Size Matters when Solving Problems in a Business

Posted on August 6, 2009. Filed under: eBay | Tags: , , , , |

A few days ago I had an interesting conversation about my blog with another seller.  The seller told me that he loved reading my blog and that he thought I was right on target about me describing eBay’s problems.  However, he expressed his concern to me in this way: “Don’t you know that eBay is a really big company which makes their problems big and which would then require lots of money to fix the really big problems?  They simply can’t afford to fix everything.  Take, for example, the problem you wrote about where you said that eBay needs to make all sellers follow all the rules.  Do you realize how expensive it would be for eBay to hire to people to spend their days policing sellers who violate insignificant policies?”

This blog post is a result of that conversation.  I’m going to walk through an approach to solving a problem in a big company, even a company as big as eBay.  However, one small caveat this time.  I will describe one possible solution to a very big eBay problem but I can’t say for sure whether this recommendation is the best solution since I have absolutely no access to eBay data or eBay processes.  I am not an eBay employee and I don’t have any connections within eBay so what I am going to offer as a solution is based on my view of the problem as an outsider.

The Problem

eBay sellers frequently break rules and learn over time that eBay does not take lower level policy violations seriously and even higher level policy violation notices are issued rarely.  As a result, the message sellers receive is that eBay tolerates rulebreakers and dishonesty on the eBay site.  More detailed information can be read in my blog post titled “eBay Could Learn Something from the NY Subway Graffiti Problem” by clicking  HERE   

Implications

A small business owner who has an employee who knowingly breaks the rules and does nothing is surely aware of the consequences.  First, other employees notice that no action is being taken and so they, too, consider breaking the rules.  Because the business owner tolerates the rule-breaking, the employees likely escalate their rule-breaking and may start stealing from the business owner (a much higher level of breaking the rules) and/or taking advantage of customers and not treating the customers well.  The same thing happens on a larger scale when eBay tolerates rule-breakers. 

Additional Details of the Problem

1. The policing of the eBay site is a “member-reported system” whereby community members anonymously report to eBay when they think a member is breaking the rules.  eBay then decides whether to investigate the report.  However, if the members perceive that their reports are being ignored over time then they cease to report possible violations and thus the self-reporting system fails.

2. eBay sellers who are breaking the rules are doing so either because (a) they are uninformed and uneducated about the rules or (b) they are aware they are violating policy but doubt eBay will take any action against them for breaking the rules. 

Analysis and Decision Making

A large company generally has the resources to solve big problems and so their decision-making process often involves identifying the most direct way to solve the problem and then deciding if the resources needed to solve the problem are available and justified (cost-benefit type of analysis).  In our example here, eBay would recognize that sellers are breaking the rules in record numbers and they have to prioritize which violations to investigate and take action against some members since they can’t realistically stop everyone from breaking every rule every time.  It is a similiar thought-process to the “rules of the road” where drivers knowingly and unknowingly break the law but not everyone is caught and punished.  So, eBay would say the solution needed to decrease site violations would be to hire more Trust & Safety employees to police the site.  But paying more money (salaries) to monitor site compliance doesn’t contribute directly to the company’s bottom line (although I would argue that ultimately it would improve the trust on the site and would indirectly lead to increased profits but that is another argument for another time) and so eBay decides not to spend money to increase site-wide compliance.  The decision is made by eBay not to increase compliance because it would be too costly.  

A small business owner, however, does not always have the resources to solve problems via the most direct (and often most expensive) method so they do as most entrepreneurs do — they think outside the box.  I know that I sure do tend to get really creative with problem-solving when faced with having to spend $3,000 on a solution or find an alternative.  That $3,000 coming directly out of my pocket is a great motivator to ponder the problem even deeper.  So, then, how would I (a small business owner) approach the problem defined above.  Well, first I would make sure to define what my ultimate goal is and, in this case, the ultimate goal is to get sellers to comply with the rules.  And knowing the reasons that sellers don’t comply, either they are not aware they are breaking the rule or they are aware but don’t think they will get caught, is an important consideration.  Then, I would take a lesson from the police and look at how they handle drivers who break the speed limit.  There is no way that police have the manpower to stop every driver from speeding so they employ a number of techniques to lower the incidences of speeding.

The information below is from the website of the Police Department of Arlington Heights, Illinois (click HERE)

Traffic Radar Trailer
The Traffic Radar Trailer is a dual-purpose stationary radar trailer designed to raise public awareness on streets where unsafe speed is a potential or existing problem.  It also serves to alert drivers about their speed when they pass through an area where the trailer is parked. A stationary radar unit inside the trailer tracks the approaching vehicle and displays the speed on a signboard.  Above this signboard is displayed the posted speed limit. The driver is instantly made aware of his/her speed and can make the necessary corrections.  Studies have shown that deploying this trailer in high incident collision locations can significantly reduce injury traffic accidents. The radar trailer is powered by a battery, and also has a solar panel on top for trickle recharging that can extend a trailer visit to approximately ten days during sunny weather.

Our Secret Weapon in the War on Speeder
One of our more successful and cost effective programs is the deployment of “Officer Manny Quinn”. It is like having another officer on the road for 8+ hours a day. “Officer Manny” always slows the traffic down wherever he is assigned. For those of you who have never seen “Officer Manny”, he is our mannequin officer. He is deployed in a marked patrol car for the purpose of slowing the traffic down. He appears at various spots in the Village, mostly in response to the complaints of residents. An appearance by “Officer Manny” is sometimes alternated with a real traffic officer who moves quickly to issue tickets to violators.  Keep watching…he may be coming to an area near you!

Stealth Stat Speeding Monitoring
The Traffic Enforcement Unit obtained new state-of-the-art equipment to monitor speeding in neighborhoods called the ‘Stealth Stat’. This speed-measuring device, is a small box typically attached to a light or other utility pole, and monitors traffic volume on a typical residential street, as well as recording the high, average and low speeds of motorists  for up to a two-day period.
 
The Stealth Stat collects, sorts and analyzes this speed data using a Doppler radar unit and computer. The data is then reviewed internally by the traffic officers and shared with any interested residents. The resulting speed data will undoubtedly prove invaluable to the Traffic Enforcement Unit in determining which residential streets require more monitoring and enforcement efforts.

Solution

One of the solutions I would propose to solve the problem of sellers not complying with eBay policy would be to take the reports the members send anonymously to Trust and Safety and use the same reporting system to automatically send an “informative” email to the seller.  When one member reports another member, that report is sent to eBay Trust & Safety but why not also generate an informative alert email to any seller who has been reported?  The email would, of course, need to take a very soft tone and would be sure to let the seller know that they have only been reported by another member not that they have necessarily done anything wrong and that while Trust & Safety does not investigate all reports that they will certainly take a look at members’ listings who receive a large number of complaints of policy violation.  And the member who reports the possible violation anonymously should be told that the seller will receive an informational email. 

What would this solution do?  First, it would give self-reporting members a greater feeling that their efforts are not being ignored since they know the alleged rule-breaking seller will be informed that they have been reported.  Second, sellers who are violating policies unknowingly will be given an opportunity to better educate themselves about the rules so that they can comply.  Third, sellers who knowingly violate policy will receive notice that they are being reported and just being aware that others are watching would likely cause many rule-breaking sellers to comply especially if they start receiving multiple informative alerts about the same listing.  With each new informative email alert received, the seller would realize there is a greater possibility that their listings will be reviewed by Trust and Safety.

Now, of course, the details of this solution would have to be worked out so that one member could not repeatedly report the same seller all day long, for example.  The system should not be designed to harrass the seller but rather to “inspire” the seller to comply.  The cost to implement my solution would be negligible.  And it could even result in a cost savings since, over time, Trust & Safety would receive less reports and have to investigate fewer reports as sellers begin to bring their listings into compliance. 

Final Comments

One thing I have learned as a small business owner is that when the money is flowing like a river, the solutions a decision-maker approves tend to be more costly.  I have first hand experience.  When money is tight, people tend to get really creative with their problem-solving skills.  Yes, eBay is a big company with big problems.  But they have a big balance in their checkbook, too, which makes them not try as hard to find cost-effective solutions to some of their really big problems.

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5 Responses to “Size Matters when Solving Problems in a Business”

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Unfortunately many of the ‘rule breakers’ are very large merchants who may not be bound by the same rules as other sellers.

It has been reported by ex-employees that some sellers are ‘protected’ and not to be disturbed. It would be a reasonable assumption that the ‘more equal’ sellers are well aware of their protected status.

The second problem with your innovative solution is that the reporting process is already automated insofar as emailed acknowledgment to the reporter. One would think there is some red flagging program which allows eBay to note listings with high reportage rates. The problem is that the process seems to end with the report.

Thirdly the majority of experienced and knowledgeable customer service representatives were let go last year.
Their outsourced overseas replacements are not qualified for anything more than reading off a script. To put it bluntly they wouldn’t know a violation if it bit them on the situpon.

A soft warning would likely be ignored in the certain knowledge that it is an automated email.

I agree with everything you said. One would have to ASSUME that eBay wanted to bring sellers into compliance for my suggestion to work. If it is not considered to be a “problem” for eBay then they wouldn’t need a solution.

I think the reporting member would want and need to know that the seller is “aware” that they have been reported. The email currently being sent to the reporter should include information letting them know that the seller who has been reported is even aware of the report. As it is now, the reporter doesn’t know if anyone at eBay is even aware of the report. Most reporting members just want the seller to stop the policy violations, not be punished. This would seem to accomplish that objective much better.

And, lastly, I agree that without knowledgeable Trust and Safety personnel that no one is going to be able to police the violations that are reported.

It appears that eBay is moving to enforcement through removing avenues of abuse. Which requires no people for enforcement.

Problem of excessive shipping charges? eBay deploys shipping calculators or tells sellers how much shipping can be charged.

Problem with insurance? Remove the option.

etc.

Create a rigid structure that allows little or no variation, and you cut down on “abuse”. Basically the standard Amazon seller format, but much more restrictive.

.

“”We still get referred to as an online auctioneer, but we have moved way beyond that.”
John Donahoe

EventHorizon1984,
So true. However, there are so many other listing violations that eBay can’t remove the avenue of abuse. For example, what about sellers who include negative language in their listings? When the new Selling Practices Policy goes into effect, eBay will have to rely on members to self-report.

Idiotic post; that is whats being in business is all about, fixing your problems, that cause YOUR Customers problems


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