What Sellers Wish Amazon Knew About Selling
By Cynthia Stine
Have you ever wanted to explain to Amazon some of the challenges you face as a seller and how the company could improve the experience for you while helping the marketplace at the same time? In today's guest column, Cynthia Stine takes a stab at helping Amazon understand the economics of third-party selling and why sellers do some of the things that Amazonians find crazy and baffling.
Cynthia is author of Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and Protect Your Amazon Seller Account and founder of reinstatement consulting firm Online Sales Step by Step LLC. Here's what she believes sellers wish Amazon understood about selling on its platform.
Recently, Amazon invited 500 sellers to Seattle to participate in a sharing of information. Those of us left outside the gates without the golden ticket looked on forlornly, wondering if our concerns would ever matter to Amazon. I hope this story will reach Amazon and they will hear concerns from those who are not among the magic 500.
My goal is that in the future, all professional sellers will have a seat at the table because our numbers will be large enough to get Amazon's attention - like the AARP when they go to Congress. This article is not meant to be a complaint session, but rather a platform for meaningful changes that would benefit both sellers and Amazon.
My premise is this:
Most sellers want to do the right thing. They are willing to improve their operations and follow best practices when they know what those best practices are.
Amazon values its third-party sellers and wants them to bring new products to the marketplace. Our success is also their success. Most Amazonians are not aware of how Amazon policy and processes affect the third-party seller community.
Despite these facts, there are currently serious problems for sellers on the Amazon platform. Sellers are being held accountable for rules they don't understand. Sellers are suspended and sometimes banned from the platform. They can't sell and have to pull together a "plan of action" without understanding what Amazon wants to see. When they are really in trouble, sellers can't get help from Amazon. Mr. Great Partner is suddenly Mr. Cold Shoulder.
Most people inside of Amazon do not understand what it is like to sell on the platform. They've never seen inside Seller Central, never tried to find a report or even done a search in Help to find an answer. They don't understand the economics of third-party selling or why sellers do some of the things that Amazonians find crazy and baffling.
Amazon's goal of providing the best possible experience for its buyers means that it applies a big stick to get its sellers' attention...maybe TOO big of a stick. After working with hundreds of suspended sellers, it is my belief that the same goal - compliance - could be accomplished in a way that saves Amazon time and money on enforcement, and spares sellers days and weeks of unnecessary fear and revenue loss.
Here's what sellers wish Amazon understood about them. Currently, when a problem arises with an Amazon seller account:
1) We are guilty until proven innocent.
2) When our accounts are suspended, our appeal letters are being read by people who don't understand American business, let alone selling on Amazon.
3) The appeals process sometimes takes weeks to months.
4) We are held responsible for the actions of our fulfillment house (the Amazon warehouse), without the means to control that fulfillment house.
5) Our sources of inventory are being shut down without warning or instruction.
6) Used media and collectibles now require detailed receipts or invoices that simply don't exist to be considered "authentic," and we have millions of books, games and used media already listed on the platform.
7) Amazon does not provide sellers with any metrics or information about product quality issues, UPC code problems, inauthentic complaints or listing errors - until an account or listing is suspended.
8) The rate of suspensions could be lowered dramatically if sellers were given warning of new enforcements and a chance to fix their mistakes before Amazon unleashed the revised suspension robots (algorithm).
9) Some metrics are inaccurate, and there is no way for Amazon employees to correct them at the seller's request.
10) We need better compliance tools/reports from Amazon.
Guilty: The burden is on sellers to prove our innocence, sometimes against crazy buyer and competitor claims. It is too easy for a seller to be brought down by a malicious or thoughtless outsider. In addition, the system spits out false positives.
Because we are considered guilty, it is very difficult to make seller performance understand or believe us when a mistake has been made or it is a competitor trick bringing us down. We are forced to admit mistakes we did not make, and then come up with plans to prevent those mistakes from happening again in the future.
Untrained workers: Amazon's seller performance workers are untrained, and there is high turnover in that group. We see conflicting answers, bad English, bad decisions and bad behaviors every day.
Sellers that are generating millions of dollars in sales a month are being judged by people who have no clue on how to sell on Amazon, or how the business world works. If a seller's situation doesn't fit into a tidy box or checklist, they are summarily rejected.
It is also obvious that these workers are under pressure to process a lot of appeals an hour. When they fall behind, they simply "punt" the plan back with an email template that says "We need more information."
Since December we have learned - by experimentation and observation - that this means no one has read the plan. This is unfair and produces unnecessary anxiety for sellers.
We've had to re-send plans multiple times, just to get someone to read them. It shouldn't take weeks for someone to read a plan, nor should we have to escalate the case up to the CEO of the company to get attention. We are providing plans that Amazon requested. As such, they should be read.
I've seen ridiculous emails sent to my clients telling them they need to shift all their inventory from their own fulfillment center to Amazon's, without any understanding of their industry or why some items have to be merchant-fulfilled...like large automotive parts, car doors, refrigerators and other appliances. If these are the people responsible for cleaning up the platform and enforcing the rules, they should be smarter than that.
Unreasonable timeframes: Seller Performance will often make sellers wait weeks before someone will actually read their plan. During that time, sellers struggle to meet payroll and make loan payments while their inventory gets closer to expiration.
I've had sellers go bankrupt, have mental breakdowns, and cry with me on the phone. This is not right. It isn't as if it takes a long time for a decision to be made. All the waiting is about whether or not your plan shows up in the queue when the worker is stressed and behind or not. Hiring and training more workers and reducing turnover would make a huge improvement in Amazon-seller relations and actually result in MORE compliance by sellers. Plus, sellers would be selling again quicker, which means more sales volume for everyone.
No voice with the warehouse: Amazon is supposed to be our fulfillment house through the Fulfillment-by-Amazon program (FBA). But they are not accountable to us like a regular fulfillment house. Their mistakes are our responsibility, but we can't dictate how they package and ship our inventory.
One of my clients has a problem with cracked DVD cases because the DVDs are shipped in padded envelopes. One sharp hit during shipping and the case cracks, which results in a poor buyer experience.
We have opened Seller Support cases and explained the situation to an FBA specialist at Amazon. We were told his DVDs would be sent in boxes...except they're not.
Over and over again we have discussed this with Amazon because my client is getting dinged for damaged and defective claims. This is just one example of many I've seen. Obviously sellers want the benefits of FBA, but the downside is very frustrating. We would like to have more of a voice with our fulfillment house.
Gray Market: Amazon is cracking down on gray market goods, which is understandable given that many stolen and counterfeit goods are sold through the gray market. However, this is also closing down legitimate sources of inventory for many sellers.
Sellers who buy from retail outlets - whether physical stores or their online stores - are finding that their receipts are not being accepted. Sears.com and TJMaxx are just two examples of well-known and respected retail outlets that are no longer available to Amazon sellers.
Sellers who buy from liquidators are learning the hard way that their invoices/shipment manifests are not acceptable.
Amazon has not defined gray market to its sellers, nor does it help in determining legitimate sources. We only get punished if we get it wrong (see point #1). This is a case where most sellers would comply if they had some clarity.
Many of my clients don't consider their sources to be gray market. An educational campaign by Amazon would greatly reduce gray market goods on the platform and relieve many of their sellers who want to comply.
Policy enforcement changes without warning: Used media sellers are getting inauthentic complaints for pre-1972 books, old CDs, etc., that were bought at book sales, estate sales and other venues which have no invoices. This new enforcement is a huge change in policy that will affect the availability of used and collectible merchandise on the platform. I've had clients suspended for this.
We've seen a lot of policy changes or policy enforcement changes occur that caused a lot of avoidable heartache. An email to the seller community or posting on Seller Central along with a brief period of amnesty would make a huge difference. There would be fewer suspensions for Amazon to deal with, and sellers would have the chance to prune their inventory without penalty.
This is common sense, but it rarely happens. When Amazon tweaked the algorithm for product quality, a staggering number of sellers were brought down who had been selling for years without problems. It was taking three to four weeks to get responses from Seller Performance, and sellers were being punished for something they had no way to prevent ahead of time.
Amazon might say that their policies have always been there, but if they aren't measured and enforced then sellers may think they are doing fine with their current selling practices. Even today, sellers don't know what is an unacceptable level of negative/product quality seller returns on a listing. There are no metrics, there is no dashboard, and yet we can get suspended.
New metrics do not reflect reality: New metrics that have been introduced have false positives. Valid Tracking Rate, for example, doesn't reflect reality for many of my clients. If there is a space in front of a package tracking number, you can get a valid tracking error. This has happened particularly with clients that use a third-party software program to upload tracking data.
Most of the time, this error is automatically corrected by Amazon when it integrates with the carrier, and yet my client's metrics can look awful.
Instead of punishing sellers when the data is uploaded, why not ding them after the shipment is completed (like they do for late delivery)? In that way, only real mistakes are counted against the seller. Software can lead to some hairy issues that don't reflect the seller's normal operating practices.
One guy I know accidentally uploaded order numbers where tracking data should have been. Despite scrambling to fix the problem and working with Seller Support, this seller and others like him were suspended...and then had to wait a week or more to be allowed to sell again. He had plenty of time to change his internal operations to avoid this mistake happening again in the future. In this case, no buyer was disturbed, all shipments were made and delivered, but the algorithm is not nuanced.
The new customer dissatisfaction and return dissatisfaction rates are similar in that my clients are getting red warnings on their dashboards that don't reflect actual performance. If a client has two responses (quite common with FBA sellers - they don't have a lot of buyer interaction) and one of them is unhappy, their metric becomes 50%, which is well above the 25% target.
I believe Amazon should wait until a seller has at least 50 responses before holding them accountable to those metrics. The metric is currently in beta, but if it goes live, a lot of my clients are in trouble.
Sellers need more help from Amazon: Right now the most popular sources of information for sellers on compliance are Facebook, seller blogs and the Amazon forums. This is an awful state of affairs. Not only is there a ton of wrong, conflicting, confusing, misguided or just plain malicious information out there, sellers can't trust what they get from Amazon either.
If you ask a question of Seller Support, you can almost guarantee the answer will be wrong either factually or operationally. They know nothing about the suspension side, and the reality of how Amazon operates is often different from what is stated in Seller Central help.
Seller Support can help you find reports, remove negative feedback and upload flat files, but don't go to them for compliance advice. Amazon's new account managers that you can pay $2,500 a month for are focused on helping you break into new markets and grow sales. They leave compliance to you.
They won't accept you into the program if your metrics are imperfect, and I've heard mixed results from sellers who had a manager when they were suspended. In short, I don't think that is the answer either.
I would like to see more frequent and accurate communications from Amazon. The situation for third-party sellers would dramatically improve if Amazon would share with us:
1) Information about new rules and what they will mean for sellers
2) Explanation of terms
3) Lists of unacceptable sources of inventory
4) Lists of restricted brands that require approval to sell
5) Solutions for common seller compliance problems - a best practices library
6) Amnesty announcements
Perhaps by next year's conference smaller sellers will have an opportunity to share our collective concerns with Amazon. At the end of the day we all want the same thing - lots of sales without too many returns.
About the author:
Cynthia Stine is founder of consulting firm Online Sales Step by Step LLC. With 25 years of business, crisis, and turnaround consulting experience, she turned her attention to Amazon sellers and developed a system to analyze their mistakes, file appeals, and get their businesses back up and running. She is an influential blogger and the author of two popular books, including "Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and Protect Your Amazon Seller Account."
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