SBJ/Sept. 16-22, 2013/In Depth

StubHub unit kicks in when orders go awry

In customer service circles, it’s called WISMO ­— Where is my order? When that question comes to StubHub, it sets in motion a dynamic unlike that facing the typical retail outlet.

“We want consumers to have what feels like the retail experience you get with Amazon or Barnes & Noble, yet we don’t control our supply chain,” said Noah Goldberg, StubHub’s chief operating officer, who has headed customer service for the company since 2002. “We can’t just pull another pair of shoes off the shelf if something isn’t quite right.”

A problem with a StubHub order sometimes means that the seller has been asleep at the switch, failing to ship or email the tickets as promptly as the buyer would like. That typically is an easy fix.

StubHub’s process faces a more difficult test when the seller doesn’t have the tickets, which sometimes happens when tickets are posted on multiple sites. The tickets sell elsewhere — on eBay or NFL Ticket Exchange, for example — but the seller doesn’t take the StubHub listing down immediately. When that occurs, the matter is turned over to StubHub’s sourcing group, a unit of about 10 people working various shifts, which sets to work trying to find comparable tickets that will satisfy the buyer.

There, the dance begins. StubHub offers replacement tickets. If the buyer turns them down, the sourcing agent looks for others. Eventually, if the buyer appears to have unreasonable hopes of getting far better seats for the same price, they suggest the buyer take the refund.

“We have a service operation where the staff has way more power financially to address customer issues than is typical,” Goldberg said. “We don’t have a lot of hard and fast limits for them, like a black-and-white policy that if the buyer’s situation is this, you can give that. That serves to significantly empower the staff. Empowered staff help you make happy customers, and happy customers deliver long-term financial results. We’ve really seen that be true.”

Because StubHub often has thousands of tickets for sale for an event, finding a comparable set typically isn’t difficult. When they can be had for less than the original price, the buyer gets a discount, Goldberg said. When they cost more, StubHub can either bill the seller or eat the loss itself. The company also devotes staff to monitor transactions, looking for those that might lead to problems so that they can address them before the buyer finds out something is wrong.

During the summer, which is its busiest time, StubHub employs about 500 customer service representatives at two call centers, one of which it shares with parent company eBay. During slower periods, it cuts staffing to about half that many, a move made easier by shifting reps back and forth between StubHub and eBay.

Along with the call centers, StubHub also maintains small offices, often out of temporary space, in most pro sports cities and some college towns. While initially created to distribute hard tickets on the day of an event, those also can serve to troubleshoot when buyers run into problems at the gate.

Goldberg still chuckles when he tells the story of how those offices came to be.

Back before most tickets could be emailed or bar codes could be transferred, sellers were at the mercy of the FedEx mailer. And since the cost of overnight or weekend shipping would cut significantly into their take, that meant that, in order to get tickets into the hands of a buyer, sellers had to ship tickets for games played Friday through Monday by Wednesday.

StubHub had to find a better way. In 2004, the company rolled out its solution in Chicago, one of the busier, more
passionate markets in sports, hiring a bicycle messenger who set up shop in a Kinko’s.

Said Goldberg: “We had this guy riding around Chicago with $10,000 or $15,000 worth of tickets in his backpack, picking up from the sellers and then going to Kinko’s to meet buyers.”

It was the genesis of a program that would spread to other markets across the country — even to Augusta for the Masters.

“We approached it the old-fashioned way, by doing right by the consumer over and over again,” said StubHub co-founder Jeff Fluhr. “It’s not a quick win, but medium term and over a long period of time, people trust you. Something goes wrong, you make it right. That’s just elbow grease and long-term commitment to the customer that ultimately pays dividends in the form of trust and loyalty.

“That was just something we were going to do.”

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