StellaService, Backed By Big NY Investors, Looks to Recognize E-Tailers For Star Customer Service with Zagat-Style Marks

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Jordy Leiser and his friend John Ernsberger left their jobs in the financial industry in 2008 with an appetite for starting a company around the subject of transparency. But that inspiration didn’t turn itself into a company right away. “We spun our wheels for a long time,” says Leiser.

So they did what any self-respecting mid-twenty-somethings would do when they ran out of money: left their Brooklyn dwellings and went back to their college (Bucknell in Lewisburg, PA) to figure it out. The pair was passionate about online retailers with really great customer service, like Zappos.com. So after months of consulting with academics at Bucknell, they settled on a strategy.

“We put together this idea to create the richest, most extensive robust methodology to evaluate service,” Leiser says.

Anyone can put up a description on their website touting their amazing service, but there was virtually no objective third-party rating system or mark for vetting that, like Zagat (restaurants), or JD Power and Associates (automobiles) Leiser says. So his startup, StellaService, developed a testing method and asked big online retailers if they’d be willing to purchase the data that testing produced. And, to touch back on that transparency theme, online stores that passed the customer service test could display a seal from StellaService—named for the Italian word for “star”—signifying they had been vetted by a third party and were considered tops in customer service.

“The hypothesis was maybe we if launched some website that had bunch of ratings for companies, the guys that did really well would be willing to take a chance to display some kind of signal,” says Leiser, the company’s CEO.

StellaService secured Diapers.com as an early customer. The company collected $250,000 in angel funding in December 2009 from Bucknell alum and LendingTree.com founder Doug Lebda, and a crop of other angel investors who are friends with him, Leiser says. The money got Leiser and Ernsberger back to New York City in early 2010, and allowed them to take the website live that March. StellaService’s website offers a public database of e-tailers its guerilla force has tested, offering its summary of the service experience, service contact information, and basic shipping information. It also lists retailers with the top customer service in a number of categories.

The company’s aim was to test every angle of an online retailer’s customer service, using roughly 300 different metrics on things like shipping time periods, speediness at answering customer questions, product knowledge, and much more. “The beauty is that we don’t need their permission to do it,” Leiser says. “We just go and become customers.”

It’s hired a legion of two dozen people—what Leiser calls “mystery shoppers on steroids” to test websites using StellaService’s methodology, by doing things like sending e-mails in Spanish, and calling morning, noon, and night, to ask questions on the products, delivery methods, return processes, and beyond. It relies on this consistent, ground up approach to rate businesses, beyond the polls and user-submitted reviews that sites like BizRate use to grade online stores.

The startup, based in NYC’s Flatiron district, set out to get 10 to 15 of top 150 retailers it evaluated to display the StellaService seal last year, Leiser says. It pulled in closer to … Next Page »

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