaela Cortez: Yes. So I can see that hiring is a very, big part of, getting the team in place. How was the process, how do you make sure there's a fit?

Mara Figueiredo: I think your average call center, it's like two interviews at, at the most, sometimes three. We have a up to six interviews. Uh, sometimes people come to us and say, very thorough interview process like NASA. I'm like, I am, I'm feeling the responsibility there. Uh, but, but in the end, they always understand the why. Uh, and they, they really value it. Everyone comes to me even when we're struggling with, with incoming conversations, and they know that I need to have people helping them. they always say, but don't slow down the process, you know, because it makes sense. Like we have an interview with HR. We have an interview with the hiring manager, another one with the team, another one with myself. Uh, and we had founders even interviewing people because it's that important. we don't hire people for a season. We don't hire people to, to see how it goes. We want to hire for life. As long as the company exists. Right? So for a life. Uh, so, so it's a very serious, but then again, fun, uh, exercise. Uh, and at the end, it's, it's pretty important that we all feel confident enough to bring that person in.

So we're all responsible for that decision.

Maria Almeida: But at the same time that, that can be extremely challenging because, you know, we're talking about Pipedrive, which is, growing super fast. Then you need to, get scalability. So how do you tailor this hiring process to, a company that is growing so fast.

Mara Figueiredo: So we're, we're balancing things. Uh, we are working hard, hard. With a capital a, capital H, because we, we don't want to slow down the process. So everyone from HR to ourselves are like putting, um, the, the time and the effort there to keep the interviews going. Uh, because if we slow down, uh, we can have more people coming aboard but probably not the right people. So we definitely don't want to fail there. And parallel to that, we're also working on ways to help support with the incoming volume, um, in an intelligent way. So we're using artificial intelligence to help with the simplest conversations, um, to be there for the customer, even if it's not a human being.

Rafaela Cortez: We know that you've had a very recent addition to the team. You even call that addition your baby.

Mara Figueiredo: Ah, yes. Yes. It's true. So, um. At first, like our mission, uh, is, is doing things with the human touch. So it, it was kind of a controversy to think artificial intelligence and how to, build that with our mission.

So we tried to see that in the most human way possible. Like so if we're bringing a bot in, our bot needs to be as close to a human being as possible. So we named him, we chose a name as a group, uh, and, and we're really working to get those answers as close to a human being as possible. Although we do identify the bot as being a bot. Uh, so we don't want people to think, I mean, I have someone here who's not listening to me, it's actually a bot. So whenever things are not going well, we say, don't worry, there's a human there and they will go with you, um, during your conversation so that people always know that there's a faster solution that's a bot. And then there is another solution for more complex, uh, things or things that they will need a handholding. So we have humans there, but we need to do that parallel because if we want to scale any, want to scale fast and have effective and efficient people also in it's, it's all about having a good balance between both people and machines.

Maria Almeida: And, I mean, a lot of people in customer service nowadays talk about automation and artificial intelligence. Um, well, we all know it can be feast or famine. It has to be balanced. so what do you think is the role of automation customer support?

Mara Figueiredo: Oh, I think it will play a big role. It's already starting to, to help companies, in various ways, not only within customer support, uh, but especially for us, it's definitely been helping and, with all these startups that then, grow and, grow fast, like we've done proudly.

Um, it means that we can scale in a much more effective way, uh, and still be there for people and still bring valuable, uh, solutions for them. Um, we could never scale as fast as this, and we could, could never keep up with the growth rhythm that we have if we didn't think of bringing artificial intelligence to the, to the conversation.

Never. It would be way more painful for us to tackle that.

Maria Almeida: And how do you introduce that to your team? Like, because you said before, like they're all on board, they love the bot, they even named him and so on. But, uh, how do you get people not to be so skeptical about artificial intelligence and automation?

Mara Figueiredo: Well, you are transparent. Basically, you involve them from day one. Uh, you talk about the project, you explain the scope, uh, you explain the need for it, what it will fix going forward, and, and when people understand the why, uh, and are involved in the how I think then, uh, the, the path is paved basically, and they, they, uh, joined forces with them and help.

Uh, and, and now it's like, we were testing the bots, uh, and, and people were coming to me and saying, don't kill our baby. Cause like, he's so helpful and he's doing this and that and like bringing feedback into the conversation. And now it's all about, uh, uh, raising the baby. We're saying it and working on the solutions in the answer that it's, it's, uh, deploying to make it even more effective.

But it's one of us now, it's really one of us.

Rafaela Cortez: It's one of the team.

Maria Almeida: If you were to come to a company, uh, just starting out with a new team and start from scratch, what would be the first thing you would implement that could improve customer experience?

Mara Figueiredo: The first, well, the first thing I would do is listen to people that are already doing customer support there. They will tell me what's working, what's not working. I would work on that and then, uh, understand other solutions. It all actually, it, it has a lot to do with the type of business that you were running at the time. So it can be a variety of different solutions. Uh, but I would definitely listen to them, uh, not only to their pain points, but actually listen to the conversations some sometimes do some, uh, and, and get a grasp of, okay, what is customer service for those customers and what does that represent internally for the company?

And then work my way through that.

Rafaela Cortez: Yeah. So in a way, like get your hands dirty, like don't, don't be, uh, very disconnected from, uh, that first line of response and always listen.

Mara Figueiredo: Yeah. If you, if you, if you distance yourself, you, you definitely lose perspective. um. Obviously you cannot forget your ultimate responsibility, which is to, to lead the way and, um, of, of the entire customer service. And uh, and keep being innovative and think about solutions that will help you grow. Uh, but you cannot lose track of what people do every day. Cause, cause that's important because that's, those are the people that will be key to help you succeed.

Rafaela Cortez: Yeah. I think listening is a good advice for life as well.

Mara Figueiredo: For sure.

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, and this episode was produced by Rafaela Cortez 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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Coming up, next episode

Miguel Ribeiro: We don't take ideas out of a hat and say, okay, let's create this product because we think it's a good idea. No, we create a product because the user will tell us .

Maria Almeida: That's Miguel Ribeiro, head of growth at Zomato, one of the world's biggest restaurant aggregators and food delivery startups.

Miguel joined Zomato back in 2013 and since then, he's helped Zomato grow into a global business spanning 24 different countries.

Miguel Ribeiro: Some of the restaurant owners were kicking us out and saying, who are you? Are you going to fine me for something? Or something like that. So I think that was the first, uh, big difficulty that we had.

Maria Almeida: We talked about how to scale a global business and why listening to your customers is the key to increasing revenue and driving innovative product development.

That's next on customer centric. Thank you for listening and we'll see you soon.