Q&A with eBay's Steve Boehm

By: Sebastian Rupley and Adam Kohler, eBay Staff

eBay’s Head of Global Customer Experience discusses Trust, Service and priorities.

Customer confidence and trust are at the heart of eBay’s business, and nobody knows that better than Steve Boehm, eBay’s Senior Vice President of Global Customer Experience. Boehm is a seasoned operations and customer service executive who previously worked in the financial services industry.

In this interview, Boehm discusses his team, his priorities and the constantly changing keys to delivering great experiences for customers. Here are his thoughts.

Please tell us about your role at eBay.

Steve: My name is Steve Boehm, and I lead the Global Customer Experience teams for eBay. That comprises customer service, billing and payments, risk and policy, and customer trust teams. Our primary mission is to remove friction from the eBay ecosystem. Our singular focus is to make eBay easier to use, more reliable, and more consistent from the customer’s point of view.

What are the biggest challenges that you see eBay facing when it comes to customer service?

Steve: Customer service is one of those things that you can only really understand when it’s done poorly or extremely well. Very few people see anything in between.

At eBay, one of the biggest challenges we face is the complexity of our environment, with over 800 million listings and 155 million buyers around the world. It’s a very complicated marketplace, with eBay sitting in the center.      

So what we try to do is make sure each transaction works the way our customers expect them to, and when they don’t, we step in and try to make it right for them.  We try to conduct ourselves in a way that both parties feel they’ve been treated fairly. That’s a very significant challenge we’ve taken on, and one that we take very seriously.

What has eBay done over the past couple of years to improve customer service?

Steve:  We’ve spent a lot of time and money building a coaching practice to teach our teammates how to deal with complexity while simultaneously focusing on the needs of each individual customer. We have invested heavily in technology and tools so that our people have the information they need to serve customers well.  We have made a tremendous amount of progress as measured through customer satisfaction feedback, and yet we have so much more room to improve.

But being great at customer service is about a lot more than quickly and accurately solving issues after the fact.  It’s about simplifying our policies, being more transparent about actions we take and the steps customers need to take to return to trading on our platform.  It is a holistic way of thinking about and designing the services and products our customers use to run their businesses on eBay, or that buyers use to shop.  I’m really excited about a lot of the upcoming changes we’ll be sharing with our global constituency in the coming months.

What's the most interesting customer service story you've heard this year?

Steve: The classic one is the “Blue Monkey” story. There was a young kid who had a stuffed animal, this blue monkey, and it was his prized possession. There were a couple things they had done to it, like cutting the tag off the leg, and it had gotten singed a bit in a drier…he knew exactly which Blue Monkey was his. He and his parents had gone on a camping trip and lost it at a campsite, and he was devastated.

Anyway his mother was online a year, year and a half later, looking for something completely unrelated on eBay, and she wondered to herself what would happen if she typed in “Blue Monkey.” Lo and behold, the monkey shows up.

The mother decided to videotape the interaction where the boy got the blue monkey back. Long story short, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It really brought everyone in the room to a standstill. But the point is, that’s the really amazing power of the eBay brand. Who would ever imagine that we would play that kind of role in something that personal and significant to a young boy?

What are your thoughts on how the data breach that eBay experienced last year was handled?

Steve: If you think about making the best of a bad situation, that’s what we did.

Last summer we had a widely publicized data breach, and it created a wave of unanticipated contacts from customers, and was a really important moment. We made a very public disclosure that an element of our trust with our customers that had been breached. We required that every single customer globally reset their password to protect their interests.  By our estimates, it was the largest such campaign of its type ever, maybe larger by a factor of 20.  We knew it would be a challenging decision but we knew it was the right thing to do.

We assembled teams from around the world, including our colleagues from PayPal. We quickly engaged in handling hundreds of thousands of contacts, and we worked to begin restoring customer confidence.  This was one of those moments where a service brand either comes to life or it doesn’t, and ours did.

Tell us how your team approaches maintaining trust with customers.

Steve: Trust has been important on eBay since day one. It is actually a bilateral state. I have to be trusting of you, and I have to be trustworthy in order for trust to exist. While that is true of any relationship, it’s very true of business and customer. So the way we think about it at eBay is in both those dimensions.

Let’s start with our platforms. We invest significantly every year to make sure our systems are secure, that we’re protecting customer data.

Once our systems are secure, we must consider our personal relationships. What do we know about you, and what do you know about us? I have to be able to authenticate that you are who you say you are, and I have to be able to engage with you in an individual and personalized way.

On the seller side of our business, risk and trust management are also incredibly important. We need to give sellers clear direction on the freedom that they have to run their businesses on eBay. We must be reliable and always do what we say we’re going to do. And we have to be able to distinguish legitimate and correctible errors from the bad actors that exist in any business.

Our customers tell us that we do these things well the vast majority of the time.  But there are also occasions where we don’t and our customers let us know about those situations as well.  Our work as a company is to create ecosystem balance, a fair and safe trading marketplace, where businesses can flourish and people can shop with confidence.  We will be introducing significant improvements in a number of important customer dimensions in the coming months.  Through these actions, not words, we will improve the confidence our buyers and sellers have in the reliability that eBay represents.

How has technology changed the face of customer service over the past few years?

Steve: Oh, my goodness, technology has changed it in many ways. First, in terms of human interactions, technologies have helped communications become so much more personal. Technology has absolutely collapsed the distance between the customer’s recognition of a need to engage with us, and then how they do so.

But technology on the receiving end has helped us greatly, too. We use it to put information that is exactly relevant to what a customer is calling about in our customer-facing teammates hands. That increases our ability to serve customers more reliably, with greater accuracy, and in a more timely fashion.  We are enhancing our self-help tools online and through natural speech language systems.  We are experimenting with video aids to show people how to do things rather than telling them.  But we don’t get carried away thinking technology is an end to itself…it is simply a toolkit that our people and our customers can use to perform important task more simply and more reliably.