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eBay cuts live support

Too many queries from customers overwhelmed the online auction firm's ability to keep up.

The spectacular growth of eBay has sent the stock up and put the company in the black, but the demands of online customer service may be overwhelming the fledgling online-auction company.

On Sunday, the company stopped providing live customer service from its Support Q&A message board, staffed by eBay employees who answer questions about the auction process. The customer-service link on the site now says the live support format "outgrew our ability to answer these questions in a timely fashion" and is "undergoing a complete renovation." Only urgent questions will be answered within 24 hours; answers to those queries are often posted to the message board within minutes, according to company spokeswoman Kristin Suell.

eBay also promises a 24-hour response time for non-urgent questions, but adds, "due to recent circumstances, our current response time may be slightly longer than 24 hours."

eBay receives more than 65,000 emails to its customer support address each week, according to Suell. With those numbers, the live customer support function stopped serving its purpose, as answers scrolled off the message board within minutes of being posted.

Satisfying the needs of online consumers has proven a tough hurdle for many e-commerce sites that have seen their business boom in recent months. Earlier this month, a temporary breakdown of E*Trade's trading function prompted more than 2,500 complaints to a special email address, overwhelming the company's 100 or so customer support representatives. Last week, Buy.com's refusal to honor all orders placed for a monitor advertised at the wrong price angered many customers, who received conflicting emails from the online retailer about the status of their orders.

eBay's decision to remove the live customer service feature, although temporarily, sent some disappointed users to the site's popular message boards to complain. "It is sad that the formerly friendly tone of this board has been replaced by an attitude that seems to be based on the theory that eBay would be a great place to work if it wasn't for those d--- customers," wrote one eBay user.

But others blamed the user base for overwhelming eBay with questions, many of which are answered in the FAQ and other user information areas of the site. "Support was really being abused without reason the past few nights," wrote one user. "So I hope we can all learn to use to check with each other re: problems."

Although eBay doesn't sell any goods itself but acts as a venue for person-to-person auctions, the site and other e-commerce companies should take cues about customer service from traditional direct marketers, according to e-commerce consultant Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group. Consumers still want to feel that they can reach a human being, so toll-free numbers are essential, as are post-order confirmation and online access to shipping status, she said. Ebay does not provide a toll-free number, but conducts all customer service functions via email as a way to keep its costs down.

The immediacy and convenience of Internet commerce may have also inflated consumer expectations about service. "People online think they hit the buy button and the FedEx guy is going to be at the door," said Freedman.