Some Feedback on Feedback
Feedback for an eBay seller
by Renée Magriel Roberts
Internet bookselling may be the wave of the future, but before engaging in the practice, read this notice: WARNING: You can get Internet bookselling heartburn on a regular basis by selling on a site (eBay or Amazon, for example) that offers optional and permanent customer feedback.
What's the problem with feedback? On the surface, it seems very reasonable. Amazon itself is a major player that prides itself on its A-to-Z guarantee. They are understandably concerned that negative reactions to vendors operating under their "umbrella" might affect their credibility in the marketplace. For this reason, it seems to them that it's a good idea to allow customers to leave a feedback rating and comments that are attached to a seller's every listing and are also available at their Z-shop. After all, many of these shops do not identify the individuals or companies who actually run them, have no physical location, and are available only by email. Unlike a bricks-and-mortar store, which will quickly lose business if it doesn't provide good service based on word-of-mouth, an Internet store may have many, many unique customers, who do not know each other.
On Amazon, buyers have 90 days to leave feedback and 60 days to remove it. Amazon will not delete feedback, even if any issues have been resolved, even if they are requested to delete it by the customer, and even if no transaction occurred (i.e. the book was out of stock, the order was cancelled, and the customer fully refunded). Any customer who buys a book --whether it is $1.00 or $1,000-- is entitled to leave feedback, and all feedback is equally weighted. Feedback entries remain posted for one year on a seller's account.
Here's a recent example of feedback gone wrong. A customer in Hawaii orders a book to be shipped via surface mail to save on priority mail charges. Surface mail to Hawaii takes about two months to arrive from the East coast. After a month, the customer gets anxious about her book, tries to call the seller and misdials the telephone, getting somebody who does not answer her in English. Instead of re-checking the telephone number, or using the US mail, or trying to email the seller, the customer posts negative feedback, citing a lack of communication from the seller, and including a comment about someone not speaking English. She leaves the negative feedback on the Amazon site for two months, until her book arrives, then removes it.
There is no way to compensate the seller for lost revenue during the time in which this negative feedback was prominently posted right where he is selling. Similarly, it is not uncommon to get negative feedback from foreign buyers whose books are too large for Global Priority Mail and who do not read their email frequently enough to see notices on approximate shipping times.
Some Feedback on Feedback
The "power of feedback" also results in a kind of customer blackmail. It is absolutely impossible to set realistic transaction rules unless you are willing to be violated by negative feedback if the customer is not happy. We have had customers who kept books for months, then wanted to return them, as though we were some kind of lending library. There isn't any way to say "no" to such a customer, unless you are willing to accept negative feedback posted prominently on your Amazon home page.
Since anybody purchasing from you can post feedback, it is obviously easy to create fake feedback at any time. Your competition can also post bad feedback to your site by purchasing any inexpensive item. Although there are Amazon rules about this sort of thing, I have no sense that they are enforced by the company.
Amazon also has a "score" for feedback. You can rate a transaction from one to five, one being the "lowest" score and five the "highest," or most favorable, score. More than once a few of our customers have written "great transaction" in the comments field and then picked "1" rather than "5" because they did not understand this counter-intuitive scale.
Some of these problems could be ameliorated by Amazon themselves. For example, I do not think that customers should be able to post any kind of feedback at all if the book is not available and if a refund is made immediately. I do not think that any transaction arbitrated by Amazon in some way (for example through their A-Z guarantee) should be rated, especially if Amazon finds that the seller is not at fault. We had a customer, for example, who wanted a refund without returning the book, claimed an A-Z refund and posted negative feedback when we insisted on the return of our merchandise. Even when Amazon ruled she was not entitled to a refund, they refused to delete the feedback from our site.
One of the most startling issues related to Amazon feedback is the way in which the overall rating is computed. Amazon only scores transactions which receive feedback, and does not include the much larger number of other transactions which receive no feedback at all. They must have read Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics, a classic on manipulating opinion based on skewed mathematical information. For example, if you sell 100 books and only 2 customers give feedback, one of which is negative, you will receive a 50% negative feedback rating and 2 1/2 stars out of 5 next to your store name -- this despite the fact that in reality only 1% of your customers rated you negatively, out of the total number of transactions completed -- and that one customer could have purchased a book for $3.
Some Feedback on Feedback
Amazon could fix this situation by rating unrated transactions as at least "good", with the assumption that if someone was unhappy they would complain. It has been proven time and again that people who are unhappy are much more likely to go to the trouble of leaving feedback than people who are content. In any case, as far as we are concerned, the feedback system on Amazon is hopelessly compromised. If Amazon wants to keep bad sellers out of their system they need to do some work on their own to make it happen.
For example, they can easily review customer complaints and A-Z claims; they can do statistical analysis on the number of incomplete vs. complete transactions; they can look at book descriptions and eliminate sellers who mass-list books they do not own with vague repetitive descriptions.
At eBay, another site on which we sell, feedback has also reached an incredible level of absurdity and non-usefulness. Here both buyers and sellers can rate each transaction and also respond to their feedback. The unwritten rule is that if you give me great feedback I will give you great feedback. It simply does not pay to give poor feedback unless you are willing to suffer negative feedback in return. Great feedback on eBay, in fact, can cover up persistent fraudulent activity, as Ken Lopez points out in a recent open letter to eBay from ABAA.
Despite the fact that these limitations are well-known, both ABE and Alibris are going to join the fray and are working to put a feedback system in place. I am not at all enthusiastic about it; all of these sites have a lot to do to clean up their acts without adding yet another layer of manipulation and complication. If these sites took the time to eliminate obviously bad sellers with bogus or inadequate listings, this would do more for ultimate customer satisfaction than a feedback system based on flawed models which even Amazon and eBay have been unable (or unwilling) to fix.