Scaling Customer Service: Lessons from Karma



Investing in your existing resources is the best investing. When building a business from the ground up, you’re faced with a constant barrage of decisions. You establish metrics for success, which might include, say, revenue, or number of users, and then adapt based on those metrics. It’s pretty widely acknowledged that more customers = good. But more customers also means more questions, which means you’ll need more resources to answer all those questions, and that means either hiring new team members or implementing better tools.

Karma, a hardware device that lets you take WiFi everywhere in your pocket, has a very large database of active users, and it’s about to get a lot bigger when we ship our new product Karma Go. Given that, you might be surprised to learn that Karma operates with just a two-person customer experience team. Erin Ambrose and Keith Sheridan are the very human folks that answer Karma’s customer emails and live chats every day. When it comes to scaling, they’ve taken the old adage “proper planning prevents poor performance” to heart, and it hasn’t yet resulted in bringing another person on board.

“Building tools to enhance our efficiency rather than having more people has been so valuable to us at this stage in the game,” says Erin, our Head of Customer Experience. Since she joined the team in June 2014, she’s been focused on finding the right balance of new tools and training to build an experience that works for both the customer and the team.

Scalable Software

We knew when we announced Karma Go that Karma was going to need a better way to keep in touch with our customers. After nearly two years of success using the straightforward software from Help Scout, Erin started the search for a system with more extensive capabilities with the intent of planning for the future. “It gave us the luxury of taking our time,” says Erin about her decision to switch earlier rather than later.

Moving all of our customer communication from one system to another took a lot of research, but was worth the undertaking for two main objectives:

  1. Tracking customer interactions. We can now see past conversations because everyone who writes in has a profile with their communication history.
  2. Reporting. Zendesk allows for much more detailed visibility into what topics are customers are asking about most, what our user flow looks like, and metrics like our response rate.

“Zendesk might be a little robust for what we do today, but it’s one of the best scalable systems on the market, which is why we ultimately made the switch,” says Erin.

Live Chat

It might be surprising that Karma doesn’t offer phone support. It’s not that we don’t want to hear our customers’ voices — quite the contrary, actually. Omitting a phone support option enables us answer a higher volume of messages. When we get a question that stumps us, we can liaise with our engineering team and often come up with a technical solution without having to waste time on hold.

However, Erin and Keith still wanted a way to answer questions in real time, so they recently implemented live chat, an option that’s clickable from the checkout page as well as the help page.LiveChat2

“The decision to do chat was an easy one,” says Erin. “We offer it on a small scale now but it’s already added a huge amount of value to our customers’ experience. It gives people another option to talk to us, especially for people who wouldn’t necessarily take the time to send an email.”

It’s also been a good business decision. Putting a link to live chat on the checkout page means that customers with last-minute questions can get them answered right before they click the scary “buy” button, and that makes for fewer abandoned shopping carts. It also makes for customers who are more confident in the product they’re buying.

Building Efficiencies

From this process of scaling support, we’ve learned that adding tools when you need them is really important. But when you find something that works, the next step is finding how to make it work smarter. We’ve brainstormed to create efficiencies wherever possible, such as linking Zendesk directly to our customer management system so we can immediately take a deeper look at a customer’s purchase history when they write in. Erin continues to keep open communication with our Zendesk rep, too, and attends seminars to stay on top of new features.

Erin says one of the most crucial things she’s learned while working for a Karma is to always keep engineering team involved. One of our engineers, Arie, is really passionate about customers and does everything he can to be available for questions and support.

“Arie always wants to be in touch with the customers,” says Erin. “But at some point we’re going to be too big for him to be involved, so we’re going to put together a comprehensive knowledge base so we can always have those things at our fingertips.” Scaling, in this case, will mean Arie taking a step back, but only after we have a way to source technical answers sustainably.

Having a well-informed customer service department also helps everyone stay stress-free. There are options when it comes to keeping team members at the top of their game; some companies choose to hire more agents who specialize in particular service areas like phones or chat. Keith sees the merits of a system like that, but says that it’s better to encourage agents to multitask instead.

“Yes, it’s a good idea to play on people’s strengths,” says Keith, “But I think the multi-tasker is more successful, because they’re more well-rounded, more knowledgeable overall.”

Keep it Small

Keith likens working in a small customer service department to attending a small college: “You’re not just a statistic, and you have an opportunity to build real relationships with customers as well as within your department. You feel like your company is more interested in your growth and giving you the tools you need to succeed.”

Ultimately, as Karma grows, scaling might mean adding agents to the team. Erin recommends choosing a KPI metric as a goalpost and sticking to it. For us, that all-important metric is time to first response, but other companies might use overall volume of inquiries or time to resolve. When you can’t meet your goals anymore through optimization of tools, it’s time to add another team member.

Scaling any department within a startup environment is tough. A business is an ecosystem, and every decision you make will have a ripple effect throughout the organization as a whole. Erin says that you have to weigh your options carefully when you make the decision to scale in any direction, but offers this piece of sage advice:

“Just don’t lose sight that customers come first. They’re the most important. Take care of them and the success will follow.”

 This post originally appeared on Karma’s blog