Thou Shalt Learn the Parable of eBay’s Sloppy Customer Service
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: PR stretches far beyond the issuance of press releases or the coordination of news conferences. The PR function is carried by every person within a company or organization who deals directly with the public – from the CEO to the receptionist and all points in-between, the role of PR brand ambassador is carried by many people. This is especially the case with customer service reps, since they have to deal with the public on a daily basis (often without executive supervision).
Now here is a case study of customer service reps who give their employer bad PR. The company in question in eBay, the reps go by the names of Yuri and Jenkins, and the beleaguered customer is (of all people) me.
Earlier this week, I posted an auction on eBay to sell a used DVD documentary on the 1960 folk singer Tim Buckley. The day after the auction went up, I received an e-mail from eBay stating the auction was removed. No specific reason was given, but there was the insinuation that the DVD in question was in violation of copyright laws (translated: it was a bootleg).
Of course, it wasn’t a bootleg. The DVD is actually in the eBay database (it’s been in stores for over a month) and another dozen people are selling the same product on eBay. So I sent an e-mail to the eBay customer service department requesting an explanation of what happened.
To shorten a long story: I had an exchange of e-mails with Yuri and Jenkins (they are apparently a tag team in the customer service department). Neither of them seemed impressed that the DVD was in the eBay database or that it is being sold by other people on eBay. But when I requested evidence to back up the accusation that I was selling a bootleg, they refused. The reason: security issues.
So I then stated that I was being accused of engaging in criminal activity (the sale of bootleg DVDs). I demanded that they present evidence supporting that claim or apologize for making an unsubstantiated and defamatory accusation. All I got was a form letter telling me to read eBay’s policy on copyright protected materials.
Not being satisfied, I sent a complaint to a number of executives within the eBay upper echelon: Beth Axelrod, Senior Vice President of Human Resources (I specifically demanded a complaint be placed in Yuri and Jenkins’ personnel files), William C. Cobb, President of eBay North America, Michael Jacobson, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Bob Swan, Senior Vice President, Finance and Chief Financial Officer, and
Meg Whitman, President and CEO. None of these individuals responded to me.
I did get a response from someone named Suza, who stated she worked “in the office of the president” (doing what, I have no clue). Suza called me, but I don’t see why since she didn’t bother to listen to anything I said. She literally read from the same text that Yuri and Jenkins were e-mailing to me, and she only displayed an organic reaction when I repeated my demand about putting complaints in the reps’ personnel files (she was not happy with that idea). I later got an e-mail from her which basically tread over the same stupid non-answers I received earlier.
So what’s the point of all of this? Well, what kind of PR do you think eBay is getting today? After all, it only takes one person with above-average communications skills and access to the media to put a dark spot on a company’s PR image (think of Rev. Al Sharpton’s targeting of MSNBC in the wake of the Don Imus brouhaha). In the scheme of things, my complaint about eBay’s shitty customer service and the dum-dums they have on staff is minor. But what if I really had an axe to grind and the time and money to make mischief (again, Rev. Al and MSNBC).
But...this story will always be on the Net as long as Strumpette is around. It will be linked via Technorati and spread about other web sites. It will be in the Google news search when someone is researching eBay and/or “customer service.” From eBay’s perspective, you can’t spin this as good news.
And what about eBay’s PR people? Oh, I never contacted them and they’ll probably be the last to know about this incident. When they’re doing their search for eBay’s media coverage, this should pop up and amuse them.
Most PR people don’t think of the customer service function as part of the PR bailiwick, but it is. Any department that deals directly with the outside world falls into the realm of PR, and shabby customer service will reflect terribly on a corporate image. If you’re a PR person working for a company or organization with customer service reps, think twice about where your next point of damage is going to emerge. Chances are, it won’t come from the C-Suite or the sales channels, but rather it could bubble up from a couple of idiots in customer service who piss off the wrong person.
As a nice post-script: I put the DVD in question back up for sale and someone in France bought it for $5.00. Neither Yuri nor Jenkins seemed aware of the resale. Go figure.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)
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