10 July 2007

Ebay feedback—reading between the lines

Newbies to eBay are often misled into putting too much faith in eBay feedback numbers. On the surface 99% seems like a high number, but in reality could be telling a very different story, particularly if the seller is moving high volumes.

So my advice to eBay newbies is to forget about the percentage and look instead at the number of negative/neutral and withdrawn feedbacks and their nature. For example, I came across a seller the other day who had a feedback rating of 98.8% based on 3,500 transactions. This tells me that there were a lot of people who were not impressed, in fact 43 negatives, more than 60 neutrals and dozens of withdrawns. And when I looked through the comments, I noticed significant patterns, falling into the three or four usual groups. People were complaining about slow despatch, receiving the wrong items or items in bad condition, excessive postal charges and items being despatched from Hong Kong though advertised from the UK.

Now, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and even the most conscientious seller can make honest mistakes from time to time, so I do not expect sellers to have 100% feedback. But when you get the same feedback for the same problems over and over, you are a seller to be avoided. In the case of my example seller, it was clear that he was breaking a number of eBay rules. He was a Hong Kong seller who was pretending to be based in the UK; he was lowering the buy price and padding out the P&P unreasonably, a favourite trick of Hong Kong sellers; and he was selling stock he didn’t actually have. He was also selling some crappy product, but that, alas, is not against eBay rules. Caveat emptor, as always.

Interestingly, this seller’s answer to disgruntled buyers was always to try and discredit the buyer. “Another deadbeat buyer” he would opine repeatedly, or he would defend his excessive padding of P&P by encouraging buyers to look at the overall cost. Of course, that’s not bad advice in itself, but it’s still against eBay rules to sell an item that is clearly worth $300 for $0.99 plus $299 in postage. But his most amusing defence was to say “If this were true... why would we have such good feedback?” Er, I’m looking at your feedback, mate, and all I see is 150 or so very annoyed customers.

Of course, 98.8% of buyers are apparently happy with this seller, who is certainly not an extreme case as eBay sellers go—many are far worse. But even that positive feedback is misleading because most sellers refuse to leave feedback until the buyer has done so. This is, effectively, a form of blackmail. In fact the buyer has fulfilled his contractual obligation in an eBay transaction as soon as payment is received by the seller, and it’s at this point that sellers should leave feedback, as, indeed, a few of them do. Hats off to those people, but eBay should build this into its system and force sellers to leave feedback first, in my opinion.

Ebay has recently introduced the option for buyers to leave detailed feedback on four aspects of a transaction: item description, seller’s communications, speed of posting and postage and packaging cost. Whilst the overall feedback is visible to the seller, this detailed breakdown is not, so you could theoretically avoid a bad seller blackmailing you by leaving positive overall feedback and then very poor detailed feedback. It’s a major improvement, and will work very well if buyers use 4/5 stars as the benchmark for a good transaction and only award the fifth star in exceptional cases. I think ebay is to be commended for this initiative, but I’d still like to see sellers forced to leave feedback as soon as payment is received.

In my experience, the vast majority of the sellers I have dealt with have been honest and remarkably efficient, and I am constantly amazed by how many people seem to live at the Post Office, ready to despatch my orders the nanosecond I press the Buy button. Reading between the lines of eBay feedback will help you identify these people before you buy and avoid the others.

In my next post I’ll point you towards a great tool for analysing negative and neutral feedback. Watch this space :-)
Go to eebahgum!

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