The Folly of eBay: Forgetting What Made You Great

I am struck by how often a good product or service will be the victim of its own success. Scaling a business is challenging, no doubt, but I am amazed at how often companies abandon the principles of their early days in order to scale.
I recently tried to build a eBay store for a client. It had been awhile since I had built a store, and I was surprised at the number of changes that had taken place. Most were for the better, including a streamlined and intuitive interface that adds a layer of consistency to product listings, features which help sellers filter through the ever-multiplying pages of products.
What stopped me in my tracks was the onerous burden that had been placed on Sellers. The client had been paying for the store for 3 months when I was able to get their products up, but no sooner had they appeared when the account was suspended pending verification. A long process ensued, whereby we were stuck trying to decipher the cryptic suspension notice and what to do next. All the product listings were immediately removed (an hour lost there), and there was no immediate way to rectify the situation.
Interestingly, the email did not provide a phone number to call. We were instead directed to a webpage, which didn’t answer any of our questions, and ultimately led to a convoluted process whereby we had to request a PIN to call and reach someone.
After sorting out the problem (we needed to provide ID to verify my client’s identity), we faxed in our documentation and waited. 48 hours later, we were still waiting, so I called eBay back. The reason there was no response: it takes 72 hours to scan all the faxes they receive (or so they say). When I asked why they weren’t digitized automatically using technology that dates back about 25 years, the customer service rep said no, they print and scan every one. Why does that seem like it can’t possibly be true?

Forgetting How You Became Successful

I can understand why these processes are now in place. As eBay has grown, the opportunities for fraud expanded exponentially. Despite constituting a small percentage of listings, a sheer volume of fraudulent auctions creates enormous headaches. Reducing fraud is an admirable, and important objective.
The problem occurs when you place the burden squarely on the people who create the market in the first place. ID checks, puny monthly sales limits, and long wait periods to get money from Paypal all add to a rather miserable customer experience. If eBay had started this way, it would have died an anonymous death 6 months after launching.

Don’t let Success Steamroll Your Values

I’m sure Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll never envisioned a site where sellers were forced to endure security checks more lengthy and bureaucratic than a National Security clearance badge. I imagine they would be mortified at how the site has taken on a grossly inefficient apparatus that serves to stifle growth of the site.
In an era where 5 minutes gets me a listing on Craigslist for free, why would anyone endure the hassle and cost of using eBay? For some products, it is clearly worth the effort, and the global marketplace cannot be rivaled. I use it to buy electronic parts constantly, and I would be the first to admit that it is a wondrous place for niche items you can’t find elsewhere, no matter how large a city you live in.
So here we wait, hoping we can get the products up next week. The experience has left a bitter taste, not only because of the messy, inefficient, and maddening bureaucracy, but also the inevitable and inescapable feeling that they just don’t care. I’ve heard 29 ‘sorry for the inconvenience, Sir’, but not one person has tried to actually fix the problem. When you start supplying customers with empty apologies and outlandish excuses, like the print and scan every fax excuse, you’ve lost your way.

For those running your own small business, remember that it is the values you hold most closely that your customers will respect you for. Betray those values, and you risk eroding your business from its very foundation.


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