Friday 3 June 2022

How to Get That Positive Feedback: Another Dealer Story [UPDATED]

    Dealing with negative reviews    

Longish and a bit personal, but might give some insight into how the online market works

Two Online Purchases
As frequently remarked, not only here, a notable feature of the online market in antiquities is that even the sellers of the most ridiculously  blatantly misdescribed antiquities have very high rates of positive reviews. When there are negative ones, they concern aspects of the transaction other than accuracy of description in the sales offer. The latter, however, is of course precisely what the comments in online sales are for. So what mechanisms are at work here? Over a month ago, I had the dubious pleasure of participation in an online auction concerning items from a different category that gave some personal insight into it. 

To cut a long story short, I bid on some very attractive reproduction items of graphic art (in fact for my grandchildren, the real ones are expensive and they could well lose them, so good reproductions suited our needs). Today, there are many printing processes that give good results (so-called giclées for example). Anyway, I bought several from two different sellers on one of Poland's largest Peer-to-Peer auction providers (the local rival to eBay). The packet from one of them came first, very nicely printed, crisp image, colours right, the subtleties of the original print quite well-represented. The paper was wrong, which is a shame, but the objects as a whole were totally acceptable as collectable and/or show-and-tell items. I put the prints in a folder, gave the seller the usual favourable comment and life moved on. 

The other seller is a five-star seller and has been selling on this auction provider for many years. His prices (all Buy-now listings), were lower than the first guy and my first impulse was to order quite a few of the items he was offering, all illustrated with nice crisp photos showing what the buyer (purportedly) would be getting. The descriptions said the buyer would get the copy of the banknote shown in the scan, and the scan looks fine. What could go wrong? I glanced at the feedback, 98.4% positive feedback (148 positive, one negative). The latter concerned the quality of the printing of the single item that buyer had received back in June 2021, but with 148 other satisfied customers, I decided to ignore that (there is always one dissatisfied customer, everywhere), but just in case restricted my first purchase to a few examples. It came to about 30 zl (the price of a couple of beers) with the postage, so not a huge expenditure.

When they came a few days later, to say I was disappointed would be an understatment. They were pale, washed-out, with a general flat greyish-yellowish undertone to many of them that certainly was not visible in the scans. The main issue was that the images were fuzzy, with 0.5mm halos at the edge of many of the lines. Where the scan showed that there was a light tone underprint that was an important element of the design, the copies I received had virtually blank zones. Instead of receiving "the banknote shown in the photo", the example I received had the edges cut differently with respect to the corners of the design. The product I received looked like the maker had scanned the originals after first wiping the glass of the scanner with Vaseline. Tragedy. Suspiciously, the seller had included two unrequested banknote copies as free gifts, both of which were as bad as the others.

Buyer's feedback  

The auction provider asks customers to note that they received an item and at the same time issue a comment on both the seller and the goods received. I hate leaving negative comments in situations like this and struggled with this for a while. In the end, I decided that in this case I owed it to other consumers to give an honest assessment of what I'd received - wondering just what those other 148 satisfied customers had received and why I had been selected to receive such crap. So I gave a negative comment and briefly explained why. The object was not as described, because the items I received did not look at all like the photos in the individual sales offers.

In the online trade in general, in many cases, the customer only sees a pre-selected two-dimensional image of the item on sale and some (usually poorly and laconically-phrased) description, and has to make a decision only on that basis. Having the comments of other people who've actually had the item in their hand is therefore a very important part of the online shopping process. The value of equipping the online buyer with much more information about the products and sellers, rather than less, is becoming increasingly appreciated in the expanding online market - and indeed is what will be giving some retailers a competitive edge - antiquities market take note. 

Seller Harassment

And then it started. On May 10th, Seller Two wrote through the auction provider's internal mail system  saying that the "good of my clients" is very important to him, and suggesting I could have my money back in full (without needing to return the  faulty goods to him), all I had to do was agree to have my comment removed by the auction provider's administrators. 

First point: That's worth knowing that this can be done - and why would an auction service ask customers to comment on the quality of service they experience from their sellers, but retain the ability to remove unfavourable ones? 

Seller Two also at once tried to place the blame on me, that allegedly I had not read the description and (he reckons) did not realise I was buying copies. The word "sorry" did not occur, nor did the phrase "and I will send you second examples of the items you purchased that actually look like the scans in my sales offer". Mistake. Generally, no customer likes being called stupid, and what happened to "customer is always right"? 

I said I was not interested in the return of the money, whether or not he wanted the return of the reproductions I'd bought in good faith. I'd already accepted that I'd chalk that one up to experience, and be grateful I'd not been tempted to buy more from him that first time. I politely declined to agree to my comment being removed. I justified this by stating that this would rather negate the whole idea of peer-assessment and recommendation on which the online trade (supposedly) is based. Which it would. 

Instead of that being the end of the matter, Seller Two then starts accusing me of deliberately only buying his goods in order to persecute him by making a negative comment, and I had this planned all along (!). In other words, a one-man conspiracy against him. He adds that in all his time on this auction site, he'd been involved in  [translated from the Polish]: "about 10,000 transactions during this time and this is the first time I got such a deceitful and disgusting comment ... I am reiterating my refund and comment removal offer". This raises a question, he claims ten thousand past transactions in over a dozen years, and yet the potential customer sees only 148 comments on the webpage What about the rest, where are they? What were they?

He followed up with [translated from the Polish]: "You have publicly tarnished my good name - - if we do not come to an agreement - I refer the whole matter to my lawyer" [remember we are in Poland].   

I politely pointed out that threats were not I had not written about him, but specifically the quality of the specific goods he had sent me, and I see no reason that I cannot say that as a consumer I was unhappy with the difference between what I actually received and what his sales offer had led me to believe I would be receiving. Indeed, he was urging me to dishonestly remain silent about those differences. [I then made date-stamped screenshots of all the online material concerning the objects I had purchased (always do this guys as early as you can, dealers can delete stuff and leave you unable to demonstrate your case) and  made high resolution scans of what I had received, just in case].

Between the morning of the 10th May and the evening of 12th May, this guy had been bombarding me with increasingly aggressively-phrased messages (eight in total), threatening me with his solicitor, the police, court action... he claimed that he had proof that I was not the person I said I was (umm, just a person of the name I use, who actually lives at the address to which he sent the items purchased through that account: the logic of that escapes me), and alleging that I was maliciously engaging in a one-man conspiracy against him. 

It seems to me this is not a path of action likely to get me to change my opinion of this guy's products or business methods. The whole unpleasant exchange ended with him stating [translated from the Polish]:
The solicitor advised me to not discuss this matter with you further, he already has already a legal basis for holding you responsible [...]  I will ask for the last time - my last two questions to you - will your comment be removed and will we come to an agreement? are you the owner of this account?" 
Yes I am, and as far as I am concerned if I get from him substandard goods and fail to mention it when a comment is solicited by the auction provider, in my eyes that is irresponsible

I did not reply, I have work to do. I reasoned that in the unlikely event that his solicitor contacted me (if he actually had one), I'd show the screenshots and decent scans of what I got, and his threatening messages and assume that even the least savvy provincial solicitor from the part of Poland just 30 km from our eastern border (where they are) will see that there is no case to answer. 

Three Weeks of Respite: Then Seller Two Loses it

But it seems Seller Two has other ideas. After  precisely three weeks silence, the guy messaged me again last night. He informed me that he'd transferred the money that I had spent back to my account a few days earlier (I did not notice) and demanded that I return "his" items, otherwise he'd have me charged with... well, what? His solicitor seems not to have given him the wording he needed to finish his threat. 

I reminded him that I had explicitly said I did not want my money back, and that he had explicitly said earlier that he did not want his items back in return. I also declared that if he'd give me his account details, I would willingly send the money back (the money was sent to me by PayU, the Polish version of PayPal, with no way I can see of sending it back to the actual sender rather than just the general PayU account in Poznan). He retorts that he does not want the money and demands once again that I return the goods one month after purchase "as [the auction site's] Regulations oblige". Well, no they do not. The purchase is binding. Anyway, I do not know where those prints are, certainly not in the folder with the others. he reckons he wants them back to prove that my comment is a lie. If however I give them back to him, I would not have them to show that my description of them in the comment was objective and justifiable (a scan would not stand up in a court of law). He wants to remove the possibility of me being able to defend myself against his accusations. 

It goes on, in the past few hours I have received another five aggressive and threatening-sounding messages, again more court action, the police, need to ascertain my real identity, he is the victim, I am scamming him, and now a new one... he does not like the way I write Polish - apparently intimating that in his eyes, I'm "not a real Pole". And so on. 

Just now another, ending darkly [translated from the Polish]:
"seeing that you are doing nothing to alleviate the conflict, I am sure that the comment was made on purpose .... -I am a conciliatory man and I believe that you will consider everything and make the right move that will end our discussion ..."
[this "right move" one assumes means me asking the auction provider to remove my comment, and by  "consider everything" I presume he means taking seriously all his veiled threats].

So, 148 positive comments. How was that achieved? This exchange makes you wonder. 

In addition, this experience made me look at some of the positive comments he'd received. Most were run of the mill "seller is OK"-type. A notable few were improbably effusive and assure the reader that this the best purchase they'd make in a lifetime, or whatever. Given my own experience of what this seller actually has to offer, one has to wonder about such assessments.

It seems clear to me that auction providers (like the Polish auction site concerned here) should provide customer protection against aggressive harassment of this type, especially when it is occurring up to two months after the end of the transaction. 

UPDATE 5th June 2022
After this post was made, the seller continued - calling me a thief (in capital letters) and then adding he'll be in Warsaw soon and he's going to pay me a visit at home (he of course got the address from the auction). At that point, I reported him to the auction provider. 

UPDATE 7th June 2022
For the benefit of anyone thinking that a Polish online auction provider would give you better service the ones with which it is in competition, it took two days to process my report. Hanna M[...] of Customer Support (I use the term loosely) in her reply assured me in a rather patronising tone that that she's examined the case I reported [23877311]. She states that, in my placing a comment (which she labels "subjective" rather than being an objective assessment of the crap I received) on the quality of service and goods that I had received from this seller, I had broken no Regulations of the service. She then goes on to say that the seller has every right to use the service's own messaaging system to aggressively threaten me in order to coerce me into withdrawing my comment. She says she has "noted the situation", and "if similar reports appear [sic] we will take action" [Sytuacja została przeze mnie zanotowana i jeśli pojawią się podobne zgłoszenia, podejmiemy działania ]... Note that she said nothing about what would happen if the bloke arrived outside my front door with a baseball bat and a bulky friend with no neck and a shaven head.

UPDATE 11.07.2022 When I reported this guy, mine was the second negative comment, at the time Ms Hanna was trying not to so anything, a third appeared. I just looked today ... there are two again - but the seller is still selling what seem to be the same goods. The seller seems to be rather persuasive in getting dissatisfied customers to cave in and the auction provdeder seems unconcerned that they keep being asked to remove negative comments for this seller.

Caveat emptor.


artsyandi said...

Hi Paul,

Maybe you should put a emailadress somewhere, wanted to contact you but i did not find it anywhere.


Paul Barford said...

There is of course a reason why I do not plaster personal and contact data all across the internet. You've just contacted me, who are you and what did you want to say?

David Knell said...

This nutcase seller is making personal threats. I hope you've saved all messages from him as evidence; you need to report him both to the auction site and to the police.

Paul Barford said...

Absolutely. I've already put together a complaint, with scans and other supporting material, but there is no sense in sending it on a Sunday, there will be nobody there. I'll send it tomorrow. We shall see what happens.

Paul Barford said...

But I give it as an example of how these comments are of no use whatsoever to the buyer if they can be manipulated.

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