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Tips for Handling Problem Transactions

While Internet commerce is indeed maturing, it's still a relatively new means of selling goods to the public. And if you've been selling online for a while, by now you are undoubtedly well aware that no matter how much pre-planning you do, there's always that next transaction you didn't plan for. It could be a customer with an unusual request or special order. Or a customer who doesn't understand some portion of the purchasing process, doesn't follow through, or who changes his/her mind at an inappropriate point in the transaction. We would all like to think that every customer will "know exactly what to do", and "do the right thing." But what is perfectly appropriate behavior to one might not be appropriate to another. The Internet may continue to mature indefinitely, yet this will always be true. So what do you do in these cases?

While it would be impossible to list them all, below we've listed real life shop examples of some of the more common types of "unusual circumstances", along with various appropriate shop answers. (Note: All have been edited for clarity and length.) The reason the answers vary from shop to shop is because many of these situations are indeed a judgment call. However, one mind-set we recommend you employ throughout is that of professionalism, respect (for both yourself and your customer), and excellent customer service. All of these will serve you well in those situations where you have to make some difficult decisions:

1. Handling Damaged Items:
Scenario I: A shop owner received the following email from a customer:

My beautiful bracelet arrived fine and dandy. I tore that box open; styrofoam flew everywhere. I was so excited! I put it on and it cracked and broke right down the middle. The package was left on my front porch and I think got cold, and that is why it broke. I just can't believe it.

Shop Suggestions:

A. I would respond and ask what the customer feels is a fair resolution as this is no one's "fault". Maybe a percentage off or a portion of the price in store credit would be an appropriate good will gesture. If this was a relatively inexpensive item, I would be inclined to refund or extend credit to a repeat customer, but if it was an expensive bracelet, I'm afraid I would want "proof" of damage before offering any recompense.

B. I doubt that insurance would be paid out on this by the shipper since there was no clear shipping damage. The package arrived just fine. The buyer stated that she put it on, and then it broke. Without being accusatory, there is really no way to know if maybe she dropped it on a tile floor as she was trying to put it on. Any number of things could have happened to it once she had it in her hands. I generally accept responsibility until it reaches them, but not after that.

Scenario II:
We sent a perfect Royal Doulton 1" character jug to a customer. Before shipping we always wash and double-check every item with a large eyeglass just before packing. The item was not damaged when it left me or in shipping, and it was well packed. The buyer returned to us a similar item but with very clear damage - dirty cracks. It was definitely not the same item! What should we do?

Shop Suggestions:

A. I would send a sternly-worded registered letter by mail. I would not accuse them of doing wrong - but rather say there is some misunderstanding as they returned merchandise that did not belong to you. Give them XX days to return the merchandise you DID send them. If they choose not to cooperate, you will have no choice but to file charges of mail fraud against them - a federal offense. Be sure to end on a positive note and express your hope to resolve this matter amicably. In the meantime, do the research needed to file charges. This is fraud and theft.

B. I tell everyone, right up front, that most of my items are marked and that the mark must be present when an item is returned. This is an old scam, so I mark all of my items with marks that are only detectable under black light.

C. I would send a note to the customer indicating that there must have been a mistake, as the Character Jug they returned was not the one you sent. I mark all of my items so that this can never happen. I would suggest that you indicate to the customer that your unique identifying mark is no longer present on the item if they challenge your assertion. My guess is that this situation will likely go no further than this step.

D. Hopefully you still have all your many pictures showing all angles of the item clearly. This will be your best proof.

2. Accepting Returns
Scenario I: A customer purchased a wall decoration for $125 including shipping. The item was discounted $40, and they took 3 weeks to pay for it. Now, 3 weeks after receipt of the item, the customer wishes to return it because it is the wrong color. I explained that our policy states that if a customer would like to return an item they must contact us within 3 days of its receipt. The item was pictured clearly using 2 images, one up close. Especially since it was so discounted and they tied up the item for almost a month, I would feel inclined not to accept it back because the shade of color is not to their liking.
I explained all of this to them, and now the customer says that the item is not only the wrong shade of color but that its condition is not as described, either. I offered them a full store credit, trying to resolve the matter and keep the transaction on a positive note. However this is not acceptable to them. What do I do?

Shop Suggestions:

A. There will always be cases where the customer will just not like an item for what ever reason and want to send it back. This is fine only if they contact me within 3 days of receiving an item. In some cases where the actual date of receipt is unclear you probably want to give the customer the benefit of the doubt, however 3 weeks is excessive, IMO.

B. It seems to me that this buyer is exhibiting "buyer's remorse." I assert this as given your offer to accept the item for a credit, which was unacceptable to them; they then came up with another reason other than the color. There are going to be buyers like this. There is nothing we can to do about it. I have taken the position that this is a risk of this medium and go on from there. I just had an incident where-by a customer purchased an "Alexandrite/Twilight" vase. She had the vase for 6 days and finally showed it to a friend. The vase I sold was made in Czechoslovakia, most probably in the fifties. I am sure this customer thought it was made by Tiffin as some of her emails referred to it as Tiffin/Alexandrite. I corrected her the first time she made this error, but she continued to call it that. The long and short of it was that her friend I'm sure identified to her that it was not Tiffin, and she wanted to return it saying that it was not the same color of some of the pieces her friend had. I told her she was welcome to return it for a store credit per my return policy and all of a sudden, the vase had damage and was not in the condition I claimed it to be. Well, the vase I received back did have slight damage that absolutely was not there when I sent it. I accepted the vase back and returned her $144. IMO it is not worth the aggravation to argue, nor find myself in preview because of a customer complaint. This unfortunately, is the risk of using this medium for sales.

(Note: While it is this shop's decision and their prerogative to accept the return, Ruby Lane would not officially support this position. Instead we would recommend "no refund" because the item was not returned in the condition it was sent. However a shop owner may choose to go "above and beyond the call of duty" as in this example, and accept the return.)

A Note About Delivery Confirmation:
Ruby Lane highly recommends sending an item using a method that offers Delivery Confirmation in some form, especially for more expensive items. You can get free Delivery Confirmation via the USPS website, and some postage printing services will also print Delivery Confirmation at no additional charge. Delivery Confirmation only cost 40 cents on Priority Mail if you can't get it free. And FedEx & UPS tracking will tell you when a package was delivered.

3. Handling Custom Orders
I had a customer purchase 7 sets of custom-made monogram earrings. Now she wants to return them. I will, of course, go with the RL return policy, but now regret not charging a re-stocking fee. I spent hours/days designing, making, tracking down enough supplies and running to the post office. Not to mention a custom order is hard to re-sell.

Shop Suggestions:

A. You are not obligated to accept a return on this. Here is a line from the official Ruby Lane site-wide Return Policy: "This policy does not apply to custom orders produced by Fine Art and Jewelry Artisan shops, or items purchased on layaway. Policies for these vary by shop, so be sure to check with the individual shop owner before making your purchase."

B. Why does she want to return them? If it is a "custom" order, and she pre-approved the design, etc., she should know they cannot be returned. When I do a custom order, I make sure the customer knows the parameters up front, and in writing. If the work I do is defective, it is my problem. If they just change their mind, it is theirs.

C. I would not allow a return on a custom order if the customer pre-approved either. When I do custom work, I email pictures of each step to see if there are any changes needed as we're going along. When it is finished, that's it. You could offer them a store credit IF you think it is something you can sell again. But a monogram, that should be a no-no. No one in any retail shop will accept a return on monogrammed items.

Scenario II: I just received an inquiry on a certain necklace I have, IF there are earrings to match, and if 5 sets of both the earrings and the necklace can be made for a bridal court. I'm ecstatic of course, but if the customer decides to go with me, then I will need to order the supplies and do ALOT of beading as the necklace is a three-strand necklace. What is the business etiquette for handling this?

Shop Suggestions:

A. Require enough "down payment" to at least pay for the supplies--non-refundable. Or, if the supplies are relatively cheap, but the labor is long and intricate, then 50% of the final price. Write it out as a contract: the amount to be paid in advance, specifically what is to be produced, the estimated time of completion, and that the balance of the payment is due when notified of completion & prior to shipping.

B. I get the full amount before I start anything. I've had no problem with this, and have quite a few steady customers for special work.

C. Absolutely a minimum of 50% down, non-refundable. They won't be able to return the dresses or shoes... And when we do something personalized, just like the engraving shops they pay to play. I think we jewelry artisans tend to underestimate ourselves sometimes.

D. Ask her for a credit card. Tell her in a matter of fact way, (pretend she is shopping in your store in Manhattan or on Rodeo drive) that: This is your policy... You will charge her account 50% on receipt of the order and the balance plus shipping on completion. Tell her how long it will take, and that once the custom order is made, there are no refunds. She does not need to know that you must order supplies or anything except that: l. You can fulfill it and 2. This is how you handle custom orders.

E. I learned a very long time ago, that as wonderful as a large or small custom order sounds, to get the money up front. I handle payment in a variety of ways depending on what type of work I am doing. Once the design is decided upon, I always get 50% up front (non-refundable) and the balance before I ship it. I send them a note with photos when it is completed. I do give them a date I expect the piece(s) to be finished so they can plan accordingly.

4. Customer Not Paying Correct Amount
Scenario I: I had a sale and the package weighed in at close to 7 pounds. I normally ship Priority Mail and postage would be $11.30. Despite that I emailed and stated the exact amount of postage to add, etc. The person added only $5.00 for shipping on the PayPal payment. I emailed this party about this situation but as yet have had no response back, which was several days ago. So, would you 'refund' their payment on PayPal and indicate the postage was an incorrect amount? Or, just accept this amount and move on? I've tried being fair with postage, stating that I will give them the actual amount. Maybe I should now state that postage will be determined by weight of the package and to the zone it is being shipped?

Shop Suggestions:

A. Have you tried sending your buyer a Paypal payment request for the missing amount? I've had good luck doing that - just state in the note that payment for shipping was short by XX amount and that you're looking forward to shipping item as soon as that is settled.

B. I would not let a customer dictate to me, after the sale has been negotiated, the shipping charge. I would let them know that there is a balance still due on their purchase and it will not be shipped until the balance is paid. I would also inform them that I will continue to hold the item another two days awaiting their payment of the balance. If the balance is not paid within the two days, I would refund their PayPal payment and return the item to available stock.

C. I do not accept partial payments on Pay Pal. It is simply too expensive. If a customer sends the incorrect amount I refund the payment and explain that they need to start over and pay the correct amount. I did irritate one customer with this practice but, once I clearly explained about the fees Pay Pal charges sellers, she was satisfied. I do think there may be a few out there who are starting to use underpayment as a method to keep their costs down - they prey on sellers who are "desperate" to make a sale and so will just take whatever they pay.

D. It all depends on the item and the cost. If it has been in my inventory a long time and is an expensive item....I would eat the $6.30 difference. However, in the package I would (very politely) add a bill for the remaining amount due. You just might get paid, but don't count on it. Also explain that in the future all monies due must be paid in advance. This part is critical since you probably don't want them consistently underpaying.
A repeat buyer is worth their weight in gold. Sometimes honest people make mistakes.

5. Accepting and Processing Personal Checks
I received a personal check for an item. Is it customary for the purchased item to be held until the check clears? Or do I send the item before since I have a store?

Shop Suggestions:

A. I usually don't place a "hold" on personal checks unless they are over $100. I have never had one bounce. The exception might be if I had some indication the person was flaky during correspondence.

B. When a customer's P.O. indicates payment by personal check, my response always includes the fact that the order will be sent after a minimum of 10 days, often longer, for check clearance.

C. I do state in my listing I accept checks with appropriate clearing time. If the item is under $50 USD I do not hold. I do hold for items over $50 unless the customer has purchased from my Shop in the past. I have never had any problems with this policy.

6. Handling Customers Who Delay Payment
I am trying to figure out if there is a way to send an invoice to a customer who placed an order over 2 weeks ago, and, if needed, follow it up about 7 days later with a reminder.

Shop Suggestions:

A. It can be made easier for them if you send them a PayPal invoice requesting payment. (You can do this by going into PayPal and clicking on Request Money.) The buyer can just go through the payment process using the invoice PayPal sends to them and it lessens the hassle of setting up an account.

B. I do a payment reminder five days after, and then seven days after. I just go back through RL to the original P.O. and send it from there. I just nicely remind them of my policy and that after so many days the item will go back onto the store shelves. Usually at that point you find out whether they just forgot in all the business of life, or if they are not intending to pay ... if you don't receive a follow-up in a couple days. The only time I waited several days past my normal cut-off (I build in an extra couple days for them, anyway) was a repeat customer who was usually pretty good in paying within the week.

C. In my initial email to the customer indicating the shipping costs and payment instructions, I inform them of my policy of holding an item only three days for Internet payments and ten days for payments mailed. I will also ask that if they feel they need more than the allotted time, to please inform me.

D. When I get an order, I email them thru Ruby Lane with the full cost, and also let them know that I am sending them a Request for Payment thru Paypal. I also tell them that this is for the convenience of my customers who wish to pay thru Paypal, and for record keeping purposes. Then I send the Paypal Request and put a nice note in the comment box giving them their choices of payment, etc. If payment is late in arriving, I can then send them a reminder thru Paypal and/or Ruby Lane again. I know this is a lot more work, but so far it works for me. It also helps me to keep records.

7. Handling International Money Orders
Scenario I: I just received my first money order from Canada..It is a postal money order in US dollars. My credit union would not accept it for deposit, but my other bank did. What I need to know is if any shopowners have had any experience with these money orders, good or bad.

Shop Suggestions:

A. I've gotten them many times. The first time my the teller couldn't get the machine to accept it but the manager called headquarters and they said to accept it since it was a postal money order from the Canadian government and there should be no problem because it was in US dollars. After that, I've never had a problem, it went right through.
The only way it would be held up is if it was in Canadian dollars, they have to do the exchange. But if it is in US dollars, the bank accepts them.

8. Generally Unresponsive Buyers
Scenario I: I received a P.O. on an item, for a decent amount of money - $350. And then ---- silence! I have not heard a word from the buyer. I sent them my usual letter the same day, thanking them for their business and reiterating the payments I take, and never heard anything. I sent another email yesterday - kind of a "Yoo hoo, payment, or at least an email, is due." I do have in my Terms of Sale that payment is due within 7 days, but nothing on when I need to hear from the buyers. It's been going on 5 days.

Shop Suggestions:

A. I put contact must be made within 2 days after my initial email, PayPal due in three days from purchase order and money orders within 7 days or item will be returned to shop unless I hear from the customer to work something out. I do NOT chase customers under any circumstances. I have my guidelines and if they email me, that's different. I WILL work with them. But if not, it goes back in the shop. The only exceptions I make are regular customers who I know are good and may have forgotten.

(Note: The latest spam filters are causing communication problems in both directions (buyer to seller and seller to buyer). We recommend sending correspondence to buyers through our web site (although not always 100% foolproof either), vs. sending directly from your email program, whenever possible.)

And just when you thought we had mentioned every possible scenario... here are a few more from shop scenarios, along with their solutions:

1. I received a phone call from a buyer who asked if would I walk her through the purchase process as she wanted to purchase a small plate from my shop. We had a nice conversation, and on the note she would go to PayPal immediately, we said goodbye. However, I didn't hear from her again and as my policy is 48 hours from ordering I expect some contact re payment I e-mailed and asked if she was still interested in the plate. She immediately responded that she didn't know how to work PayPal and her son wasn't there at the time to show her, would I walk her through it. Maybe I was stupid, but gut feelings told me she was genuine. I shipped her small plate having not yet received payment as she had been so excited about it. I still hadn't heard several days later and contacted her via email. She phoned again and explained she had sent a check and I should get it in a couple of days, which I did. But it was made out to the wrong person! Now, if there was a time to mistrust, it was now. But for some reason I didn't I hung in, sent the check back and emailed her for a replacement. She received the plate before she received the check back and emailed me to tell me how delighted she was. Several days later I received a new check, however she had neglected to add the shipping. As I felt good about this person, I felt sorry as well that she wasn't able to deal with this, but glad she was very happy with her plate. I didn't bother her again, I just emailed her thanking her for the check, and glad she enjoyed the plate. This could have been a problem incident. But I feel as you get older you tend to think more closely about things such as this. One day, it could me on the other end of that telephone.

2. I had a woman buy a number of pieces of china from me. She was obviously confused with what PayPal is and didn't know if she had really ordered any thing or not. She just kept sending the same email over and over again. It was apparent to us that she did have a real interest--or else was really jerking our chain. I, too, placed a call. She was so relieved! The china was a pattern that she had had when first married and was anxious to get but didn't know what to do next--she had never shopped on the internet before. After a lovely chat when I learned that her husband had recently passed away and she had moved to an apartment, I decided that I would have these two LARGE boxes delivered by UPS as they will actually put packages inside for you. She let me know when here items arrived, was delighted. What could have been a disappointing non-pay sale turned out to be great at both ends, just by picking up the phone and really talking to the customer!

3. A woman wanted to buy a vintage toy for her grandson. I accept PayPal, checks, and Visa and MC by telephone. Customers generally reach voicemail with my business line, as I also use it to be online. She wanted to pay by Visa tried my phone number one time, got voicemail and didn't leave a message. Then she sent me a note by email that she didn't want to leave her payment info on voicemail and was canceling the order. Although I mention in my invoice to leave me a message of a good time to call the customer if they're uncomfortable leaving payment information on my voicemail, but she must have missed that. So I called her, got the payment info. by telephone and we completed the sale. I sent her grandson the gift directly wrapped in colorful tissue with a gift tag from Grandma.

4. A customer bought a buckle from me and requested I send it overnight with a written invoice (he paid with PayPal immediately, including around $13 for Express Mail). I mailed it to him that day, and a day later, received another purchase from him for another buckle, with another request for overnight! Again he paid the extra $13, which was about equal to the cost of the buckle. I sent him a quick email stating that if he found anything else in my shop that he'd like, I could include it at no additional charge in the second shipment and he could save some serious postage charges. (He didn't buy anything else however.) I don't know why he wanted them both so quickly - there was plenty of time before Christmas - but one has to do what the customer wants!

5. My worst transaction was a learning experience for me, and could have been avoided. One of my auction customers saw something in my RL shop and wanted to buy it, and let me know via e-mail. Unfortunately he didn't fill out a P.O. - my mistake was in not putting the item in my back room immediately while we completed the transaction.
The next morning, someone else did fill out a purchase order for the same item. I told her the item wasn't available, and she went ballistic. She sent payment, (postmarked 3 days after I had told her the item wasn't available), which I refused at the post office. She continued with harassing and threatening e-mails for a couple of weeks. I learned a lesson, (put it in the back room!), and also added to my terms "We will notify you to confirm your order. Once we accept your order..."

6. One of my first purchases was from a very nice lady, but she didn't pay. She seemed so interested so I tried calling, but there was no answer and no response to my message. I decided to let it ride for a while. A few weeks later, she emailed me and said she had been ill and paid right away. A few weeks later, she made another purchase and the same scenario happened. After the third purchase, she told me she was seriously ill and at times couldn't predict if she could pay right away; she was frequently in the hospital. I told her she could have as much time as she needed and since then, she has made 10 purchase orders. Decorating her kitchen retro-style is what gives her pleasure and I'm happy to help her. She may be slower to pay than some, but she always comes through. And I learned a valuable lesson about patience and compassion. Waiting for a payment is such an extremely trivial thing to do compared to what she is going through. I'm grateful that RL brightens her life.