Anatomy of a Transaction Gone Bad
Overseas shipping can be troublesome if you are not prepared.
By Renée Magriel Roberts
I'm sure you have all had them ... transactions whose downside far outweighs whatever profit might be gained. I've seen many a discussion of book rip-offs -- these surely qualify as poor transactions. We've received books that were not as described or poorly packed for their journey from other booksellers, including just recently a book that had a big bunch of pages amateurishly laid in, and a pamphlet lacking its last page. But, generally speaking, these events are fewer than they used to be.
We go out of our way to buy from dealers we can trust. We examine listings and books received much more closely. We insure all our packages going out, coming in, and even transported by and to third parties, domestic and foreign. All in all we try to decrease our risk and when something bad happens to us, we deal with it if we can and don't get overly excited about it.
We email customers when an order goes out and give them realistic arrival expectations. When possible we also include any other information related to their package which they will need to know.
But, even with all these precautions, over the holidays, a transaction went bad. It went bad and it cost us plenty. And so this is something of a cautionary tale.
Like many other booksellers we are using not only the U.S. post office, but courier services for domestic and foreign delivery. At Christmas, we received many orders for the books we publish from overseas, including some from England. For these, with certain weight classes, we use Pitney Bowes.
Pitney Bowes pays for delivery via UPS from our shop to their New Jersey distribution center. This leg of the journey is tracked with a UPS number. From there, our packages are divided up by destination country and then flown overseas via major carriers (like Royal Mail) where they are placed in the local foreign mail stream. Priority packages take around 10 business days to arrive; standard packages take 5 days longer.
We almost always use priority services because of the time sensitivity of customers to lengthy waits. It only costs $1 per lb. more and is well worth the added price in customer satisfaction. We've found that especially over the holidays, it is extremely important to get material out right away.
So, on one day in mid-December, we get three orders, all from the U.K. for two customers and a bookseller. Let's call them "Mr. Smith", "Ms. Jones", and "Viper Books", for argument's sake. We have never sold to any of these people before and these are relatively inexpensive books, the costliest being $65.
Anatomy of a Transaction Gone Bad
Like any other day, we pick the books, pack them carefully, address the packages, and drop off the box at UPS. UPS dutifully delivers our box, with the three packages, in two days.
We start to hear from our customers in about a week. Mr. Smith and Viper have not received their books. Since it is too early to expect delivery we send our regular "please be patient" letter to both, reiterating the time it takes for delivery and cautioning that especially with the holiday rush, the mail may take even more time than usual.
A few days later we hear from Ms. Jones, who has also not received her book. She is particularly anxious because, as you might suppose, it is supposed to be a Christmas gift for her husband. I try to provide what cold comfort I can, but she must be out of town, because once I hear from her, I can't raise her again via email. Once a book is put into the mail it is impossible to track, unless it has been sent by very expensive courier service to begin with. In our experience very, very few books are actually lost and even those sent to rural South Africa have eventually found their way to their owners.
However, having three customers complain who were all sent books in the same box to the same country alarmed me. So I got on the phone with Pitney Bowes.
As I expected they track our package with the three orders into and out of their distribution facility, but from there only an act of God can figure out where they are or when they will arrive.
In the meantime, I check our account on Amazon.uk and discover that these three customers have already posted negative or neutral feedback. Ms. Jones says her book has not arrived, Mr. Smith's note is sweet, but neutral, and Viper, who has received his book says that it arrived late. In one day, our feedback rating on this site has gone down from 100% to 77% because of the skewed method Amazon uses to compute ratings and because most of our other happy customers have not posted feedback recently.
We have to act quickly and we do. First I send letters of apology to all and finally I hear back from Ms. Jones. I offer to fully refund her purchase and send her a signed book priority mail to replace the one that has not yet arrived (even though I am quite certain it has not been lost), which she graciously agrees to. She removes her feedback, which gets us up a few notches, but not before Amazon.uk semi-closes our account because we have fallen below their feedback satisfaction levels.
By the time they contact me, I have already been in touch with Pitney Bowes, and they have drafted a detailed letter, with the names of the three customers, a statement saying when I shipped each book and when they received it; and when they dispatched the books from their warehouse to the air carrier. While they cannot track the packages beyond that, an officer in the company says quite plainly that any delay is their fault and not mine, that the packages should have arrived before Christmas, but were probably delayed because of the volume of mail, and that they take full responsibility for any problems.
Anatomy of a Transaction Gone Bad
I send copies of this letter to Ms. Jones, Mr. Smith (who also removes his feedback) to Amazon, and to Viper Books. My letter to Viper is collegial. Although he posted his negative feedback almost immediately, surely he understands that we did what we were supposed to do and that the delay was beyond our control.
What we get back is what I would call a pretty imperious letter (I love it when these are signed "regards" when they are anything but), and no change in the feedback. And nothing asked.
I write back a second time. Collegiality isn't working, so I point out the practicalities. Negative feedback reflects poorly on us and deters future customers. Even though he received his book, I offer him a full refund, including the shipping, in exchange for removing his feedback.
I get back another imperious note, no mention of our offer, no change in feedback. In the meantime, Amazon reverses its decision, and fully reinstates our account. But the feedback remains.
I finally realize that Viper is actually enjoying our exchanges for some reason, even though there is no profit to him. There is no reason for the feedback to be there other than to elicit comment from me and digressions from him, so I stop writing. While we are waiting for the feedback to disappear over time, we lose a lot of money in sales and there is nothing we can do about it.
So, here are some lessons learned. During the holiday season it may be worthwhile to contact foreign customers immediately and ask them if they want express mail services to ensure delivery before a certain date. It is important for them to know from where you are shipping (in our case, Massachusetts) and approximately how long delivery will take. It is also important for them to know that unless they choose some other shipping method you cannot guarantee delivery within 2 weeks of the Christmas holidays.
If you are using a third-party carrier, as we have, send a copy of the UPS tracking number immediately to the customer. This will reiterate the fact that you have sent the package promptly. Even though they can only track it to the distribution center, it still shows that it left your hands in a timely manner.
Finally, if you are selling on Amazon.uk (or any other Amazon site) watch your feedback constantly and respond to it immediately. If a problem occurs get documentation immediately, as we did, from your carrier, and send it to everyone concerned.
And remember that every now and then you will be doing business with someone who is irrational -- or even mindlessly vindictive -- like "Viper". Deal with it as well as you can, and then let it go. Don't take it personally. There are plenty of other wonderful customers out there who will appreciate what you do. Supporting the life of the mind is surely a cause worth working for.
Renée Magriel Roberts can be reached at email@example.com.