Driving Customer Satisfaction at eBay: Interview with Sascha Fuhren, Head of Business Excellence

Sascha Fuhren

"There’s a revolution brewing within e-commerce," says Sascha Fuhren, Head of Business Excellence at online auction site eBay. Industry growth is slowing down, he explains, and customer expectations are rapidly evolving: "they expect shipping to be fast and cheaper; people want to get what they want and they want to get it now."

In this interview, Fuhren discusses how these changes are impacting the company’s approach to operational excellence, how it’s making improving customer satisfaction an operational reality, and where the company plans to go next.

PEX Network: What does operational excellence look like at eBay?

Sascha Fuhren: There are a couple of components here. On the one hand we’ve got a global operational excellence approach within eBay - and I’m speaking specifically now about improvements for the customer service area within eBay. We’ve got teams located in major markets in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. And we also have people we are teaming up with in outsource partners; some of our operations in the customer contact centre have been outsourced. We are teaming up with outsource partners in Europe and Asia-Pacific and in America as well.

We have built a team of Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified people in each of those major markets. Most of them are in house eBay employees. Our partners who we are using for contact centre operations they also have operations excellence people trained and we align ourselves and utilize them to the utmost extent.

But we have taken a bit of journey in the past two or three years. You are probably familiar with the typical maturity model that each company takes when they launch Lean Six Sigma capabilities within their operations.

Within eBay we introduced continuous improvement methods through Lean Six Sigma a couple of years ago. We spoke to a lot of functional leaders about their needs and expectations of continuous improvements. We built the team and drove continuous improvement through finding problems, implementing solutions that drove impact for the customer from a customer experience perspective but also in terms of efficiency gains internally for cost reduction purpose

We have now developed the skills of the team those Lean Six Sigma Black Belt people. We sent them through training; we hired people internally and externally. And now we really create tangible value for the organization and deliver measurable results either through continuous improvement or through instilling a continuous improvement mindset within the organisation.

The next step on our journey was to say, "hey, we now have a good basis, a strong team. We have gained visibility within the organisation and why don’t we just expand the capability for continuous improvement within the organisation so that it’s not only the business excellence team driving improvements but it is more about the entire organisation taking it on?" We do that through training and coaching.

We also needed to look at sustaining results so that they didn’t die out a couple of weeks or months after projects have been completed. This was part of making sure that continuous improvement was not only a function business excellence but it really did become something that is part of day to day operations.

So, that’s a little bit of the journey we have taken so far and it also is a little bit aspirational in terms of the last part I have just explained. There are still a lot of things that need to be done and I think we are in the middle of the journey right now.

PEX Network: We sometimes think of online innovators such as yourselves to be really redefining the rules of business by disrupting established industries. Do you think this also holds true for operational excellence? In other words are you shaking up the definition of what it means to practice operational excellence?

Sascha Fuhren: As we have evolved from a business excellence stand point, our market and industry have also rapidly changed. Competition has grown with companies like Amazon or Alibaba. Consumer expectations are rising and changing very quickly. The entire industry landscape is transforming.

So, for instance, take a look at how important mobile has become. Most of what we do are transactions done by mobile and not by regular laptop anymore. The entire retail online channel has changed; Omnichannel has become the norm.

I think there’s a revolution brewing within e-commerce. E-commerce growth has slowed over the past years; it’s still growing but not to the extent that it used to be. Technologies are driving fundamental changes in behaviour; we’ve got consumers who have access to the goods in a way that they haven’t had in the past. They expect shipping to be fast and cheaper; people want to get what they want and they want to get it now.

All of these things have an influence on operational excellence. It requires us to have faster reaction times when we bring improvements to market. Our business excellence program must support an organisation that has to react quickly. That means that we probably can’t afford to have projects of four to six months going on. We need to bring improvements to the market faster.


The other thing is not only swiftness or speed but we also see that we need to create more consistency in service availability especially in providing an online customer service. We basically help people find information before contacting the customer service centre just to take a little bit of the pain away and not having to call somebody. So, these are things which definitely drive us in our approach to be faster and more consistent. That has a bearing on our overall strategy and what we focus on as a business excellence team here.

PEX Network: You’ve mentioned customers and changing customer expectations a lot in this interview and eBay is known to be quite customer focused. How do you ensure that you’re targeting improvements that really matter to your customers?

Sascha Fuhren: We’ve got a couple of improvements going on. There’s a Voice of the Customer survey programme. We have a globally aligned post-interaction survey for our customer service operations. What it means is when somebody like a buyer or seller does a transaction with eBay online we contact them and ask them net-promoter type of questions: how satisfied they’ve been with the service, with the platform, with the service offerings, etc. We do that consistently and we circle back with customer service operations teams here. Then we double check what is it that we see in the KPIs, the key performance indicators and how the voice of the customer that we capture through those surveys can be utilised to improve the business.

We also do a lot of speech analytics. We have an operations excellence laboratory on site in the customer service centre. We’ve got a cross functional team sitting in front of computers in the customer service contact centre arena. We test potential improvement solutions that we have brainstormed before the launch and the beauty of it is that it is relatively simple but it’s also effective in order to make sure that we have the right solution in place and have a little bit of dry run before actually launching.

With all these things - with the speech analytics, the laboratory, with the surveys - we have root cause sessions where we utilise this data to take a look at the customer friction points. We drill down into the process flows and understand why the customer contact actually occurs. Then in the next step, we have focus sessions with the operation teams to bring in the subject matter experts and figure out how to remove those root causes we have found through the data.

Last but not least, we also circle back to our product teams to manage improvements in both the customer contact center and on the online customer service side. We find and create ways to actually get rid of friction.

PEX Network: Could you give me an example of something that you’ve done to help us visualize this even a bit better?

Sascha Fuhren: We have programmes and people who do speech and text analytics. They provide us with really valuable data that is relatively structured. So, we start with words of the customer data through call recordings and free text, both of which are relatively unstructured. Our people in the programmes then classify and organize this data into structured categories.

Then we perform a "deep dive" analysis by categories set. What we use actually is this type of insights for our targeted coaching, for example, in the contact centres. A team leader coaches their own people based on certain insights and we also have a positive effect on reducing contacts because after improvements are done hopefully customers will not need to call the contact centre anymore. So, it is a dual approach targeted to coaching on the one hand and contact reductions on the other hand. This has a positive experience for the customer but also obviously efficiency gains internally for our company here.

PEX Network: Where are planning to go next with your Opex programme?

Sascha Fuhren: I think the ultimate goal is to shift the business excellence approach from driving the organization from a relatively emotion based, opinion based direction to one that is much more structured to say, "hey, let’s utilize actual customer central data to drive problem solving approaches".

I’ve talked in great detail about customer service operations here. But there’s also the technology area that supports customer service, so we also need to make sure that not only the people and the processes are touched but also the technology. We have a group here that is called work force operations. They do capacity management so they’re trying to forecast supply and demand to make sure that we’ve got the right number of people in the contact centres available to service the customers.

In future, I mentioned earlier on, it’s going to be quite important that we get our outsource partners engaged into our own efforts as well. They do drive improvement already but I think it can be further aligned between eBay and the partners themselves.