When we spoke recently with Internet Merchants Association founder Steve Grossberg, he was so full of thoughtful ideas and genuine devotion to making eBay better and more user-friendly for both buyers and sellers that we couldn't help but look beyond his explanation of the basic "pain points" sellers face on eBay in 2009.
Now, let's remember that Grossberg has been on eBay since 1998. He operates a huge business under the username 1busyman, and gets more than 10,000 feedback ratings a month. Suffice it to say, Grossberg has seen eBay go from a small mom-and-pop hobbyist site to the multi-headed enormous marketplace it is today. He's been there for much of the transition, and he operates in a realm many successful sellers never quite achieve. We're not going to say he's the J.R. Ewing of eBay, but he's certainly near the top of the ladder.
One of the most challenging parts of Grossberg's operation is finding effective ways to deal with the flood of e-mails he receives every day. The number of daily messages ranges from an average of 300 to 400 to as many as 800. Yes, that's right, 800 e-mails. Most of us can't fathom what it takes to deal with 800 e-mails a day, but Grossberg has decided enough is enough. He's created an interesting method of addressing this daunting task.
The first challenge in taming this crowd is to understand the frustration for both shoppers and sellers when faced with more e-mails than can possibly be answered.
"Suppose you go into JC Penney to shop," Grossberg posits. "If you have a question about your purchase, you can look up and see the line of shoppers waiting at the checkout counter. Then you can decide whether you want to wait for your answer, or give up and go shop someplace else."
You, as the shopper, have all the power.
It's not uncommon for Grossberg to get four or five messages from the same person in one day
The problem with eBay, he explains, is that individual buyers can't see that line of customers ahead of them. Grossberg understands the frustration a customer feels when the question doesn't get a response. That's a customer who may send an e-mail, not get a response within a few hours and send another.
It's not uncommon for Grossberg to get four or five messages from the same person in one day, especially when he's dealing with someone new to eBay. The customer feels ignored and frustrated, but Grossberg knows he can't operate his business effectively and answer every query that comes his way. So the first thing he's done is state very clearly that he will not respond to any query sent to him through eBay's Ask the Seller feature. Anyone who tries quickly gets a lesson.
If a buyer sends Grossberg a question through Ask a Seller, he or she gets an auto-response that explains there will not be a personal response to that question. Instead, through this automatic response, he directs that shopper to his detailed FAQ file on his About Me page. There shoppers will find 21 separate and very detailed answers to the most common questions people ask before buying. The responses also include a great deal of basic information that covers the transaction from payment to processing, shipping to insurance, even refund and return policies.
"I'm trying to build efficiencies myself that eBay won't provide," Grossberg says. "My first priority is to get the items out to my paid customers. I've had to create lots of hoops for my legitimate customers to jump through in order to bring legitimate concerns to me."
At the very bottom of his About Me page is a button that links to a separate e-mail account. If after reading through the entire page, customers still don't have the answers to their questions, they can click there and send an e-mail that goes to a different e-mail account. The link even says that this seller does not respond to queries sent through the Ask the Seller link.
"I want to help my customers," Grossberg laments. "I stand behind my product 100 percent. eBay isn't helping me to do that."
As is his custom, Grossberg suggests a solution to this prickly e-mail problem: "eBay should have boxes that sellers fill out; then I can opt in or out for pre-sales questions," he explains. "At the bottom of the page could be 'click here to ask a pre-sale question' (link). Another button could say 'problem with my order.' That button would lead to a separate e-mail account. The buyer would be forced to enter the item ID and their user ID. If they ask a question that can easily be responded to, like 'has my order shipped?' I could have it set to automatically send out the shipping information and tracking number."
The practice of eBay shoppers casually asking questions just to feel out the nature and veracity of an unknown seller is no longer viable
If the problem is more specific or complex, Grossberg would quickly see those less frequent issues addressed in e-mails that would be far fewer in numberand therefore far more easily addressed. His customer service responses would be more efficient and more personalized and relevant.
Burden on the seller
The practice of eBay shoppers casually asking questions just to feel out the nature and veracity of an unknown seller is no longer viable. That concept stood as a standard of eBay buying and selling for many years, but it can no longer be sustained. Since eBay refuses to provide either buyers or sellers with customer service support, the burden will always fall to the seller to manage as best he or she can.
"If I have this problem," Grossberg notes, "you can bet sellers like Buy do, too. They're probably getting 2,500 e-mails a day. They can't get to the customers with legitimate problems, either. They're throwing bodies at this problem in order to keep their Final Value Fees down."
In that respect, the largest eBay sellers suffer in grand proportions. Here's an instance where a small seller has a true advantage over the large sellersand yet who comes to a marketplace hoping to keep their business small and modest? It seems to us to be just one more example of the "level playing field" tilted against eBay's most prosperous sellers.
Call us crazy, but that seems counterintuitive to continued and sustained growth. We'll have to stay tuned to see if Grossberg and others in his stratosphere can prevail and turn eBay around toward more productive and successful customer service policies.