Q 2Q 2
The Customer-Service Agent
Bill Ryan often deals with difficult people. It's what he gets paid for. He's one of 30 customerservice agents at Half.com, an online marketplace owned by eBay Inc., the Internet auction company. Like eBay, Half.com attempts to match buyers and sellers in a vast flea market featuring millions of products ranging from trading cards to camcorders. But unlike eBay, there's no bidding. Half.com lists items only at fixed prices. If you see something you like, pay the price and it's yours.
The other big difference with eBay is that for most of the products listed on Half.com, there's no way for buyers and sellers to interact directly. Usually there's no need to. To make a purchase, buyers use their credit cards or checking accounts to pay Half.com, which then automatically credits the amount to the seller's card or account-minus a transaction fee. Once the payment is made, the seller ships the product.
Despite a well-oiled system, however, questions arise. Things can go wrong. A purchased item doesn't arrive, or isn't in the condition the buyer expected. Or maybe an interesting product is listed but its description isn't clear.
And that's where Mr. Ryan and his colleagues come in, handling the buckets of e-mail and intermittent phone calls from curious, addled, and upset users. They pass information between buyers and sellers, answer questions, and resolve the occasional dispute. Half.com says that fewer than 1 percent of the site's transactions require customer service's involvement. But with more than 15 million items for sale-well, you do the math.
In fact, the customer-service department receives about 1,500 to 2,000 e-mails a day, of which nearly a third are complaints about transactions. The rest are mostly questions about the goods and how the site works. Mr. Ryan himself on a typical day fields between 60 and 100 e-mails and half a dozen phone calls. The calls are the most stressful. "People panic and they want answers," Mr. Ryan says. "If they are calling, they are not happy."
For Half.com-as well as most other e-commerce companies-customer-service agents like Mr. Ryan are the crucial link between the faceless website and the consumer. And how they deal with the public can make or break a business. As Half.com's vice president for operations, says, "It costs too much to get a new customer only to fumble the relationship away." Half.com wouldn't discuss salaries. But Mr. Ryan and his colleagues, who are split into two shifts covering 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, say they're satisfied with their wages, which include quarterly bonuses.
What he likes about the work, Mr. Ryan says, is the kind of customer problem that requires research and deep digging to find the resolution. What he sometimes doesn't like about his work are the routine questions that generate stock responses. Here's a day in Mr. Ryan's work life:
THE ANSWER MAN
8 AM Mr. Ryan strolls into the Half.com office in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., a short drive from his home. The company's single-story gray building is a former tire factory in this colonial-era industrial town on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Mr. Ryan works in a low-slung, black cubicle toward the back of the office, his space sparsely decorated.
The atmosphere at Half.com is decidedly young and casual. Jeans are the uniform. Mr. Ryan certainly fits in, though at 32 he's a few years older than most of his cubicle mates.
He started doing strictly customer service, answering customer e-mails. Now he also does what the company calls "trust and safety work": investigating fraud and looking for things on the site that are "funky." For instance, when Half.com receives a complaint from a buyer about a seller, it's Mr. Ryan's job to contact both parties and make sure there is no fraud occurring.
This day, because the site has received a high volume of e-mails, he's on regular customer-service duty. After checking the few internal e-mail messages he receives each day, he gets right to work. Mr. Ryan downloads his first batch of 10 e-mails for the day. He says it usually takes him about an hour to get through 10 messages.
8:10 AM The first e-mail is from a woman interested in buying an audio book on CD that she saw listed on the site. She wants to know whether the CD will work on her DVD player. But since she doesn't specify the exact listing, Mr. Ryan is stuck. He can't search for it among all the listings or contact the seller. The best he can do is suggest that she send him an item number so he can contact the seller with her question.
8:15 AM The next e-mail comes from a user who sold the Diana Krall CD "When I Look in Your Eyes," but lost the buyer's shipping information. The seller is concerned that a delay in her shipment will give the buyer reason to give her a negative rating on the site. After each purchase is made, the buyer gets a chance to rate the seller's performance on a scale from 1 to 5-"poor" to "excellent." Every rating sellers collect is displayed along with their user name next to subsequent items they list. Just one negative rating can ruin a seller's reputation, depending on how many sales he or she has made overall.
Mr. Ryan tracks down the details on this particular transaction in the Half.com user database. He identifies the buyer and writes an e-mail to explain that the seller lost the shipping address and "wants to let you know they are sorry for the inconvenience." He then e-mails the buyer's shipping address to the seller.
Mr. Ryan says he doesn't find the e-mails tedious. "There is such a variety of topics to respond to," he says. "I never get 50 of the same questions in a row." But, a few e-mails later, he shrugs with disapproval. The user's question could easily have been answered by going to the help section of the website: "Do I include shipping in the sale price or is it added later "
Says Mr. Ryan, "It's a general question. I like the detailed research questions." Mr. Ryan pastes in an answer from a database of stock responses the customer-service team has put together. He then tacks onto the end of the e-mail a salutation that he draws from a list of suggested message closers provided by Half.com. The list, the company says, makes it easier for the agents to write so many e-mails. For this message, Mr. Ryan chooses, "It was my pleasure to assist you."
9:30 AM After answering a few more messages, it's time for a coffee break. Mr. Ryan says he drinks two cups of coffee a day, a habit he picked up since starting at Half.com.
"A year ago I wouldn't have touched the stuff," he says. He heads to the kitchen, which is just down the hall from his desk. The well-lit room is stocked with free cappuccino, juice, soda, fruit, cereal, cookies, and other munchies. The cafeteria also doubles as a lounge with a satellite television playing ESPN, a Foosball table, and a ping-pong table. This early in the morning, however, most people are interested in the coffee.
9:48 AM An e-mail arrives from a Half.com collea gue in charge of the stock-answer database. He writes that a response Mr. Ryan submitted on how users can sign up for direct deposit-linking their Half.com transactions with their checking accounts-would be included in the database. "There are so many things we don't have responses to," Mr. Ryan says. "It makes everyone's life easier to have the [database]."
9:50 AM The first 10 e-mails are done. Mr. Ryan downloads 10 more. One is from a father who several days earlier ordered the latest Sony PlayStation for his son's birthday and is concerned because it hasn't arrived yet. Half.com's policy is that if a buyer hasn't received an item within 30 days of the purchase, he or she can lodge an official complaint. The PlayStation seller is thus a long way from the delivery deadline. Nevertheless, as a courtesy, Mr. Ryan sends the seller an e-mail asking whether he can provide a shipping date and tracking number that Mr. Ryan can pass on to the restless father.
Half.com believes that help like this-beyond the requirements of its own rules-separates its customer-service approach from that of other companies. When the company was starting out, says Training Supervisor Ed Miller, customer service tried to respond to as many messages as it could, as fast as possible. What the company learned, however, is that "customers don't mind if you take a little more time to answer their specific question." Instead of just firing off e-mails, Half.com now sees it as important to personalize each message. Even with the personalization, Half.com says it responds to most messages within 24 hours.
Communications with customers have a consistent and pleasant tone. E-mail messages should conform to the "grandmother rule." Each message should "make sense to my grandmother."
10:10 AM Bathroom break.
10:15 AM "All right," Mr. Ryan says eagerly, returning to his desk. He cracks his knuckles and starts typing.
A buyer who purchased a video game two months ago but never received it writes to thank Half.com for "hounding" the seller to send him the item. But he wants a refund. Mr. Ryan verifies the buyer's version of events in Half.com's records, then refunds the buyer's money and charges the seller's account for the amount of the sale. Mr. Ryan sends e-mails to both parties informing them of his action. Half.com's rules say that when an official complaint has been lodged the other party has five days in which to respond. In this case, the seller didn't respond, so the buyer won the dispute by default.
10:25 AM Snack time. Mr. Ryan breaks into a high-energy Balance bar-a little nourishment to get him ready for what comes next.
10:30 AM Time to knock down some walls. Lively human-resources worker Alicia DiCiacco invites Mr. Ryan and his colleagues to pick up sledgehammers and knock through a wall at the end of the office. Half.com's staff has doubled in the past year, and the company is expanding into adjacent space in the old tire factory. Everyone in the office takes turns whacking at the wall. Some of the younger males dish out screams of "I'm not going to take it any more!" and "Where's the Pink Floyd !"-a reference to the 1970s rock album "The Wall" by Pink Floyd.
Mr. Ryan eats up the office energy. "It's exciting to work here," he says. "We're growing. We had the second launch of the site. [Half.com expanded its product line in April]. We're doing construction. It's good to come to work when the company is doing well."
11:15 AM Finished with another batch of 10 emails, he downloads 10 more, including two separate queries from customers who can't redeem special introductory coupons Half.com offers to new users.
11:47 AM Mr. Ryan gets an e-mail from a seller responding to a message from Half.com. A potential buyer has asked Half.com whether the seller's 75-cent copy of Carolyn Davidson's Harlequin romance "The Midwife" is a paperback or hardcover. Half.com forwarded the question to the seller, who now is writing back to say it's a paperback. Mr. Ryan sends two e-mails: one to the buyer, answering his question, and one to the seller, thanking him for the information.
12:10 PM Lunch. Mr. Ryan eats his turkey wrap in the company cafeteria with some colleagues and heads back to his desk by 1 p.m.
1:06 PM E-mail from a user who can't find the new Stephen King novel on Half.com. The site is supposed to list all new books from major publishers, even if no one is selling them. That way, if a user is interested, he or she can put it on a wish list and the site will automatically e-mail him or her when a copy has been posted for sale.
Mr. Ryan searches for the book meticulously, checking by title, author and publisher's ISBN number. Once he's sure the book isn't listed, he e-mails Matt Walsh, who is in charge of fixing catalog errors. Mr. Ryan then e-mails the user and instructs him to check back at the site soon.
1:21 PM First phone call of the day. Because Half.com prefers to conduct customer service on e-mail, to keep its costs down, it doesn't display its phone number on its website. Still, persistent users get the number through directory assistance or other sources.
This caller, an agitated buyer of the video "Valley Girl," a 1983 comedy starring Nicolas Cage, says she received a damaged tape. She has lodged an official complaint against the seller on the website, but the seller hasn't responded. Mr. Ryan tells her that the five days the seller has to respond aren't up yet. He assures her that if the seller doesn't respond within the allotted time, he will refund her money and charge the seller's account. Until then, there's nothing Mr. Ryan can do except comfort the caller with apologies and explanations.
In the event that the seller disputes the buyer's claim about the tape, Half.com is still likely to grant a refund, especially on such an inexpensive item. Half.com makes it clear, however, that its customer-service team keeps a close watch on users' complaints, looking out for fraudulent refund requests. If Half.com suspects foul play, it doesn't grant refunds so easily.
2:02 PM A seller of the video "I Know What You Did Last Summer" got the package returned, marked address unknown. Mr. Ryan looks up the buyer's information in the user database and e-mails him, asking for an updated address to forward to the seller. He then e-mails the seller, telling him the address should be on its way shortly.
2:21 PM He downloads 10 more e-mails.
2:30 PM The day is starting to get long, at least to an observer. But Mr. Ryan says sitting still all day doesn't cramp his style. "Sometimes it's tough to work at a desk, but it doesn't really bother me," he says. "I work out after work, and that really loosens things up."
3 PM Bathroom break.
3:15 PM With the clock ticking toward quitting time, Mr. Ryan hunkers down to finish his last batch of e-mails. It's more of the same: a user unsure how Half.com works; a seller who wants to list a 1976 edition of "The Grapes of Wrath" but can't figure out where to put it on the site; a buyer who wants a book shipped second-day air, even though the order was already placed.
3:30 PM A call from a buyer interrupts Mr. Ryan's streak of dispensing e-mails. The buyer felt the quality of a book she bought was not up to snuff. The book, a $2 copy of Danielle Steel's "Secrets," apparently had a torn cover. The buyer is upset, but Mr. Ryan remains calm, calling on skills he learned in a one-day seminar called "Dealing With Difficult People." In the class, which he took before coming to Half.com, he learned to paraphrase what the customer is saying to make sure he understands the complaint. Mr. Ryan also takes care to speak clearly with a strong sense of empathy. At one point he says, "I understand your frustration." When he explains that the buyer will have to wait some time for a final resolution of the matter, he makes sure to preface it with a heartfelt "I'm sorry to let you know..." An observer listening to Mr. Ryan gets the sense that he is not acting.
"If you don't understand what they are saying, then you have a problem," he says. Though he can't satisfy this customer then and there, he promises to talk to his supervisor and to call her back tomorrow with more information.
4 PM The day is done. Mr. Ryan finishes his last e-mail, closes up his desk and shoves on home. A new shift of workers picks up where Mr. Ryan left off, toiling from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. When they finish, the customer-service staff in eBay's facility in Salt Lake City will take over. Tomorrow, Mr. Ryan will be back on duty at 8 a.m., downloading his first 10 e-mails.
Read the accompanying article on a day in the work life of Bill Ryan. Then write a job description for the job of customer-service agent. Use the exhibits in this chapter to guide you in deciding what information in the story is relevant for job analysis.
1. Does the day diary include sufficient information
2. Identify the specific information in the article that you found useful.
3. What additional information do you require How would that information help you
Pick a teammate (or the instructor will assign one) and exchange job descriptions with your teammate.
1. How similar/different are the two descriptions You and your teammate started with exactly the same information. What might explain any differences
2. What process would you go through to understand and minimize the differences
3. What are some of the relational returns of the job