Wednesday, 11 June 2014


If you don't already know (where have you been?) I hawk my wares online in several small virtual shops, and think of myself as somewhere between a market stall trader and an artisan. Some people use the term entrepreneur, but that suggests to me a level of independence, whereas I rely so far wholly on Etsy and eBay, but I think I've got them both figured out. In any case I earn a "proper" income from it all, which was the objective, and at the same time I don't have to go anywhere or even get dressed if I don't want to. There are many advantages.

And it's been a learning curve, over the years, and always will be because there are so many aspects to it, from my abiding interest in gemstones to the mysteries of search engine algorithms, and not forgetting the often frustrating but always interesting process of moving small packages around the planet in a timely and economical manner. I sent an order to New Caledonia today (look it up) and marked another "conquest" territory on the map.

It's probably fair to say that I enjoy what I do rather more than many people enjoy their jobs, and I do feel lucky about it, but it's not all luck. I sometimes start work at 5am, and sometimes don't finish until midnight. I try not to do both on the same day, but sometimes I have to. And one part of it that, being a one man show (almost) is down to me, me, and only me, with nobody to refer or defer to, is customer service. I'm very, very good at that.

When you are a very small fish competing in a very vast ocean, there are many things you can't be. I can't the cheapest, I can't have the biggest inventory, I can't have the fastest turnaround. I am limited in all sorts of ways, not least by there being only 24 hours in a day. But what I can do is offer fantastic customer service. So I do.

Sometimes this means bending over backwards for a customer, and sometimes it means taking a loss. But it always works out well. No exceptions. None.

I mention Etsy. Etsy is a strange place. If it were bricks and mortar rather than a website, it would be a massive, permanent marketplace, open all hours, like some giant middle eastern bazaar, that has established itself so well some of the more successful traders have built posh modern brightly lit shops around the edge. Some of them would be very large indeed. I picture it like this in my head. I see my shops as a bit quaint and quirky, brightly coloured and in a corner, probably near a man selling food on a stick. I'm neither small nor large, but somewhere in the middle, with a regular clientele, and chatty neighbours. I could be found probably sitting outside in the sun, letting people browse undisturbed, but ready to assist when called upon.

Anyway, the reality being online, the chatting among traders happens in a discussion forum that is part of the site. Conversations range from questions about tax to word games. Nothing is taboo, and it's one of the nicest online forums I know. Much more fun than some of the starchy business forums I have seen where people with no souls try to convince you to join some dodgy MLM scheme.

And people have problems with their businesses sometimes, and they look to others for advice. Pity they don't always take it.

If a customer is unhappy in some way, they have two options. They can complain to the seller responsible, or they can complain to their payment processor. Naturally, sellers prefer they do the former first, so they can fix the problem. Paypal are notorious for siding with customers rather than sellers, and unless the seller can prove the customer is lying (I have, twice) a refund is given to the customer, from the seller's account, and there's bugger all you can do about it. Credit card companies function much the same, only they will often ding you with a charge in addition to giving the customer a refund (I have won a case like this too, but it's not easy). Consequently sellers live in fear of such action, especially if large amounts of money are involved.

On the other hand if the unhappy customer is decent enough to try to reach a satisfactory outcome of a dispute with the seller, the seller has every opportunity to do this and avoid such action.

So do they try hard?

You'd think.

Every bloody time I go to that forum, I guarantee I'll find another waily waily wailty from a seller who thinks they can have a "no refund" policy and stick to it. And you know what? Sometimes they get away with it, because the customer is unaware of their rights. End result? Pissed off customer won't buy from ANY Etsy seller ever again because of a bad experience. So it doesn't just hurt one business, it hurts the whole marketplace.

Which is why other sellers take the time to "advise" this type of seller that they would benefit themselves if they just apologized, refunded or replaced as required, and move on. Will they listen? No.

Sometimes these sellers go out of business due to too many complaints and/or their frustration with having to, you know, provide the service they are being paid for. They cut off their own noses to spite their faces.

But sometimes they manage to continue for a bit, while complaining that others are doing better.

Extrapolate this to large businesses. How many times have you called customer service only to get an idiot, or a brick wall? How many times have you become only too painfully aware that they don't give a shit about you as a customer, because there are plenty of others, and your complaint (and the thousands of others) won't be enough to damage their business too much? Sometimes it catches up with them.

Every so often there is someone with a bit more vision in these large businesses, who says "Hang on, maybe if we DID provide great customer service, it would help us get an edge on the competition." Take for example two computer companies. HP and Acer. Some years ago I hadn't even heard of Acer. HP were a big name, and I chose them. Great products. Great service. Then that all changed. Acer, on the other hand, offer fantastic customer service, and have become my go-to brand. Many people these days have clued in that customer service is NOT old-fashioned, it DOES affect choices, and it DOES affect both the customer and the bottom line. In the very demanding business world of the future, I think we'll see this more and more.

And while you all love to hate Wal-Mart, ever taken something back? No quibble. Here's your refund. That goes a long way. You hate that they're so popular, busy, and successful? Would it have happened if they'd said "All sales are final. No refunds. Not our problem"? I think not. If you phone a Wal-Mart some distance away and ask them to check stock of an item to avoid a wasted journey, they will do so happily. There are many reasons to object to Wal-Mart, but they figured out right from the start that customers need to be happy.

Can customers sometimes demand too much? Yes, of course. A small percentage are totally unreasonable, and a few are conmen. You have to be alert to scammers, and you can refuse service to those who are actually deliberately trying it on. Nobody stays in business giving in to fraud.

But if you ship a parcel and it gets broken in transit, the customer doesn't care that it wasn't your fault. You sub-contracted to the mail service to get it there safely, and they failed. Your argument is with them. You refund then you claim on the insurance.

On that topic I'm going to explain something that crops up among small online sellers a lot, and if you are reading this because you ARE a small online seller, please pay close attention.

When shipping small and inexpensive items you often have a choice between a cheap, untracked, uninsured mail service, or a more expensive tracked and insured one.

Many sellers opt for the more expensive service to prevent losses. On the face of it, it seems like a good idea, but is it?

Let's say you sell an item that costs $5. Shipping (tracked, insured) costs $15. How many people look at that, see the shipping costs 3x the value of the item, and find this rather off-putting? Some will buy it anyway, but most will balk. You are probably losing a lot of business with shipping costs like that.

What if instead, you shipped it for $4, and crossed your fingers that it arrived safely? Would that increase sales?

Let's assume that yes, it increases sales exponentially (hint, it does). Let's also assume that losses run around one in 300 (hint, they do). Is the cost of the loss covered by the massive increase in sales?


I've explained this about 500 times over the years, and I am frequently met with resistance and objections. Because there is a gamble involved. A risk.

Well, what is business? All business is a huge gamble, full of risks. If you can't deal with that you shouldn't be in business. And I can judge very quickly whether a business is going to succeed or not by:

a) Understanding the value of customer service, and
b) Understand risk analysis

And they go together. Because in the same way that one refund on a low cost item because it got lost in the mail, is a drop in the ocean compared to the quantity of sales when the shipping costs are low, it follows that one refund and sincere apology to a dissatisfied customer is a drop in the ocean compared to the increase in sales from a reputation for good customer service. Unhappy customers who have been made happy often return. And tell their friends. And online there's a little thing called feedback.........

Just this week, on that same forum was a query about printing. Where to get business cards, labels, etc. And the overwhelming recommendation was Vistaprint. Why? Because if they mess up, they put it right. No delays, no quibbles, they fix it. In a massive print business like that, things won't go right 100% of the time. Shit happens. But they respond appropriately. They get it. And that's how they've become so popular. Recommendation remains an important thing, and those who don't believe that are pretty much doomed.

Aren't they Kodak?


  1. Do you ever listen to this CBC radio program on advertising? It totally vindicates what you say. Anyway, I looked up this episode for you. How's that for service.

    1. I don't have a radio :)

      I'll check that link out, thanks!