eBay to Referee Customer Disputes

eBay today announced it will take a more active role in resolving transaction disputes between buyers and sellers and start directing buyers to eBay directly, rather than sending complaints to PayPal, the company’s online payment unit.

The news comes during a time when eBay is currently shifting its marketplace focus from online auctions to more fixed-price sales, in attempt to keep pace with rival Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), and recently opened up a new seller system called Large Merchant Services for high-volume catalog sellers.

Policy changes employed last year prompted unprecedented seller boycotts and mainstream media coverage while industry watchers speculated that a significant amount of sellers would leave eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) for alternative sites.

Starting in mid-June, the auction giant will “in some cases” issue refunds at its own expense to customers claiming they either didn’t receive the item they purchased, or got a different item altogether — even if the seller wasn’t at fault.

However, in what may become yet another battle ground between eBay management and its member e-tailers, the policy also states eBay may reimburse buyers and seek compensation from sellers “when appropriate.”

eBay will also be transitioning buyer-seller disputes from PayPal to eBay, which is a radical change in the way the company previously operated. Some sellers travel to the annual eBay Live tradeshow each year just to get answers to questions, as the online marketplace company is notorious for being hard to contact with buyer issues.

“The goals of the new process are to keep buyers on eBay by giving them a more familiar eCommerce resolution experience, and to reduce the time buyers and sellers spend resolving issues,” wrote Stephanie Tilenius, senior vice president and general manager of eBay North America, in eBay’s spring news announcement today.

“Direct communication between buyers and sellers will continue to be strongly encouraged. With the new process, buyers and sellers will also have an option to call eBay. We’ll be taking a more active role, and in certain cases when we determine the seller was not at fault we may refund the buyer at our own expense,” she added.

The company also will make its merchant tool “Selling Manager” free for all online vendors, and will move online shipping services from PayPal to eBay to make it faster and easier to pay for shipping and print labels.

The new rules

According to the new dispute policy, “Once complete, the new on-eBay resolution process, backed by eBay customer support, will serve as the primary entry point for buyers who are unable to resolve disputes with eBay sellers.”

If a buyer has been unsuccessful in working directly with a seller, the buyer can contact eBay via a toll-free number or via Web-form. Customer Support representatives review the case, examining transaction details such as item description, buyer and seller track record, seller location, payment and shipping details.

If the buyer’s claim warrants further investigation, eBay will contact the seller. The new system will be rolled out gradually and be in place for all sellers by the holiday selling season, according to eBay.

eBay grouped the announcements into three categories: Easier, more visual shopping, plus buyer incentives to drive more sales; key information including key information to set buyer expectations and help reduce your costs, which includes things like a “Smart FAQ” to address common buyer concerns; and “other updates to make selling on eBay more efficient,” which encompassed the new dispute resolution policy.

Many of the other changes have already been announced, previewed or are expansions of existing features on the site, and sellers will be relieved to see no mentions of fee increases after last year’s pricing changes.

Still, a vague part of the new dispute policy is likely to come under attack from sellers. Though eBay said in its statement in cases where “both buyer and seller may be right,” it will absorb the cost to reimburse the buyer on behalf of merchant, it also states “If five business days elapse without a response or a refund to the buyer, eBay will refund the cost of the item and shipping to the buyer and, when appropriate, seek to recover transaction funds from the seller.”

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