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Computer giant Dell suffered heavy criticism when it outsourced much of its customer support phone service overseas a number of years ago. But what happens when companies go a step further — when customer phone service is not just offshore, but off the horizon? In other words, a customer rep will be with you … um … maybe never.

Could that be what eBay has in store for customers? The company recently disconnected some of its toll-free customer service lines — although it insists that service is actually getting better. Yet callers now hear a recorded message informing them, “The number you have reached is no longer available,” and directs customers to visit its website for help. (See pictures of expensive things that money can buy.)

It’s not just eBay that is disconnecting, or better yet, selectively connecting with favored customers. There’s a movement afoot among a number of airlines, such as Delta and United and internet sites such as Microsoft’s Hotmail, Facebook and Google, to shunt inquisitive customers off to the website’s FAQs section. “There’s a huge trend of companies trying to take their customer service and make it completely virtual or outsourcing it” to save money, says Michael Goldfarb, co-founder of CustomerServiceScoreboard.com, a site that tracks customer complaints at more than 300 of the country’s largest companies, and GetHuman.com, which lists company phone numbers at more than 700 firms.

GetHuman.com gets 1.2 to 1.5 million unique visitors a month looking for answers. eBay’s focus on providing phone service only to its best customers has confounded Goldfarb and other marketing experts. Goldfarb says he turned down a request from eBay to remove its “secret” phone number from his site. Elsewhere, amateur detectives take sport in digging up a company’s super-secret phone number, with one site, consumerist.com, even offering up 11 pages of what it calls “all the secret eBay e-mail addresses and phone numbers you could ever want.” Needless to say, many of those numbers have already been disconnected. (See TIME’s 2001 story of how eBay redefined the e-commerce world.)

Although an eBay source admits that “low volume buyers and sellers do not currently receive telephone support” except for a few site categories, Chad O’Meara, vice president of global customer service, said long wait times for eligible customers was “the exception,” and that the company has a three-minute wait-time for phone service and less than five minutes for live chat. However, this reporter tried the online chat on three different occasions on three different days with delays of one to four hours to reach a rep. During a recent excursion, I had time to cook dinner, eat it, do the dishes, vacuum my apartment and rifle through TV channels — only to find I was still number 30-something in the slow-moving online queue. 

O’Meara denied service had been cut, even when presented with the 800-numbers that had recordings telling callers the service had been cut and urging them to visit eBay’s website. He said 70% of customers still have access to phone service, but declined to say how members can get the number. “The size and nature of our global customer base — over 90 million customers — the breadth of our inventory and the scope of the needs that all of our customers have is just a unique challenge to the marketplace of our size,” he said, in explaining why phone customer service was not offered to all customers. He said that most customers preferred to contact eBay through e-mail and online chat. (See more about companies that are bringing call centers back to the U.S. instead of outsourcing.)

Chris Fain, a former eBay power seller and now president of OnlineAuction.com, says eBay’s strategy to serve its biggest buyers and sellers and shut out the little guys is short-sighted. “It’s senseless because those are the guys that built you,” he says. Granted, Fain is a motivated critic: he hopes to lure frustrated eBay members to his site by hyping 24/7 phone customer support service and lower auction fees to all members. 

Is eBay really being short-sighted or is it being rational given its size? Companies that score high on the customer service scoreboard, such as Southwest Airlines, Zappos, Marriott and Amazon.com, earn customer loyalty that translates into long-term profits and stock gains. Tim Boyd, an internet analyst at MKM Partners, recalls that many investors grumbled and chided Amazon when it first started making huge investments in customer service. Reaching a live person at Amazon is effortless — an Amazon rep will call you within seconds of typing your phone number into the “contact us” webpage. Today, Amazon is a growth company in terms of earnings and share price. “It’s become the best e-commerce franchise in the world,” says Boyd.

Amazon has already been moving into eBay’s turf, by launching a service that competes with eBay’s “fixed price” segment, says Colin Gillis, senior technology analyst and director of research at BGC Partners. “Great customer service leads to customer satisfaction, which leads to customer loyalty, which leads to company profitability,” says Stephen Brown, a professor at the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business. “I think some of the companies — eBay in particular — may have lost sight of that.” (See more about websites entering the luxury goods market.)

Melissa Snell, a 50-year old Lake Stevens, Wash., resident who sold items on eBay for nine years, says she left the auction giant for a smaller auction site over customer service issues. “If you e-mailed a question, it would take days to get an answer back and lots of times it was just an automated response,” she says. Another former eBay seller, Jennie Westcott of Marshaltown, Iowa, expressed a similar view and wound up going to a smaller site, OnlineAuction.com, where “you can dial the number and, boom, you have people — not computer crap where you have to deal with ring-around-the-rosy stuff.”

O’Meara says eBay added 500 customer reps to its “almost 5,000” contingent in the last 12 weeks, but couldn’t explain why the company was shutting down, rather than adding, phone lines. He said the company plans to ramp up service further, with a plan to offer phone service to all customers — by the end of 2011.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,2037970,00.html#ixzz18s6JF0K2