Tips for Selling Services and Intangible Goods on eBay

Don't repeat mistakes commonly made by sellers of intangibles

Whatever the service or intangible good you're offering, be sure you're selling on eBay in a way that's effective, low-risk, and that plays by the rules.. Image: Andreypopov / Dreamstime

Not every eBay seller uses eBay to sell tangible consumer products of one kind or another. Some eBay sellers specialize instead in non-tangible goods (information, software, or data of various kinds that's delivered entirely virtually) while others still are sellers of services (their time, expertise, and/or labor.

Selling intangible goods can pose special problems for sellers and their feedback and seller performance ratings because it's often tough to keep buyers and sellers on the same page without a recognizable brand name, product, and/or photo to clarify what the listing is offering.

Here are eight tips to help sellers of non-tangible goods to perform on eBay.

  • Be very clear about what you're selling. This is often a big problem for service sellers, who often fail to get the title right by using ambiguous titles ("My expertise in home remodeling at your service!" or "Professional real estate investor can help inspire your group!") that don't tell buyers what they're purchasing or bidding on before compounding the problem with descriptions that don't make this clear either. Before posting a listing for intangible goods, ask yourself what, exactly, are you offering to deliver or to do, where will you deliver or do this, for how long, and precisely what is included so that you can be clear about this to your buyer ("Home Remodeling: Five hours expert consulting by phone or Skype!" or "Real Estate Investing: Expert one-hour onsite lecture for your group")
  • Don't lead with personal hype. There is a place in your listing for bullet lists of your personal qualifications and accolades, but it's not at the beginning, where this can turn into a soup of superlatives that leave your buyer wondering what's actually on offer and why they should care whether or not you're so great. At most, include one brief and very general statement of qualifications to start your description or listing ("I have 20 years experience in home remodeling and have won awards at dozens of regional expos" or "Thousands of audience members have now heard me describe my successful career in real estate investing") before spending the next several paragraphs on the actual product you're offering (your time, your service, etc.) rather than talking about yourself.
  • Be very clear about what you're not selling. Service sellers often get themselves into trouble by not clearly spelling out what's excluded from the sale, leading to disputes later on when buyers expect more than the seller was prepared to deliver. In your item description, use disclaimers to spell out those things that might commonly be desired by buyers but that you don't want to include in this sale ("Your purchase here does not include additional labor time doing design work or other tasks; you are purchasing only the telephone or Skype time, which will occur only during normal business hours, as they are compatible with my existing schedule" or "Note that the price you pay here does not include the printed materials and access to my website that accompany my presentation; your audience members will have to buy these individually").
  • Be very clear about terms. There is a space in the listing form to answer this question, but it's also important to spell it out. Under what conditions will you give your buyers a refund? Under what conditions won't you give them a refund? If you offer a "satisfaction guarantee" of some kind, who gets to determine when the terms of this guarantee are met and what are you willing you do to attempt to ensure that they are met? Particularly if your labor time or other similar open-ended resources are on the hook, it's important not to open yourself to an ongoing commitment for what you thought was the price of a small, one-time job.

So far, so good. To some, these things will seem obvious—but there are some less obvious pointers that can be make-or-break as well. Read on to see them.

  • Have someone else proofread your listing for you. Because descriptions for non-tangible goods tend to be harder to write and often less punchy and effective than listings for tangible goods, it's useful to have someone other than yourself proofread your listing(s) before you post. Ask them whether they were enticed by your text, and whether there are areas where they felt lost, overwhelmed, confused, or just plain bored.
  • Include multiple great photos. Don't make the mistake of imagining that since no physical goods are on offer, no photos are needed for a sale. In fact, quite the opposite is true; since you're selling something abstract and "imaginary" it's tougher to get buyers to pony up the cash without giving them a clear picture to keep in mind while they do it. If you're selling yourself in some way (your time, your expertise, your speaking, your consulting, your labor) get a professional to take glowing, inspiring pictures of you doing what you do and include these in your listings, along with descriptions, if possible. If you're selling software or information, get screen grabs and include them so that people can see for themselves what they're buying, rather than having to imagine it using your prose.
  • Ensure that you're abiding by eBay rules. To ensure that eBay doesn't remove your listing, be sure that you're clear on eBay's policies related to intangible goods and services, including policies on digitally delivered goods, compilation and informational items, and listings with "no items" attached to them. Service sellers are particularly vulnerable to inadvertent rules violations in this area, particularly those that want to sell boutique services ("Spell Casting: Professional witch will cast spell of your choice"). To sell intangible items on eBay, you have to be sure that you don't violate anyone else's claims (copyright or IP claims, for example, of the sort protected by VeRO) and that your buyer is able to determine in some way whether or not you have delivered what you promised (offer "Spell Casting: Digital video of professional witch casting spell of your choice" instead, for example).
  • Don't treat eBay like a Yellow Pages ad. If your plan is just to use eBay listings as "advertising" to direct people to your service (by virtue of eBay's large audience of buyers and/or the periodic focus of the press on one or several eBay auctions), think twice before listing. eBay specifically forbids the use of item listings simply as ways to direct customers to your "real" business that isn't on eBay, and if you do this in your item listing (whether by links, in your description, or in any other way), eBay will pull your listings and may eventually suspend your account.

    Selling intangibles on eBay can be a tough row to hoe; services are often inherently local, software and information inherently tricky thanks to intellectual property and digital delivery concerns, and eBay customers are not always accustomed to searching eBay first for either of these things.

    Successful service sellers will tell you, though, that it can be done on eBay—so long as you pay attention to the basics outlined above.

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