Act I: The setting
This is a story, a true story (we just changed some names)—and it will ring true for anyone who sells online. This story takes place on Amazon and one of the protagonists is our good friend, who we'll call "Carl Crankypants."
When the book arrived, its spine was ripped and its dust cover was bent and crumpled… and no book can qualify as 'new' in that shape
By way of fair disclosure, "Crankypants" is a lifelong friend of ours. Our history goes back to our college days, and we can testify beyond any doubt that Crankypants is, overall, a great person. He's as peaceable a chap as you might ever want to meet, but like most people, he is prone to stress when life gets tough. He may have lost it a little bit here, but that's all part of the story and what online sellers can learn from his experience.
Crankypants was having a particularly stressful week. Rumors were buzzing at work about terrible changes coming after an unexpected merger, a beloved relative was waiting on potentially life-changing health news and a 1,000 mile road trip to see a contentious relative was looming on the horizon.
This "overall great person" was feeling tapped out.
Act II: The conflict
To cheer himself up, Crankypants ordered a coffee-table book from a merchant we'll call "Hapless Book Dealer," a third-party seller on Amazon. The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics had caught Crankypants' eye at our local library, and after falling for this collection of great art from classic Mad Magazine issues, he had to have it.
He ordered a copy listed as new for $18 with free shipping. Our friend saved about $10 by not buying directly from Amazon. He eagerly awaited the present he bought himself. That was probably the happiest part of this story.
When the book arrived, its spine was ripped, and its dust cover was bent and crumpled. The rest of the book was fine, but damage to the spine is irreparable, and no book can qualify as "new" in that shape. Crankypants was angry and dropped by to show us his purchase.
He wanted our "expert" opinions on what he should do about the seller's misrepresentation.
If you do use automated email responses, be sure they are clear, concise and well written because they're going out to customers who are already disappointed
We agreed the book was not "new," but said that, to us, it was more likely that the person responsible for packing and shipping the item had been careless. The seller might not be dishonest, we assured Crankypants. The merchant might just not be in control of his processes. If stockroom shelves were overstuffed, a careless shipping clerk could easily do this type of damage and send the book on without the seller ever knowing.
It could have been perfect the last time the seller saw the item. We tried to convince Crankypants that it's always better to give your trading partner the benefit of the doubt.
Act III: The missteps
As you may recall, Crankypants was having a stress-mess of a week, and he was already angry. He emailed the seller about the damage. Since the book was far from new, he wanted his money back. Here's where Hapless Book Dealer took a stumble.
The merchant's reply was a generic response written in nearly broken English and included the following, "We are very sorry for the incorrect grading of that item. Most of all items we checked before it get shipped, but sometimes it may be happened while shipping and handling process, or in transit toward you." The email offered a 30 percent discount if our friend kept the book or a full refund, including return shipping, if he returned it.
We tried to smooth things over. All busy online sellers eventually turn to canned customer service responses for routine issues. But we also saw Crankypants' point. This poorly written and unprofessional email only reinforced his negative reaction.
So, sellers beware, if you do use automated email responses, be sure they are clear, concise and well written because they're going out to customers who are already disappointed. Rightfully or not, they have a negative opinion about your business. This is your best—and possibly only—chance to convince them that their first impression is wrong.
Crankypants emailed again, saying he didn't want a damaged book at all, even at 30 percent off, and he didn't really see how he should have to go to any additional trouble to get what he'd already paid for. He told the seller he just wanted to recycle the book and get a refund.
We told him he wasn't being reasonable, but he felt justified in his demands.
Remember who your real competition is
Act IV: The happy ending
Then Hapless Book Dealer took his next big misstep. He told Crankypants to repackage the book in its original carton and put it in the mailbox marked "Return to Sender."
The next day, the mail carrier stopped by our friend's house with the book and explained that you can only "Return to Sender" by taking the book to the post office and handing it over in person.
Bitterly, Crankypants trundled off to the post office to end the suffering. That's when he learned that "Return to Sender" only works for a package that's never been opened. Since Crankypants didn't know the book needed to be returned before he opened it, his package wasn't eligible to be sent back this way.
The seller should have known these rules and should have never advised Crankypants to handle the matter this way. Our friend, sick of the whole subject at this point, sent the book back by media mail, and, ultimately, he did get his full refund of the selling price and the return shipping.
Refund received, he bought the book again, but this time directly from Amazon. He paid more, but he also had a trouble-free transaction, a book that arrived in perfect condition and a satisfying purchase at last.
And here, gentle reader, is the last lesson for today: Remember who your real competition is. In this case, Hapless Book Dealer didn't stand a chance against Amazon and its famed 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. The independent seller may have had a lower price, but he fumbled the rest.
Hapless Book Dealer has our sympathy. Crankypants behaved badly, and we told him as much at the time. But in every encounter, there are lessons to learn, and we hope other sellers will remember the ones poor ol' Hapless Book Dealer learned from our dear, and really very kind, friend Carl Crankypants.