We are to Ebay as Lance Armstrong is to cycling

From 2001 up until quite recently, we were the ‘poster boys’ of Ebay. Not only were we Top Rated Sellers providing a premium service with a Powerseller status and the first to be offered new trials and products, but we’d also managed to keep a 100% positive rating for almost the entire 12 years we’d been trading over nearly 10,000 transactions totaling around £200,000. Anyone who’s ever had an Ebay account knows that’s really quite some feat and, I can assure you, it took some serious effort to keep that many people happy!

But the extra mile was worth it. Our feedback was exceptional, with happy customers gushing over the service they got in both feedback form and directly by some incredibly touching emails. Our repeat purchase levels were off the charts as were our customer satisfaction scores.When we rang Ebay for any issues, we were repeatedly commended on our performance, told what a great example we were, and how much Ebay needed sellers like us. Despite the extra work, it was very satisfying and our reputation grew and grew. By July 2016, we’d reached 7381 positive feedback at 100% satisfaction and customers could see we had years of top rated sales behind us.

We also bought a lot on Ebay, and our experience, save for a very few notable exceptions, was, shall we say, less favourable. Over the same period we received faulty goods, counterfeit goods, goods from people who had blatantly lied about what the product was or what condition it was in and routine examples of indifferent or poor service. Once again, Ebay and Paypal were excellent, looking into each matter where they had technical jurisdiction and, in every case we raised, settled on our side which was no surprise to us. You see, this wasn’t because we were good sellers, but because we knew what areas of law apply when you sell items and how important it is, for example, to make sure your description is correct. We’re not the sort of people to accept sub standard service from anyone. Including ourselves. At the end of the day, if you buy something it needs to do what it’s supposed to, be exactly as described and actually work not just on the day you buy it, but also for some time afterwards.

Look at THAT for a reputation! Squeaky1103 is our account that ran ‘The Funky Accessory Store’. Although now banned, it still shows 100% feedback, and Detailed Seller Ratings (DSRs) for description, communication, dispatch time and postage that are the maximum scores! Accounts this well maintained are very rare on Ebay.

Ebay were always keen to ‘keep an eye on dodgy sellers,’ to quote a Ebay employee, and sometimes they lodged a ‘black mark’ against certain accounts where the offence was so blatant it was borderline criminal. However, we never saw a situation where an account was pulled, even after a legal case we’d instigated and won against a particularly daft seller who was adamant that certain parts of the Sale of Goods and Services Act didn’t apply to his sale of a faulty item. It did, of course, and we got our money back. He was, however, allowed to keep trading, even though his feedback score was pretty low by that point.

This is not to say Ebay is like the Wild West, I think we were just unluckier than most and I still believe that most sellers are genuine, or, more importantly to consumers like you and I, happy to fix mistakes when they inevitably happen. It did, however, emphasize why our account was so coveted by Ebay and why we were so valued for so long. That is, until a fateful day in July 2016.

Late that evening, Clare, the real driving force behind our Ebay shop ‘The Funky Accessory Store’, my long term partner and mother of my children, sat down to do a final check of any customer emails before going to bed as she had done countless times before. But tonight was going to be different. Very different.

Ebay had suspended our account for ‘sub standard service’ and removed, without notice or warning, our entire inventory of 700 items. It had also prevented us from relisting them or anything new. Auctions were cancelled mid bid and customers were informed that we had been removed due to poor service. Clare was, of course, visibly upset as anyone would be after spending so many years building up a perfect reputation such as ours and took it very personally. I reassured her, based on all the factors mentioned above, that it was obviously a mistake and, as inconvenient as it was, we’d sort it in the morning.

Just a few minutes later, I also received an email from Ebay. It seemed my personal account that I’d had since 2001 had also been indefinitely suspended for being associated with the other one via the same address. There wasn’t much going on with it at the time, so it didn’t have the same impact, but even so, it was still suspended. In short, a combined total of 27 years of perfect customer service and 100% positive feedback had been removed in one computer stroke. It had to be an error, there was no logical basis otherwise.

It WAS stressful though and a sleepless night followed. Next day we rang Ebay for what we thought would be a simple reversal and get back to business. How wrong we were. We were informed that we had been suspended, quite legitimately, for sub standard service. I went through the feedback: 100% perfect. Dispatch time, postage costs and low DSRs (Detailed Seller Rating, a more in depth feedback system eBay uses to asses your performance) all well within the top tier of service. Out of Stock items: 2.06%. That was it! Ebay allows you a maximum of 2% in any review period, and we’d slipped to 2.06%. But how had this happened? And why so sudden? Could we REALLY have got so many things wrong so fast?

The answer, it turns out, after many hours on the phone to Ebay, was a shock. It was simply a function of maths, bad timing and a particularly impersonal algorithm. Let me explain:

‘Defects’ (as Ebay refers to them) are measured in percentages. So, if you do something wrong on a transaction like, for example, sending it out late, this is a ‘blotch’ on your record. It’s impossible to get it right all the time because life happens, so Ebay has a small margin of error to avoid those ‘one offs’ causing you any long lasting problems. For the category we were looking at, that of ‘out of stock items’, it’s 2%. That means if you do 1000 transaction in 12 months, no more than 19 can be out of stock. When you have a large inventory like we did, it inevitable that from time to time you’re going to miss something and when you go to find an item that a customer has purchased, it’s not there. Perhaps the quantity wasn’t right, or the items was moved/lost/damaged, but it’s inevitable, particularly as the Ebay inventory systems is so limited and antiquated. In our case, we had a total of 11 over the last 12 months making a percentage peak at around 1.3%. This WAS actually higher than usual because we’d lost some stock (presumed stolen) about a year previously and it had taken several out of stocks before we’d realized and had to do an entire inventory check that took several days. But even so, we were well within tolerance and our reputation level remained top notch. And, being so obsessed with great customer experience, we’d ensured everyone got a full refund, a personal and profuse apology and, in most cases, a small complimentary gift. In most cases we actually got fantastic feedback for NOT providing the product!

But there was another, hidden, factor working against us. We had, over the previous 6 months, scaled down our operation temporarily to just 700 items from the thousands we’d had before. We were still selling everyday, but not at the same rate. And what happens to your percentage when you reduce the principal? It goes up! In short, the historical out of stocks we’d incurred almost 12 months earlier were eating into our numbers slowly and surely in the background, even though our service was actually far better than it had been at that point.

I’d been aware of it actually, but only vaguely, as our Top Rated status had dropped suddenly to ‘Above Average’ just a few weeks before. I’d found the problem and realized two things a) it was historical and there was nothing we could about it and b) by July 20th, (just eleven days later) the date of our next review, enough of the transactions would no longer count and we’d go back to Top Rated again with a percentage of 1.6 and falling as the others expired in the coming weeks. In short, there was nothing we could do and it was about to go away for good anyway. This assumption, as it turned out, had been my undoing, not that there was a single thing we could have done about it anyway, the die was already cast.

That very evening, an entirely automated algorithm had found the percentage mismatch on the account and shut it down.

The Ebay representatives we spoke to were all very sympathetic and very nice. They all expressed surprise at the harshness, agreed it was unfair on a personal level, but toed the line, more or less, on stating what the policy was. However, they were all confident that an appeal would resolve the matter. After all, this was a simple mathematical anomaly and not a question of service which had been undeniably first class, something each of them confirmed independently. We’d only get one shot though, so we’d have to word it carefully and correctly.

So I did. It took a couple of hours and I checked and rechecked my facts. It was long, and talked about our reputation, how it came about and anything else I thought was relevant. I pressed ‘send’ and, as is usual for me after sending something long and complicated, began to reread the email I’d written making sure I’d got it right.

Barely was I on the second paragraph, a response came in. I assumed it was an acknowledgement much like an Out of Office Message that bounces straight back immediately, but it wasn’t. Apparently, they had “carefully reviewed the situation and taken all the facts into consideration” and decided to permanently disable the account. There would be no further appeals or discussion.

Clearly whoever had read this had been able to read it, research it and speak to the powers that be faster than I could read the first few lines. That was seriously impressive. Or was it more likely that this was an automated response and the appeal was a fallacy? Intrigued, I tried it again; I copied and pasted the text into the appeal window and pressed ‘send’. Within a the same few seconds, the response, identical to before, came back. I did it again, with the same result, and again. It was clear there WAS no appeal system, we’d been fobbed off. Our account, reputation and hard earned feedback scores were wiped. Forever.

It was heartbreaking. What had been the point of working so hard? How was it that people who were in no way customer focussed were still trading, but we weren’t? Gradually, through more phone calls, it became clear: Ebay isn’t actually concerned with the customer experience per se, only in the numbers its research tells it will affect the bottom line. The fluffy, good will, good experience stuff doesn’t – directly anyway – count. Wow, what a time to find THAT out.

But then it got worse.

As a banned seller, we could no longer sell on Ebay on ANY account. FOREVER. My personal 15 year old 100% perfect account would also be locked for good. We were not allowed to open any new accounts or use friends’ accounts to sell the same items as the algorithm would pick these up and ban them and their family as well.

And just as I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it turns out my young children are also banned too, before they’ve even started. So is my address. (Begs the question, does this affect my property’s value?!) Wow. That’s a serious punishment. It does seem a little out of proportion or is that just me?

So here we are. Lance Armstrong is the only other person I could think of to hand that had been banned for life for anything. Then again he did fraudulently win seven Tour De France races, blatantly cheat, take drugs and destroy people’s lives who tried to blow the whistle on him. Funny to think we’re now in the same category and that Ebay thinks our crimes are just as heinous! But even Lance Armstrong’s kids aren’t also banned are they? It seems, therefore, we’re even worse.

So what now? Many, many hours on the phone to Ebay have yielded no progress. Lots of sympathy and lots of employees stating that they think it’s as ridiculous as we do, but the hidden decision makers remain as invisible and unreachable as they always were. No appeals are possible and nothing can ever be changed.

We have, however, been inundated with offers from friends for us to use their accounts instead, which is strictly against Ebay rules of course, but since we’re left with little choice we’ve got to go ‘off the grid’. We can’t list the nice, posh new items that we used to sell on Ebay for fear of the dreaded algorithm finding them, so we’re using it now for selling all the bits of second hand crap we’re offloading from around the house, and selling the nice stuff elsewhere. No point spending another 12 years building up another perfect reputation to have it removed with warning or appeal and you need a good reputation to sell high end stuff. So, old crap it is.

And, of course, we’ve gone from being 100% by-the-book legit to ‘underground on-the-edge sellers’ which is, if I’m honest, slightly exciting, although not without its problems! We also don’t have to worry about customer service or experience any more, although I hasten to add it’s against our nature to actually be unpleasant or unfair to anyone, so everyone will still get everything they buy and it’ll be correctly described, but we won’t go quite the extra mile that we used to. There’s little point with low value second hand items, and the accounts are generic, little used accounts anyway so there’s no reputation for us to build.

So who gained what from the debacle?

Not Ebay who’s staff overheads rose as we hogged the phone lines for days and will continue to do so for as long as it takes. Their revenue from us is tiny in comparison to their bloated coffers, just a few thousand a year, but that is now lost to competition. High quality items have been removed, given to competitors and replaced with second hand tat, lowering the overall experience for users. And buyers no longer have one of the consistently best customer experiences on Ebay to fall back on.

But not us either. True we saved some money on fees, but we lost our reputation, our established business, our credibility and spent many, many stressful man-days on the phone. And a whole bunch of sleepless nights to add into the mix.

In short, no one gained anything at all from the experience. Research on the net revealed that we were far from being the only people this had happened to. People had actually been made bankrupt when their high volume businesses had been shut down without warning on a similar technicality (although some were definitely dubious!), so we were lucky we had other revenue streams and businesses to fall back on. It appears there is a class action law suit against Ebay in the US formed of people who found themselves in exactly the same situation. Whatever your views, you must agree that there should be at least a warning system in place, advice of how to fix any problems or an actual ‘real’ appeal procedure that can fix the marginal or incorrect cases that the algorithm doesn’t understand. I’ve yet to find anyone who has ever successfully appealed and that does seem to say a lot.

In an act of further irony, I am going to an event this weekend to be recognized for outstanding customer service. This is the fifth time this little company that I own, Quantum Web Cafe in Reading, has been up for the award and we have already won it once. Yet, accolades like this are also not enough to sway the power of Ebay that we might, after all, be genuine.

Our struggle continues. We will continue to prod, poke, phone, email, write and generally hassle Ebay until we actually get a real review by a real person. After all, we have our entire life times and those of our children to keep appealing! We’re actually not fussed about the initial suspension (we think it’s quite alright for a company to protect it’s position against dubious sellers) but we don’t think this sort of process should be entirely automated and there should be a genuine appeal process.

Time to get back on the phone. We’ll keep you updated.

What do YOU think? Have you experienced something similar or know someone who has? I’d love to hear form you either directly or via the comments below!

One thought on “We are to Ebay as Lance Armstrong is to cycling

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