eBay: biassed, incompetent, indifferent or all three?

Fairness and a transparent, responsive, timely process for getting justice matter to us

There are a number of situations, events, processes that are guaranteed to generate contempt, anger, rage.  One such situation is when we perceive that we have been punished when we should not have been.  Yet, this anger arising out of our strong sense of justice, is likely to melt away if there is access to an easy to use, impartial, transparent process for dealing with complaints.  Yesterday, the UK consumer affairs tv program singled out the DVLA and  Microsoft (Xbox 360) for their tyrant like behaviour towards their customers.  Fo example Microsoft disconnected customers in mid August. Why?  Microsoft asserted that the customers had violated the terms of usage. When customers complained (including mums and their young children) what did Microsoft Customer Service say?  Something like “We are right, you are wrong. And we never make mistakes.  If you want to carry on playing XBox 360 you have to get a new console!” Does this remind you of the behaviour that Dave Carroll was subjected to by United? Then when Watchdog got involved Microsoft recanted: we made a mistake due to a software fault!  Today, I want to look at eBay and share a more personal story withyou.

eBay: biassed, incompetent, indifferent? – I’d say all three!

Imagine that you trade on eBay, it is the early part of September and you list an item (headphones) for sale.  You describe the details of the item and you set out the price.  Because you do not want to create any problems for anyone including youself  you go further on your listing: you clearly state in a large font size that the headphones will be shipped out by 24th September 2011.  Before you know it people start buying these headphones.  You are on holiday and when you can access the internet you (the seller) remind the buyers that the headphones will not be shipped out until 24th September as you are on holiday. As it happens you get back a little earlier and start posting out the headphones on the 21st September and complete the task by 23rd September – you have to pack and post some 50 packages.  And you have a proof of postage from the local post office to show exactly when and to whom you have posted the headphones.  At this point you might be feel happy as you are shipping the goods out to your customers earlier than you had promised.

Well the story did not have that happy ending because the seller did not take into account the whims of some his customers and the bias of eBay towards buyers.  Around the 21st September some of the buyers started filing complaints against the seller stating that they had not received the headphones.  You, the seller, get on the email and remind the buyers that the listing clearly stated that the headphones would not be shipped out until 24th September.  And that you have now posted the headphones – they are on the way to the buyer.  At this point you might think that everything will work out fine – you are wrong.

Whislt some of your buyers get that that you have kept your word, other buyers are not happy.  And you find yoursef unable to resolve the issue with these buyers.  How can you?  You have shipped out the headphones and you have proof of postage.  The case escalates to eBay and eBay sends you an email to let you know that they have judged in favour of the buyer.  So you appeal.  You ask eBay to look at the listing (and they will see that it clearly states the goods will not be shipped until the 24th Sept) and you spell out that you sent the goods before the 24th.  And you offer to send a copy of the proof of postage.  You might think that eBay would ask for the proof of postage, look at the eBay listing and then rule in your favour.  You would be wrong, instead you get this:

If you take a look at this notice you will find that no rationale is give for why eBay has ruled in favour of the buyer.  There is absolutely no response to your assertion that the listing clearly stated that the headphones would be shipped by the 24th Sept, the buyer bought knowing that, you shipped as promised on the listing and you are happy to send the proof of postage to eBay.  And there is no contact number – there is nobody that you can speak to.

I’d love to share the listing with you so that you can see it for yourself.  Unfortunately, eBay has suspended the sellers account and so no-one can see the listing:

One final piece of the story: you the eBay seller have contacted both eBay and PayPal to understand what is going on, to put your case forward, to provide the documentation.  What is your experience?  The eBay folks tell you that you have to contact PayPal and get this sorted out.  The PayPal folks tell you that you have to contact eBay folks and get this sorted out!  No-one at eBay or PayPal wants to stand up and work with you to sort this out.  And they cannot or will not tell you what rules you have broken!  Just that you must have broken some rules.  Does this remind you of Microsoft’s treatment of its XBox360 customers?

What can we learn?

You cannot count on your customers to read what you have written even if ask them to read it and/or display in large size fonts right there on the screen.  This is one of the issues that plagues the insurance industry, for example, people buy insurance without reading the policies to find out what is and is not covered under what circumstances.

Many customers do live up to their side of the bargain including acknowledging their mistakes (if these are pointed out gently) and apologising.

A small number of customers cannot be reasoned with as they are convinced that they are always right and if something is not working out as they’d like then it has to be your fault.

In the West we live in a world of instant gratification if you are selling online then it is best to assume that the customer is expecting delivery within the next day or so.

If you are a seller then you cannot count on eBay to treat you fairly because eBay can get away with treating you unfairly.  Buyers are more important by the simple fact that if you are not selling then someone else will happily take your place.

Power leads us to dehumanise others.  Which is why the bigger and more powerful the organisation (eBay, DVLA, Microsoft) the more likely it is to treat customers, employees, suppliers etc badly.  I wrote a post on that about a year ago.

A final word

The eBay seller is related to me which is why I know this story so intimately.

If you from eBay or PayPal: I issue you a challenge lets make the facts of the case (publish the listing, the emails, the proof of postge) clear to the world.  And let the world at large judge who is in the right and who is in the wrong.  If you are convinced of your justness then you should have no issue in taking up my challenge.

If you don’t answer this question correctly then your customer efforts are simply putting lipstick on the pig

Yesterday British Banks Gave Up The Fight Against Compensating Their Customers
Yesterday the British Banks (HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds, RBOS…) that ‘own’ the retail banking market gave up, reluctantly, their legal fight against compensating the millions of customers who were ‘mis-sold’ payment protection insurance (PPI): ‘Millions in line for PPI redress’.

The British banks are notorious for delays especially when it comes to handling complaints and refunds.   Today the FSA has instructed these banks to accelerate compensation payments: ‘Financial Services Authority wants banks to speed up PPI payouts’.

Was it ‘mis-selling ‘ or deliberately ‘ripping-off’ customers?
Whilst the newspapers use the term ‘mis-selling’ consumer groups and others describe PPI as a ‘rip-off’ or ‘racket’.  ‘How the PPI scandal unfolded‘  makes it clear that “Britain’s banks have been aggressively selling ‘ineffective and inefficient’ – but highly profitable – payment protection insurance for more than a decade.”

This is what the Citizens Advice Bureau said about PPI:  “Payment protection insurance (PPI) is sold to borrowers with the promise of peace of mind and reassurance that credit or mortgage payments will be covered if their personal and financial circumstances change for the worse.  However, many CAB clients find that they cannot make a successful claim on their policy because of exclusion clauses and administrative barriers to making a claim.  Premiums for PPI policies can add 20 per cent or more to the total amount to be repaid on a loan agreement, thus increasing people’s indebtedness rather than preventing it.”

The one key question that lies at the heart of the customer-centric orientation
If you read widely you will see there are all kinds of views on what it means to be customer-centric and no shared agreement.  As such all kinds of people and companies are claiming to be customer-centric.  If you believe you are customer-centric then I put this question to you:

  • Is it ok for you to make money by taking advantage of your customers trust, ignorance, biases and other cognitive weaknesses?

If it is ok for your and your organisation to take advantage of your customer then you are not and will never be customer-centric.  Why? There are two ways to answer this question.

The blunt answer is that you are self-centred and selfish. Given that, it is simply not possible for you to be other-centred including customer-centred.

The polite answer is that long term relationships are central to a customer-centric orientation and these relationships rest on trust.   Trust, in turn, rests on the three key pillars: honesty, fairness and competence.   As Peppers & Rogers say in Rules to Break & Laws to Follow:

Customers may forgive honest mistakes but will never forgive dishonesty.

This point is articulated rather well by Nils Pratley in the following piece: ‘The moral of this PPI tale: don’t rip off your customers’.

Incidentally, dishonesty literally sucks the heart out of many of your employees: how many people genuinely want to exert the best of themselves in dishonest activities?

If you wish you can stop reading right here.  However, if you have the interest then follow me and lots explore/probe the customer-centric paradigm a little further using the Be-Do-Have framework.

Have: what you want to get out of your ‘relationship’ with the customer
What does top management (‘Tops’) really care about? They care about what they are measured and rewarded on. And what is that? Ultimately it comes down to exceeding analyst expectations on revenue, margins and profits. This and the behaviour that it generates are discussed in this HBR interview with Roger Martin.

Do: the actions that you take to get what you want
Things get a little trickier when we get to the Do part. What do you have to do to get the results that you want? You can make the numbers through a whole array of actions. For example:

  • locking customers into longer contracts for example by moving from 12 to 18 month contracts for mobile phones (e.g. telecoms);
  • take advantage of your customers ignorance and sell them products (e.g. PPI) that are not fit for purpose (e.g. banks);
  • deliberately making it difficult for your customers to work out which product is the best fit for their needs so that they buy the more expensive product (e.g. telecoms);
  • making it difficult for them to stop doing business with you and switch to another supplier (utilities, broadband, financial services, hi-tech..);
  • cutting the investment in customer service by making it more difficult for customers to contact you and if they do then having the call handled by someone in a distant country;
  • ensuring that your products do what they are supposed to do, that they are easy to use and have high resale value (e.g. Honda);
  • making it easy for your customers to do business with you (e.g. Amazon, eBay); and
  • standing for a set of values, practices and products that connect with a specific segment of the population (e.g. Virgin, Apple); and
  • viewing yourself as being in the business of ‘delivering happiness’ (Zappos).

Given the breadth of choice that you have,  limited only by your imagination, how do you decide what is the right course of action?   You may be thinking that brand values might help here. They can if they are lived in values. They are useless if they have been dreamt up for marketing (influence / propaganda) purposes.

The BE domain is the source of all guidance on what courses of action are ruled in and ruled out.  So let’s take a look at that.

BE: existence, stance, character and values
The BE domain is NOT concerned with the personality you put on for show – to seduce the people that you wish to seduce.  Nor is it concerned with what you say or your intentions.

The BE domain IS concerned with your authentic self.  Specifically it deals with the issues of purpose, stance, character and values as an integrated whole.  A different way of looking at this is to examine how you behave when you are under pressure: what are you willing to do or not to do no matter what the personal cost?

At the organisation level you face a fundamental choice.  To BE the kind of organisation that prospers through honest dealing and creating superior value for customers.  Or to BE the kind of organisation that does whatever it takes to make the numbers – treating people (customers, employees, suppliers..) as objects to be manipulated for one’s own benefit.

The default setting, as illustrated by the British banks in relation to PPI,  is that customers are seen as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of the organisation. Where concessions are made to customers it is because of regulatory pressure or because competitors force that move.  In Martin Buber’s view this is the ‘I- It’ orientation.

Are your customer efforts simply an exercise in putting lipstick on a pig?
You and your organization become customer-centric when you refuse to make money by taking advantage of your customers.   That means practicing and living honesty and fairness.  Until you do that all of your Customer experience, customer engagement and loyalty initiatives are simply an exercise on putting lipstick on the pig.  You might reap the rewards now yet sooner or later the pig will show through and you will pay the price.  Let me end by quoting from Peppers & Rogers once more:

If being fair to customers conflicts with your company’s financial goals, then fix your business model or get a new one.