Pretty much my favorite thing in the world is explaining things I think I understand to people. I try to only foist my explanations on the willing, however, so when Erin admitted she didn't know exactly how Dropbox works, I practically begged her to let me tell her. Please, never invite me to any parties.

Erin is the Head of Customer Experience at Karma. She's in charge of our whole customer service flow, and also tracks customer feedback and satisfaction. If you email Karma customer service, there are even odds Erin will be answering your email. She also describes herself as "non-technical" by nature, and wasn't exactly sure how to save something to Dropbox. She knew how to access and retrieve files, but how do you save them "to the cloud" in the first place?

I stumbled over my words in excitement. See, you download the extension, and then Dropbox is a real folder as far as your computer is concerned, and it syncs the files "to the cloud" after you put them in there. It's a real folder, but also a cloud folder. It's a... I guess I don't really know how to explain Dropbox very well. But it got Erin over her confusion, to a point where she could actually use Dropbox, at least.

Erin's metric for clarity is the classic, "Can my mom figure this out?"

There's a lot of explaining in customer service. As simple as Karma is to use, people still have questions sometimes about how it works, and those questions of how can often inhibit the actual usefulness of the product. For someone used to getting WiFi from their home router, a "portable" hotspot can be confusing. Tech companies like to use the word "magical," but when "magical" means "misunderstood" or "inscrutable," it can get in the way of effectiveness.

Take Apple's iCloud, for example. I know that, at some point, my iPhone is probably supposed to put my photos up on the internet. Maybe. But I don't know when, I don't know if. And so the photos stay on my phone forever until I run out of space and freak out. By making iCloud so "magical," Apple's made it impossible to use. Dropbox might look crude in comparison, but at least it's pretty clear and explicit about syncing once you get it set up that first time.

Erin's metric for clarity is the classic, "Can my mom figure this out?" Like, for instance, Karma Go relies on a Sprint LTE connection. Does this mean you need a Sprint contract or a Sprint phone to use it? No, not at all, Sprint is simply our service provider, you only ever have to deal with Karma. But I can see how this could confuse my mom or Erin's. Confusion on this point isn't Erin's fault, it's the job of people like me in marketing to explain away the inherent complexity of an internet device without explaining away too much.

"It shouldn't matter where the WiFi comes from," says Erin, "but we should tell people it doesn't matter where it comes from. Yes, it works everywhere, but why does it work everywhere?"

"Yes, it works everywhere, but why does it work everywhere?"

Of course, if you have questions, Erin is always happy to answer them, but the work doesn't end there. Erin sends out a "Weekly Report" email to the whole company, giving a detailed breakdown of questions received by customer service broken down by subject. Often, the top issue of customers one week is something we focus on a solution for the next week. Usually it's a clarifying change to the website, which could be as small as tweaking a few words. It's a tight feedback loop, and it's all built on a quest for understanding.

"Stefan's mission in life is to remove all the question marks from above my head," says Erin. Stefan Borsje is our CTO and Co-founder. He's had his hand in every system, every bit of software that makes Karma work. You could say he understands our product. So it's pretty cool that whenever Erin has a question she can walk a few desks over to Stefan and get the most authoritative answer possible. Or she'll ping Arie Meeldijk, one of our Netherlands-based developers, for clarity on some technical language.

"I'm constantly learning and becoming knowledgeable," says Erin. "And then you have to take it and break it down." Explain it to her mom, so to speak. And it's the deeper technical knowledge that allows Erin to formulate a simple, clear answer to user questions.

"Stefan takes the time and gives me the knowledge about why the customer is asking the question," she explains. "And he gives me the answer, and tells me why the answer is what it is. Knowing why the customer is asking the question is more valuable to me than the answer to the question."

With that deeper knowledge of why something is happening, Erin doesn't have to fire off generic lists of instructions to customers. She can explain cause and effect. I think back on my many encounters with customer service over the years, and it becomes entirely clear which representatives understood the product they were supporting, and which ones were simply reading a script.

"I don't want to waste my time and I don't want to waste your time," says Erin.

"Knowing why the customer is asking the question is more valuable to me than the answer to the question."

This tight information loop between product, support, and back to product might seem like luxury of being a small startup. But it's also a result of staying consciously small. For instance, Karma doesn't offer phone support. It's much harder to provide truly knowledgeable answers, and prompt solutions, to customer problems with the large staff a phone system would require.

"What I love about Karma is the constant communication," says Erin. "Something I learned from working in a big call center is that information we collected as a group was never filtered up correctly to the people it needed to go to."

"Customer service is the voice of the customer," says Erin, and she makes sure that voice is heard. In that sense, customer service is really the backbone of our company. If people don’t enjoy using our product, and we can’t be helpful, it’s all a wasted effort. Erin and her team keep us connected.

Or, if you're looking for a more succinct explanation of what customer service is: "Listening and also speaking."


About Paul Miller

That guy who left the internet for a year