Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When a seller is dragging their feet

Hello Polite Readers!

I've written a lot of columns from the seller's point of view, dealing with difficult customers and requests for freebies. But this week we're going to switch things up a bit and talk about how a buyer should deal with a slow, non-responsive vendor.

This request comes courtesy of a dear friend who recently had a troublesome run-in with a vendor. Last year around this time, she finally made a long-awaited purchase of a custom item. Due to the handmade nature of the item and the popularity of the vendor, she was told she wouldn't receive the item until September, November at the latest. This was fine with her and she dutifully made her down payment and began the long wait for her item.

September came and went, as did October and November, and still no item, plus no communication from the vendor explaining the delay. So she decided to contact them and got an explanation and a promise that her item would be ready soon. Again she settled in patiently to wait... but her item still never arrived, and the vendor once again did not step forward with an explanation.

Finally, last month, patience began to wear thin. My friend had wanted to have this item available for Fall and Winter use, and here it is almost Spring in AZ. It's been nearly a year since the original order date, and still no (very pricy) item. Her husband decided to send them a letter, and because he did not ask for my Politely Worded advice ahead of time (shame shame!) it came across a little strongly and set the vendor on the defensive. Rather than providing the info he wanted, they responded with their own dose of snark. After a bit more communication, my friend was finally able to get an update, and last week her item was delivered at last and is quite lovely, but she's asked me to share some advice to spare other people from having similar problems.

First, let's talk about how to avoid this sort of problem in the first place. Oftentimes you can dodge a bullet by researching a seller ahead of time. This is one reason why I like sites like Etsy and eBay... the feedback system gives a good indication of how reliable a seller is. Lacking that, you can ask your friends, or do a Google search for the company name to see if anyone is complaining. This doesn't always work, of course. My friend had many personal recommendations for the vendor she used, and I've also seen sellers drop rapidly from having 100% feedback when a purchase was made to 97% as they suddenly lose the ability to run their business properly.

Next, if you've done your due diligence but things still start to look poorly, don't just wait around for the item to show up. As soon as it starts to feel like your order should have been fulfilled, start looking into your options. If purchased on eBay or Etsy, see what you need to do to request a refund. Also look into getting refunds via PayPal or your credit card company or bank account if applicable. I recommend doing this right away because sometimes there's a deadline involved, and in the past I have waited too long and lost out on my money. You want to know what your deadline is so you can invoke it with the seller if need-be.

Now once you're armed with the necessary facts, start out with a polite letter that outlines the facts but also assumes that this must be a simple misunderstanding or oversight or problem outside of their control. For instance, say something like:
Hello, on January 1st I purchased a set of fuzzy slippers from you (insert link to listing/receipt). I thought they'd make the perfect birthday present for my mom, and from viewing your shipping policies I knew they'd arrive in plenty of time for her birthday on March 2nd. However, it is now February 4th and I still haven't received them, nor have I received any shipping notification. Do you have a tracking number? I want to make sure that USPS didn't lose them somewhere along the way.
This lets them either provide said tracking number or admit that they are SO sorry, they thought they mailed your package but it actually slipped under the seat of the car and has been sitting there for weeks. They'll mail it right away and here's a coupon for $5 off your next order to make up for the delay. Hopefully that will be the end of it and the item will soon be in your hands (or you'll find that the tracking number shows a problem, in which case you have to deal with USPS. That's beyond my scope, sorry).

However, you may find that either they don't respond at all, or they respond with fishy excuses and you still don't get your item. This is when you need to get a little tougher, but of course still polite. Lay out the facts again and offer a proposed solution and an ultimatum.
Hi, it's me again. I wrote you on February 4th to inquire about the slippers I ordered on January 1st (again, insert link to listing/receipt). At that time you didn't respond to me/gave me an invalid tracking number/told me you were mailing it tomorrow. I still have not received the slippers, and my mom's birthday is getting really close. I don't want to have to leave you negative feedback and start PayPal's conflict resolution process, but I am afraid that if I have not received the item or a refund by February 28th, I will be forced to take action. I'd really appreciate an update on the status of my order, and I hope we can work this out to both of our satisfaction.
If the seller is just a little flaky, this should scare them straight and you should get your item. If they are just a rip-off artist trying to bilk as many people as they can as fast as they can before eBay/Etsy/whoever catches on and shuts them down, they will probably either ignore you or give you more excuses ("I'm sorry, my hamster died and things have been so chaotic"). This is when you give up on being patient and set things in motion. Send one more note informing them of your intent and then start the necessary process to get your money back!
Hello, it is now February 28th and I still have not received the slippers that I ordered from you, nor a valid tracking number. My mother's birthday is the day after tomorrow and now I am forced to go to the mall and find her a replacement gift. It is clear to me that you never had any intention of fulfilling my order. I have already contacted PayPal for a refund and I will be leaving appropriate feedback on Etsy.
 It's my understanding that Etsy has a "kiss and make-up" feature which encourages buyers to let the seller make it up to them. Honestly, I am not into that. Unless the seller genuinely had real circumstances beyond their control that made them unable to fulfill orders or e-mail customers (ie, their house was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, they had a serious stroke and have been in the hospital and PT ever since, etc etc), I think they deserve their negative feedback! If you've waited months and not received your item, that is a serious problem and future would-be buyers need to know about it.

And what if you're not using a service like eBay or Etsy with built-in feedback but you want to warn friends away? I'd stick to the facts. Say "Hey, I know some of you have also been checking out this website and were thinking of ordering some things, but I just had to request that Visa reverse the charges because they never responded to my order or sent my items." Avoid inserting an opinion about how they are lazy, stupid, or bad at business. Remain professional -- that will put you ahead of them.

Please note that I am of course not qualified to offer legal advice and if there's a lot of money on the line (for instance, you bought a sports car on eBay), you might want to consult with a lawyer rather than an internet advice columnist. My advice is geared towards purchases in the tens to hundreds of dollars range, not thousands and up.

Are you looking for the best way to navigate dangerous communication waters? Contact me at and I'll help!

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