Chris McCabe interviews a former Amazon seller account manager, giving us a rare look into the tensions between Amazon teams
This post is by Chris McCabe, a former Investigation Specialist for Amazon’s Seller Performance team and founder of ecommerceChris.com.
If you asked Amazon sellers what they fear the most, it would be having their account suspended. This is a rational fear, as suspensions are common and can come completely without warning – like a bolt from the blue.
We usually hear about suspensions from the seller’s point of view, but that only gives us a small part of the picture, based on the notoriously thin detail provided by Amazon. What do suspensions look like to an Amazon insider, with access to the teams who are actually responsible?
I worked for years on Amazon performance and policy enforcement teams, and this past month I spoke at length with fellow a former Amazonian who wishes to remain anonymous. They are a former Strategic Account Manager (SAM) in the consumables category at Amazon, so I’ll refer to them as SAM. The job of a Strategic Account Manager is to support sellers and help them grow their sales. Their interests are completely aligned to the sellers they work with, so they often need to take the position of an internal advocate for sellers’ interests at Amazon, and speak on their behalf to other teams.
SAM told me about the major pain points in their interactions with Seller Performance and Product Quality, and offered some advice to sellers on submitting their Plan of Action (POA) – the central document required when sellers appeal to Amazon for reinstatement.
I began the interview by asking SAM about their experience defending sellers who have been wrongly suspended.
Chris: When your sellers were wrongly suspended for quality reasons, were you able to lobby Product Quality (PQ) at all for fresh investigations or account reviews?
SAM: The problems on our side that stuck out were mostly based in the product quality investigations, with expired products and safety complaints most common.
The number one principle of Amazon is: the customer first. But it’s all about perception. From the information I usually had, I felt that the action taken was wrong. From speaking to the seller and visiting them at their operation, I understood their sales process from receiving to shipment and I knew without a doubt it was a wrong call by Product Quality.
So were you able to help in those cases?
Some of them I could, but some of them were irreversible, as if Seller Performance were never going to revisit these again. Those issues affected my bottom line, as a SAM. Incrementally over time, those issues don’t let you hit your goals, which is what you’re trying to do when you’re an account manager. Vouching for your seller is really important. So, was I successful? Yes.
One of my grocery sellers was under investigation by PQ and the PQ director at the time called me out and sent me an email, cc’ing everyone, saying that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I said: “No, I’m sorry but your call-out’s wrong. I can prove it with data. Give me an investigator and I’ll go prove that”. Then I was able to get a policy team manager on the thread and help me in the investigating. We were able to reverse detrimental call outs against the seller’s account, to bring the seller back into good standing.
Do Performance or Policy teams take the size of a seller into account? Were you able to suggest that the seller gets a break on this or that one?
Most of the time it was really hard to get through to those teams, PQ teams don’t tell the full story. They don’t size the seller. They don’t look how long they’ve been selling. They don’t think about these things like, “Oh, we shut down a seller that’s 60 million dollars a year. How much of the catalog did we lose because of this one complaint?”
Seller Performance focuses on hits and orders – sales velocity doesn’t mean anything to them.
They were taking quality hits over total orders, but not looking at a timeline. The mention of time doesn’t mean anything for them. Even though they do a 30, 60, 90 day report for a premature and mature defect rate, it really wasn’t taken into consideration when they shut down some of these sellers.
Looking at the sales velocity, that wasn’t taken into consideration either. The piece of the picture that Seller Performance focuses on is the hits and orders, and that is all. Sales velocity doesn’t mean anything to them. That’s an incomplete picture and they shouldn’t be able to make a judgment like that without a whole picture.
I would say sales volume from their perspective doesn’t matter whether it’s 1 item or 1,000 items. If they have one problem it could stem into more problems that could occur. So, a bigger seller could have more total problems than a smaller seller if their process is bad.
That’s where the Performance and Policy teams’ mindset comes from, which isn’t necessarily wrong. But when weighing to shut down a seller that sells 10,000/20,000 units in the last month or something, and then they had one or two defects, does that warrant shutting down a seller?
Do Product Quality look into if buyer complaints are authentic and valid?
I gave the PQ team data and I shared that with them, going over all the information that is in front of their face when they investigate, and if it’s a reasonable justification for shutting down a seller because of one complaint.
Stopping a problem seller is better for buyers but for a good seller there should be some leniency.
The most important thing outside of that data that is overwhelming is, “Is this even a valid complaint?” And it’s really hard to judge that because picking up buyers’ words and their comments and their opinions about a product doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the product either. It can be a fulfillment issue. So it’s not a black and white thing, and it should never be.
I do understand that stopping the process of a problem seller from selling the product is better for buyers, in the long run, to find out if there’s a real issue. But for someone who’s been a good seller, and “good seller” is of course arbitrary, there should be some form of leniency for that. Especially if they have a track record of the last two, three or four years they’ve been really good about fixing problems, or working on their processes. If they haven’t had a complaint in two years, and they get two complaints and get shut down.
Moving on to the suspensions appeal process. Should sellers provide all documentation in every email, and address the problem directly because the long appeal queue might misplace the previous emails?
Yes. Whatever the issue is, let’s just say you’re trying to fix your counterfeit issue. You’re addressing that with the Plan of Action (POA), you’re attaching your invoices, you’re attaching whatever further documentation is necessary to answer that request from Seller Performance.
You’re adjusting your POA, and refining it if they’re asking for more information. And more information means everything you sent them before plus whatever they asked for now, because there’s going to be more back-and-forth internally of them trying to figure it out. It’s not one person that works on it. And that’s really hard, it’s a big queue. There’s no flag that prioritizes any of these cases. And that’s one of the biggest things that’s backwards about resolving cases.
Ok. So what kind of mistakes did you see sellers make?
One mistake that sellers do is assume that they really know what the problem was, and then they keep on submitting POAs to try to get back on. Instead of looking into it when a complaint comes up, a seller reacts, but doesn’t think. So when you have a stimulus that’s making you react to something, you react out of fear, instead of re-evaluation.
One mistake that sellers make is to assume that they really know what the problem was.
Don’t panic. Just take a breath, literally take a deep breath, take a second to yourself, go on a walk around the office, drink some water, just back down and ask someone you trust to look at it with you, to make sure that you’re not crazy. That is a good step towards meditating about it. Take a second: is this really my problem? Did I really create this problem? How do I fix it?
Say, “You know what, we did make that mistake, it was a packaging error, there was one rubber band that wasn’t across where it showed in the picture, and the buyer is 100 percent correct. It was a bad call on our part.”
I feel like promoting that type of mentality, for sellers not to react, will help them in the long run when responding because then they can admit fault.
So what does this mean for Amazon sellers?
Beyond rubber bands, I hope that all sellers will heed this advice and some of SAM’s words around what to look out for when you respond to these complaints.
The process may appear unfair or slanted against you, but you’ll still need a quality approach and significant research into your own account to reply with facts, specifics, and details to get that listing or account back.
If you have some knowledge from past experience in these areas, use those resources. If not, take a moment to examine why you may have received one of these notifications. Don’t jump in and message back right away thinking the speed of your response will help.
In all likelihood, that haste will create waste, and lose you revenue if it ends up lengthening the time your products, or your account, are offline.
This post was by Chris McCabe, a former Investigation Specialist for Amazon’s Seller Performance team and founder of ecommerceChris.com. For Amazon sellers, having their listings blocked or account suspended means losing time and money trying to get back in business. ecommerceChris shows sellers how to keep their accounts healthy, or, if the worst should happen, how to get their account back from a suspension.