Hack 70 Damage Control Before and After You Ship


How to handle problems discovered by either you or the customer.

"A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip."

?Caskie Stinnett, 1960

So you're packing up an item to ship to a customer, and you suddenly discover a scratch, scrape, hole, discoloration, or missing part that you hadn't noticed and hadn't mentioned in the auction description. Sure, you can pack it up, ship it, and hope the bidder never notices. But he will, and you know it.

The best approach involves a quick preemptive email to the bidder, like one of the following:

  • "I just noticed a nick on the back of the item while I was packing it. Let me know if you no longer want it, and I'll refund your money. Otherwise, I'll ship right away." Give your customer a way out. In most cases, if the problem is minor, the customer will still want the item. Not only will this note make you appear honest, but your customer will have a more realistic expectation about the condition of the item, and less of a reason to return it when it finally arrives.

  • "While packing up your item, I discovered a flaw I hadn't noticed when writing up the auction description. I've attached a photo. If you still want it, I'd be happy to send it to you along with a partial refund. Or, if you're no longer interested, I'll refund your payment in full." The photo gives the customer additional information with which he can make an informed decision, and, again, helps set a more reasonable expectation. And the partial refund is an excellent compromise that will both sweeten the deal for the customer and save you the trouble and expense of having to relist the item.

  • "I was called out of town for a few days, and I had to leave before I got a chance to ship your package. I shipped your package this morning and upgraded it to second-day air for no extra charge. I'm sorry for the delay; please let me know when the package arrives." Damage control isn't just for physical damage; it's for dealing with snags in any part of the transaction. Not only should you contact customers before they receive a late package, you should make some concession to help compensate for the delay. For instance, a free shipping upgrade will cost you very little, but will go a long way toward making your customer happy with the product when it finally does arrive.

  • "I was getting ready to pack your item, but I couldn't find some of the parts that were listed in the auction description. I apologize for the inconvenience, and have refunded your payment." This is the best approach if you're reasonably certain the customer will no longer want the item, as it doesn't even suggest the possibility. Assuming you're sufficiently apologetic and your tone is sincere, the customer will be understanding, and will quickly release you of your obligation without further inquiry or negative feedback.

The goal in each case is not only to set a reasonable expectation with the customer, as described in [Hack #39], but to save you money, time, and aggravation. The last thing you want is to go to the trouble and expense of shipping an item, only to have the customer complain and ultimately return it to you. Not only would you have to refund the shipping fees (assuming that you're at fault), but you'd be stuck with negative feedback and an item you then have to resell.

If you instead refund the customer's money before shipping, you'll still be stuck with the item, but you won't get negative feedback, you won't lose money in shipping costs, and you won't have to go through the hassle of dealing with an unsatisfied customer.

And don't forget the partial refund, either. By refunding some of your customer's money, either by a small token amount or perhaps by shipping for free, you'll still be able to complete the sale and the buyer will be happy to get his product for a little less.

If you end up refunding some or all of the customer's payment, make sure to apply for a credit for the appropriate final-value fees, as described in [Hack #71].

6.7.1 After the Fact

If the customer has already received the package, any hopes of setting a reasonable expectation will be dashed. But you can still try to ensure that your customer will be happy with his or her purchase.

The typical scenario involves a customer who isn't happy with an item for whatever reason. Some customers will be more understanding and reasonable than others, but it's up to you to set the tone for the rest of the transaction and deal with the problem appropriately.

When you receive a complaint, take the following steps:

  1. Check out the customer's feedback rating and look for signs that he has harassed other sellers. A customer with glowing feedback can be much more readily trusted than one whom other sellers have found to be unreasonable or uncooperative.

  2. See if the customer has left feedback for you yet. If not, you'll still have a chance at coming out of this unscathed. Otherwise, you might understandably be less willing to compromise, given that there's seemingly nothing in it for you. But don't forget that feedback can be retracted, as described in [Hack #6], so there's still a chance that you could make things right for both you and the bidder.

  3. Double-check your auction description for a mention of the problem. If the customer's complaint is addressed in your description, then all you need to do is?kindly?inform the bidder that the problem was explained in the auction. A seller should never be held responsible for a complaint based solely on the buyer not having read the auction description.

  4. Examine your photos of the item to see if you can corroborate (or refute) the seller's story. It will be up to your judgment as to how clearly the problem was illustrated by your photos, and how you wish to proceed.

  5. Offer a partial refund commensurate with the severity of the problem. If the customer is happy to accept, you won't have to take the item back and refund all the customer's money.

    So how do you calculate the amount of a partial refund? One way is to take the difference between the amount the customer paid and the estimated amount the customer would've paid had he or she known about the specific problem. Barring that, a token refund of the shipping cost, for example, may be all it takes to make the bidder happy.

  6. If the customer rejects the partial refund, then it's up to you whether or not to give the customer a full refund and whether or not you include the cost of shipping. It's generally accepted that the seller refunds shipping charges if the seller is at fault; otherwise, the customer is entitled to nothing more than a refund of the final bid price.

Watch out for fraud when handing out refunds. Some people will buy an item to replace a defective one they already have, only to return the defective unit to the unsuspecting seller and effectively get the item fixed for free. Make sure to inspect both the item and the customer's feedback profile for signs of fraud.

Note that you should never ask the bidder to cover eBay's fees if they return an item, mostly because you can apply for a credit for any final-value fees, as described in [Hack #71].