Inside Look: Going Once, Going Twice, Sold!
Online auctioneer eBay nurtures customer relationships through e-mail.
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For eBay, a company with millions of customers but no tangible product, customer relationship management is arguably more challenging than winning an auction for a retired Beanie Baby. Although eBay is the largest and most visible of the online auction houses, the company would have little but an idle Web site and an empty database without the ongoing interest of its 8 million registered users. There are no salespeople who cold call antique dealers and plush toy collectors to solicit opportunities. So it's not surprising that eBay spends a lot of time nurturing personal relationships with customers.

"It's not just our users' economic lives that are tied into eBay," says Matt Bannick, vice president of product and community at eBay. "Their social lives are tied in as well. So we've got to do things with a very conscious eye toward how people feel about how we treat them."

Hold the Phone
At eBay, a customer support group fields customer inquiries and solves problems, mainly via e-mail. "If we published our phone number, it would be hard to maintain profitability-it would undermine the whole business model, potentially," says Bannick. "Most of our customers are satisfied with e-mail."

A suite of software from Redwood City, Calif.-based Kana Communications helps eBay process its customer service e-mail. The Kana system sorts incoming e-mail messages based on the subject line and a referral tag determined by what the customer was doing on the site when the e-mail was sent. The support group tries to answer e-mails within 24 hours, and the company partners with Mountain View, Calif.-based CustomerCast to ensure users are pleased with the answers they receive.

CustomerCast conducts a daily survey sent out to a sampling of eBay customers who have received a customer service response in the last 24 hours. The survey asks both about their satisfaction with the timeliness and accuracy of the resolution and their opinion of eBay as a whole. eBay staff can monitor results on an hourly basis using a special CustomerCast reporting page. Because a study is difficult to interpret without a control group, eBay's marketing staff runs a monthly baseline satisfaction survey on a random sample of customers.

The customer satisfaction data collected in CustomerCast can be tracked down to the individual service rep level, and it plays a role in employee relations. "We use it in how we recognize people, how we promote and how we give raises," says Noel Morin, quality assurance manager. eBay also slices the data by customer segment-revenue generated, overall site activity and longevity-to try to understand the needs of disparate customer communities.

Web surveys aren't the only way eBay stays in touch with its 8 million charges. The company also uses relatively low-tech message boards to keep its finger on the customer pulse. These discussion groups can serve as problem resolution centers, where eBay service questions or problems can be posted and answered quickly. It's not uncommon for problems to be resolved without the intervention of eBay support staff, thanks to a large group of helpful eBay customers. Regardless of whether an eBay customer service rep or a helpful user solves a posted service question, eBay's support staff compiles regular summary reports of the hot discussion group topics and distributes the reports to the executive, marketing and support organizations. The support staff evaluates new hot topics from time to time, to determine if a particular service issue needs to be brought to the attention of another group, or if customer service reps need to develop a new skill to deal with the issue.

In the future, eBay plans to get even more technical and scientific about the way it interacts with customers. For example, auction sellers who do at least $2,000 in monthly revenue and prove themselves to be honest, reliable traders are offered admission to the "Power Sellers" club. At present, Power Sellers of a certain rank are entitled to priority e-mail and even phone support, but the company plans to add a series of selling-tips teleconferences and online seminars to the complimentary offerings.

Walt Duflock, Senior Manager of the Power Sellers program, says that in addition to boosting seller loyalty through the program, they hope to learn more about what it takes to service active customers. "If we do a seminar on listing tools [to publish items for sale], and listings go up but support costs don't, we can tie the customer management process back into ROI for the company," he says.

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