Monday, June 02, 2008

[UPDATE] eBay feedback changes - "neutral" ain't neutral no more, folks!

An UPDATE is called for!

Sincere thanks to my friend Christy for passing along to me eBay's announcement that this policy will be changed back to the logical stance of neutral feedback being.....neutral!

The seller outcry -- and maybe some protest by buyers who meant "neutral" when they said "neutral" -- must have been substantial!


One day in 1999, Larry came home from work early, which was very weird. He worked at a federal government office in a Trenton NJ neighborhood. Public service US government offices keep exact hours. Something serious has to happen to alter that.

"What..what..?" I sputtered.

"The mafia is burning out the independent crack dealers on our street, so we were told to close up early and go home," he explained. Fires were going up in various rowhouses across the street.

It was around then that I started thinking we oughta notch up our (then) part-time online business to make it a full-time career for us both.

We were practically a ground-floor eBay seller, starting in 1998. Our pride was, and still is, actually caring about our customers. It shows in our feedback.

I've never believed that "the customer is always right." We've run into too many wackos. But in practice, you're crazy to try to reason with unreasoning people, and you're better off biting the bullet. We had a no-questions-asked return policy and never got a negative feedback.

Never. In 10 years. Not one. Our score was 100% positive.

An excellent seller can have a 99.8. It's not a catastrophe. I did cherish that 100% and what it meant to buyers, but I also knew that its days were numbered. No matter how great we were, a crackpot with our name on him had to be out there somewhere. Someone who'd accept no concession that even we, willing to go the extra mile, could in good conscience provide. Or who wouldn't even ask for satisfaction before hitting the red button.

But I was completely unprepared for it to be eBay's managers who bitchslapped us by changing the tally value of feedback categories, and applying it retroactively.

Somebody gave us a neutral four months ago. The toy Matchbox [TM] car he bought, which we'd called 1:64 scale, was actually scaled a bit smaller than true 1:64, as most Matchbox items are. They vary. When we asked why he hadn't requested a refund or some other compensation, he wrote back that the scale did not actually matter a bit to him. But the neutral sits there. Until now, it was .... neutral.

Recent changes to their feedback system have made lots of news but I can't seem to find any outrage over this particular new policy. To any sellers dropping by - you may have missed this little gem, because other changes in your score masked or absorbed it.

"Neutral" feedbacks now count as negatives, against the seller. Yes. Really. Click any seller's feedback page to look at the new calculation method:

Positives are now a percentage of all feedbacks.

positives + negatives + neutrals

Of course eBay doesn't word it as transforming neutrals into negatives. O no! They are merely Doing The Right Thing To Create Great Buying Experiences on eBay!

Click for more condescension by eBay spokesman Brian Burke:

"We know that seeing your positive Feedback percentage drop is hard," he coos.

No. It is not "hard." It's inaccurate.

They simply "include" neutrals in the calculation, he says.

No. They do not merely "include" them. Neutrals are now placed in the denominator, counted equally with negatives. They now carry the same score-lowering weight as a full negative.

The carefully crafted example he gives is misleading. See, Burke tells us, if two sellers have the same number of positives and the same number of negatives .... but Seller Two also has fewer neutrals, the score needs to reflect that Seller Two is "providing a better overall customer experience"!

Aw, I feel terrible for questioning their much greater wisd-- But wait a minute.

Here's how that works out. Say you have :

100 feedbacks;

_____98 positives_____
98 positives + 2 negatives

= 98.0

_____98 positives_____
98 positives + 2 neutrals

STILL = 98.0

Other feedback changes may make my life as a seller harder, but they're at least logical. They were instituted to boost buyer confidence. Well, OK. Somebody wins, even if it's not me.

But this one makes no sense. These two sellers would have the same rating. Buyers whose Great Buying Experiences eBay is so terribly concerned about, aren't getting an accurate picture by eBay calling neutrals and negatives equivalent. Nobody frikkin' wins.

Buyers issued neutrals under ebay's own rules -- that they would neither boost nor lower a seller's rating.

eBay is not explaining why they now want to override that choice, but -- and I'm speculating -- this seems to be an additional measure to compensate for the past when some buyers wanted to leave negatives but feared retaliatory feedback in return.

If so it doesn't wash, people.

For one thing, it's a blanket change, and assumes that all neutral-clickers really meant negative, and that no seller has the right to the rating he was originally given. That no buyer ever really felt neutral. That it was never about honest misunderstanding or minor nuisances that left the buyer with no complaint once they were cleared up -- which is, in fact, exactly what neutrals are likely to be.

For another, eBay has already disabled retaliatory feedback. Sellers can't give any but positive feedback to buyers anymore.

I don't know whether I'm more baffled by eBay's belief that they need to penalize previous neutrals equally with negatives, or by their belief that they are entitled to do it.

Legally entitled - maybe. Sure, these fat corporations can make their own rules, but in this case, they are not changing a rule from this point on -- they are taking a term that meant one thing, redefining it to mean another, and applying that to past uses of the term.

If the yes-or-no system wasn't adequate, it's wrong to reassign a value after the fact.

And it's nonsensical for that value to be identical to the value of another choice.

They could split every neutral. Add half a point to the positive numerator and half to the negative in the denominator. That would "include" it.

They could eliminate "neutral" and have buyers simply give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. But if buyers dislike having to use simple extremes, that's understandable.

Other sites, like, use a 4- or 5-choice spectrum. This would mean that "pretty good" and "great" wouldn't need identical values. Neither would "not so great" and "terrible."

Full permission is granted to any reader, to quote from this post. Use it.


southernyankee said...

Umm, correct me if I'm wrong here, but aren't eBay sellers their real customers? i mean, don't sellers pay eBay for selling their stuff, and buyers pay sellers? Or am I totally missing something, like eBay's management team seems to be missing half a brain.

Is there some seriously steep charge made to buyers when they sign up now? Or will buyers now receive an end of year fee for the pleasure of buying on eBay? Or what?

I'm an eBay buyer, and want to know what eBay is thinking of charging me for buying from their real customers, the sellers! OUCH!

Perhaps it's time to skip eBay completely. What's the name of the company selling through Facebook?

ronnie said...

I hadn't heard about this change until I read your post, and I couldn't agree with the post's content more.

What bothers me most, as a buyer, is that they have made this change retroactively. That means that they can, without my consent, change the effect of a feedback rating to reflect something that was NOT my intent. If I left "neutral" feedback in 2004, that's exactly what I intended it to be - neutral. Ebay is now taking my vote, as it were, and changing it, in such a way that it will have an effect I never intended (lowering the seller's overall score). And telling me there's nothing I can do about it.

I don't recall ever leaving anything but positive feedback; however, I still disagree fundamentally with this move by Ebay.

If it makes you feel any better, I happily do business on Ebay with any seller who has a rating of 95% or more positive. Husband is a buyer and seller at a hobby level; and you're right, there are some people out there who are going to give you negative feedback no matter what. If a seller has a 95% or 97% positive rating, I'll scan the feedback to see if it appears to be a consistent problem or pattern - late shipping or goods not as described. If there's no pattern, I assume that the negatives are just misunderstandings or curmudgeons.

Hopefully most buyers are like me and understand that a less-than-perfect rating is no condemnation of your business practices. I can imagine losing that 100% sure hurt, though.

Ebay's been making a lot of unpopular changes lately. Its days as king of the online auction hill may be numbered.

Catherine said...

I knew about the 'no negative feedback' for buyers, but didn't realize they'd changed things for sellers, too. Seems like ebay is somehow trying to simplify a system that wasn't all that complicated in the first place -- the proverbial fixing of something that isn't broken, I guess.

And to make the change retroactive is just wrong.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Do these people have any idea how stupid they look to anyone with a rudimentary grasp of arithmetic?

Maybe it's the same group at CBC that decided, as ronniecat notes in her blog, that they were paying too much at $500 a pop to use the Hockey Night in Canada theme.

Nah. They're even stupider than that.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

southernyankee and catherine (and welcome, by the way!) - I'm coming to believe that MBAs study the art of fixing what's not broken.

Sellers are indeed the only source of eBay's income, and they seem to think we're not motivated to, like, duh! offset ebay fees by making money. God forbid they see sellers as their partners.

ronnie - that actually does make me feel a little better. I'd hope buyers will check the content of feedback. I've seen everything in there, including buyers angry with the seller because the post office lost the package, or upset about recycled packaging.

Sherwood - i originally had a paragraph in this post originally about how i couldn't decide whether the ebay suits needed a dictionary or a math book more, but the entry was getting too long already!

simon said...

Great original post, I feel really sorry for you, that system is really unfair.

Ebay Australia has reverted to not counting neutrals as negatives, hopefully they've fixed the US system as well. Otherwise there is really no point to having Neutral at all. I could continue with my rant against that system, but you've said it all, already!