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Cordless interview series: 20 june 2023

Natascha Winkler
Head of Customer Care
at SafetyWing

In this episode of the Cordless Interview series, Natascha Winkler, Head of Customer Care at SafetyWing, talks about her experience in the customer service industry, working with startups, and her current role at SafetyWing.

Prefer to read? Here is the full transcript of the interview:

Luba: [00:00:03] Hey, so welcome to the Cordless Interview Series where we talk with customer support leaders about the best practices and the trends in the industry. And today I'm very pleased to introduce Natascha Winkler, Head of Customer Care at Safety Wing. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Natascha: [00:00:20] Well, thank you for having me, Luba.

Luba: [00:00:22] Of course. I guess to get us started, could you maybe introduce yourself and say a couple of words about your career so far?

Natascha: [00:00:30] Yes, of course. So. Well, I started off in the tourism and hospitality industry, so I worked at a tour operator handling complaints. And then later on I was working at incoming agencies in guest services and reservations across Germany, the Middle East and Australia. And then when I was doing my master's degree in Sydney, I was also working at the front desk of hotels. And yeah, after that I started working at the first start-up, building my first customer service and operations team locally as well with as well as with the BPO and the rest is pretty much history. So for two years now I have been at Safety Wing working for a fully remote company and I look after the customer care team here.

Luba: [00:01:12] That's good. Thank you. Um, yes. When we spoke before the interview, you mentioned that you were a strong believer in a statement. A happy team automatically takes care of your customers. So as the first question I wanted to ask, how do you keep your team happy? Because mean customer support can be an extremely tough job.

Natascha: [00:01:34] It certainly can be. Luckily, most of the customers are nice, so that makes it also a bit fun and easier. But I think, well, my belief is that leadership is based on relationships. So by having a focus on the relationship with the team, you foster trust and you create psychological safety. So imagine you had you know, you're working at a team. Are you working at a place where you enjoy going to because you feel heard, you feel valued, you ask for your opinion. You have a role in shaping your progress and career. Why wouldn't you look, you know, why wouldn't you look after your customers? And another part of it is also we believe in transparency, so we share as much as possible and give context. We have regular one on ones. So we find out we build these relationships, but also find out, you know, if something's not going so well. There might be other reasons. We have mentioned we are fully remote company. So big part of keeping the team happy is every 12 to 18 months we have in real-life team gatherings where we, you know, work together, where we brainstorm together how we can serve our customers better, but also work on the relationships we have with each other. Um, these are some of the things we're doing to keep them happy, involving them in certain decision-making, just overall giving more. Autonomy and responsibility over to the people so they feel like they're really valued.

Luba: [00:03:03] Yeah, I'm 100% something you mentioned about transparency. I found that it's so powerful if you explain why certain decisions are made and even if things are not going well, just being honest about it, it's really motivating for everyone.

Natascha: [00:03:18] Exactly. And it gives everyone the choice to make, you know, decisions based on what they've learned.

Luba: [00:03:24] Yeah, definitely. Um, okay. So what are some of the things you look out for when you hire your team?

Natascha: [00:03:33] Well looking that we are customer care or customer service. Obviously, empathy is a big one, but also the overall attitude. And can someone think outside of the box like ask questions, find solutions, dig deeper into something that's not just good for the customer, but also, you know, knowing how to navigate the business and find the answers you're looking for? And then common sense is a very important one as well. And we're trying to evaluate this by using, you know, some behavioural-based questions. But we also have quite an extensive hiring process. So we have four rounds if you apply with us. The first round is with some of our managers because we believe in participative recruitment. So I'm only at level three. So we have the first round they shortlist, they talk to the people they're interested in, then they go through a test task and then after the test task, the remaining people go to me. Then we meet up in a group and discuss who do we want to move forward to the last and final round, which is usually with one of our founders. And that has proven it's a longer process, but it has proven quite successful.

Luba: [00:04:44] Um, something you mentioned about empathy. Of course. That's one of you mentioned this as a first thing when you hire. And I think it makes total sense, but I wonder how do you test for empathy?

Natascha: [00:04:57] Uh, very good question. How do you I have to admit a lot of intuition goes into it as well. When I talk to people and just the experience I have, but also then question when I say behavioural based questions, I always ask for specific examples and the way people talk about the customer or the situation or the people they work with, you can read between the lines a lot about their level of empathy.

Luba: [00:05:23] Yeah, makes sense.

Luba: [00:05:25] As the next question, what is your take on the pros and cons of promoting managers from within compared to hiring from outside of the organization?

Natascha: [00:05:35] Okay. Let me start with the pros. Um, it definitely boosts. Team motivation. You also know you have someone who is familiar with the organization, knows how things work and, you know, knows the values we live. It can be more cost effective if you look at it from a more practical point of view. Um, that's definitely strong pros. Some of the cons you could say, you know. People might not always have the skills you need, but then I think that's something you might, you know, if you identify it, you can build on it. Um, it can be, you know, it can be really good too, for innovation, to, to bring people from the outside in. But looking at it overall, in my experience, pros outweigh the cons so far. So usually I usually promote and hire, you know, from within. Yeah.

Luba: [00:06:31] Yeah. Remember when we were building...

Luba: [00:06:33] Out a customer support team at Monzo. We also had a strong bias towards promoting from within, but very often that meant that we had very young managers who were managers for the first time. And so, yeah, definitely created a lot of issues. But also I think in the end was very beneficial. So I'm totally it is with you.

Natascha: [00:06:52] And you know, you might have these very young people becoming managers, but then that's the other part. It's, you know, not just giving them the skills to do their job right, but also the skills and the mentoring and coaching on building up their leadership skills. Like without that, it can definitely be a failure. But I believe that's another part or another responsibility of the organization to actually make these people successful. So they have the leadership skills as well, not just the transactional skills or the skills required to do the job.

Luba: [00:07:21] Yeah, definitely. Um, on that, what is your progression framework look like and maybe what kind of KPIs do you have for your team?

Natascha: [00:07:31] Um. Okay. The KPIs. Let's start with them. Um, we're mainly looking at customer service satisfaction, of course. Um, average first response time, the average response time. And then we also look at we work with live chat. So we also measure how many tickets are checked because we are working close with our product departments. We are the closest to the member, so we are to the customer. So we're trying to hand over as much valuable, valuable information to them as well. So these are the main things we track. And I believe, you know, numbers are important, but sometimes there's a different story. Like if you look at CSAT, for example, you have someone who all of a sudden sits lower than usual. We go through each and every ticket that is rated lower to see if is this really service-related or is it a UX-related issue? Is it a feature request or a product-related issue to really have, you know, the deep insight and not just looking at one number that can say a lot of things when it comes to progression that's currently interesting enough. It's something we are trying to define a bit more currently, like what we are planning to do, like we have a like an MVP of it, but we're trying to define that there are certain levels and everyone knows that if want to progress, this is what I need to do.

Natascha: [00:08:48] Like practically in terms of work we have like within the customer care team, we have other tasks that can be signed up for. So how is your knowledge there? How do you live our values and believe that gives back some of the, you know, of the power and of the autonomy to someone who wants to progress because they know what is expected? Again, it's transparency. If I want to move on and I don't have to, but if I want to, this is what I should work towards to these other questions I can ask. This is what I should look out for and the feedback I should request to get where I want to, where I want to go. And we have regular one on ones. It's something I'm very adamant about, very important. And also there's something where I ask, Are you still happy what you're doing? Are there areas in the company you're interested in? And it has happened several times in the past that have a conversation with someone I don't know in January and then in May, I talk to another leader. And there's a new role coming up. And we can, you know, mix, mix and match the two together. And that makes it very satisfying. But also for everyone in the team able to see, okay, there are ways of progressing within the organization.

Luba: [00:10:00] Yeah. Think it's definitely. Easier when the organization is growing quite quickly and there's a lot of things opening up.

Luba: [00:10:09] Which is not always the case for every team. So it's actually one of the questions I had for you. So we definitely had this at Monzo as well, where we found that the highest performance in the customer support team often wanted to move into slightly different roles in the organization. And so and very often we were able to do that and that was great. But sometimes it was very tough because that meant that we had a lot of attrition within internal attrition but also within the team. So like when you smile, I can see that you are definitely familiar with this. How do you deal with this? How do you manage that?

Natascha: [00:10:47] I am. But I also see it as something very positive. And I you know, it's part of my personal mission to give people this opportunity. I have worked in this area for so long, and I've hit the ceiling several times and saw other people hitting the ceiling like, no, you can't move because we need you here or no, there's nothing without any further development opportunities. And then what happens? It disengaged. You don't care anymore. And I usually soon after left the company, if there's no room for progress, as you said, it's definitely easier in the startup. Maybe that's why I'm really enjoying working at startups as well. But I believe even if it's not possible now, just having this open path of communication and seeing if it's I can't promise something now. If something comes up, you always say, you know, they always have the support, but eventually there might come the point of time where someone says, I can't wait. Then, you know, go out. Like I would never stop anyone having interviews or even, you know, discussing it with me to see maybe if I can't offer it now, they are better off somewhere else. But luckily so far it always worked out. Um, everyone stayed within the organization, which I think is a win-win because then you also have the people coming from customer service, bringing that knowledge into the product departments and other ways, which I think is really valuable. And it's the only downside there is, is that we need to hire more often. And I know it's a long process and can be tiring, but that would never stop me from continuing on that path to support people.

Luba: [00:12:27] Yeah, I think, yeah, I totally agree with you actually on that. So something that we also experienced and I wonder if you see that too, that in the very early stages of the company, I think because our processes weren't really worked out within customer support, we tended to hire people who actually very often didn't have customer support, background who would almost have come and help us figure out how these processes should work. So most like business operations kind of profile almost. But then as our organisation grew, we had to change the profile of people that we were hiring. I don't know if you see that as well?

Natascha: [00:13:05] Um, not as much in my team yet because so far I really, like everyone, progressed from within. So I always hire for, always hire for, let's say, the entry-level position. Um, I probably have looked more into, you know, do they have what kind of customer service experience or even insurance experience they have? I don't look into that. Much anymore. It's really the other skill set I mentioned early on. But it hasn't changed that much yet.

Luba: [00:13:40] Something you mentioned when you were talking about progression and KPIs is values. So on that, I wanted to ask, how do you reinforce the cultural norms in a team? Do you have explicit values? And if not, how do you maintain?

Natascha: [00:14:02] We actually as an organisation have values and we talk about them a lot. We incorporate them, try to incorporate them a lot. They really come down from they trickle through the whole organization from the founder level, which is a good thing. So and specifically within the customer care team, we, you know, every now and then we pick have a really creative customer care manager who picks one of the values and creates in the team meeting a workshop around it a little bit gamified, but also to foster the community, foster conversations about how we live them on a daily basis in, you know, our professional and sometimes even our our our personal life. And they are also a big topic in our team gatherings always and we funny thing one of our values is simple is better. So there are these occasions where we you know talk about a new process, something we want to implement, and we kind of get stuck. And there's always one person in the room. Then it's like, is it simple enough? Like, yeah, maybe we all were thinking it. Let's take a step back and look at it again.

Natascha: [00:15:06] And one of the other big things we have built together as a team is collectively we build a social contract. So an agreement everyone brainstormed with and we discussed in detail where the way we want to work together. So this is also something that we incorporate and that makes you a bit more accountable but also gives you the freedom to like, hey, you know, you, you all agreed on that. So let's, let's stick let's stick to the social agreement. And so far this has really worked well. And we have our onboarding process where people shadow like you, shadow quite a while with different people in different shifts. So you don't just see one person doing it, but different people. And we get really good feedback about our onboarding process and how support is supportive everyone is. And I feel it's like because you experience it, you live it the same way. Like we're not competitive. We are here to encourage each other, to support each other. If there's a mistake to help each other fix it, rather than pointing the finger and just trying to get the spotlight on ourselves.

Luba: [00:16:13] It sounds like you have a fantastic culture. Yes, we do. Accountability and also very collaborative. Sounds really great. Um, cool. Guess, um, final question that I had. So, um, as you said, autonomy is extremely important for any role. But I guess with a large team within customer support when there's a lot of repetitive tasks and as the team is growing, it could be hard to maintain the quality of support. Um, yeah. How do you make sure that the service is consistent? Do you have any tricks around that?

Natascha: [00:16:47] Well, we have a team, of course, that goes through certain things and again with the mentoring and coaching approach. So we try to fix the gaps that there might be. Um, we, we have little things in place. Um, we're using Slack where every week people can there's a prompt to share your most interesting conversations and we talk about what's coming up. We have policy experts that hold workshops around, you know, the more complicated matters to invite everyone and they can come with their questions and can go in more details and what if scenarios. We have workshops in our team meetings. An upcoming one is de-escalating difficult conversations. Um, sometimes it's, you know, other customer service-related topics. So we try to, on a regular basis, bring these things up again, bring them to the surface because often you say, Hey, this is what we do now and you do it two times and then you don't need it for three weeks and it's kind of gone again. So revisit these kind of topics on a regular basis, and that has helped a lot to keep, you know, keep the consistency straight. We have some safe replies. I mean, the insurance industry is highly regulated, so there are things you can and can't say. But even when using the safe replies, we still encourage everyone to be to have their own voice. Like we want people. If you reach out to us that you realize you're talking to someone else every time that they bring in their personality. So there's a certain freedom, but we're looking at some quality points that we can't compromise on. And this is just something, again, transparency. Sharing the knowledge and revisiting topics makes sense.

Luba: [00:18:29] Actually had another question as you were talking about it. I know that I've seen multiple extremes of this, of having everyone in a customer support team who is a generalist and on the other extreme where there's quite a lot of specialisation, where maybe there's a first line of defense and then there's a lot of several teams of escalation. And I guess with insurance, it's a fairly complicated product. How do you approach this? How do you deal with it? How did you set up your team from that perspective?

Natascha: [00:18:59] That's a good question and certainly something I've grown into with the team. So when I started, we had Team eight team members and everyone was a generalist and now we are 21. So there are some specialization. Like first level is still everyone has certain knowledge of all the products we offer, but then if it comes to more complicated tech questions that don't need to go to the developer but can be solved by someone else, we have a customer care tech team. We have two specialists for each product that if you come to the level where you can't, it gets too specific. You can't answer it. It's too complex where they can reach out to one of the one of the product experts as well. So it's something yeah. I realize as well that generalization works until a certain a certain point.

Luba: [00:19:52] Got it makes sense. Well thank you so much! That are all my questions. I really enjoyed this! Thanks so much for joining us today!

Natascha: [00:19:59] Thank you for having me! This was really nice!
Luba Chudnovets
Co-Founder and CEO