Episode 175

Protecting Your Brand and Preventing Amazon Suspensions and Takedowns

Chris McCabe - ECommerce Chris
September 8, 2021
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Amazon has always been a jungle for sellers.  Battling sabotage from unscrupulous competitors, protecting yourself from listing takedowns, and avoiding account suspensions are all enough to keep you awake at night.  So how do you protect your Amazon business from all the forces trying to kill it?   My advice is to learn from and get to know former Amazonian Chris McCabe. Chris used to work at Amazon in the policy enforcement team. Now he works daily with sellers to mitigate issues and fight suspensions.


He’s been so effective at helping sellers that he’s been awarded the nickname ECommerce Chris. He’s also the host of the podcast Seller Listing Solutions and speaks at leading Amazon events like the  Prosper Show.  Chris is a guy you need to know.


Here’s a look at what we cover:


- Top reasons listings get taken down and what’s in your control.  
- Reasons for listing takedowns that most sellers don’t know about.
- What it was like working at Amazon
- The leading reasons for account suspensions and how to protect yourself
- Top strategies for brand defense and fighting sabotage.
- The best strategies for preventing problems and getting listings and accounts reinstated.

Chris McCabe

Via LinkedIn

ecommerceChris

Seller Performance Solution Podcast

Episode Transcript:

Brett:

Well, hello and welcome to another edition of the eCommerce Evolution Podcast. I'm your host, Brett Curry, CEO of OMG Commerce. And this is a special episode for all of you Amazon sellers out there. This episode will probably both strike terror into your heart, potentially give you nightmares, but it will also bring peace and comfort and give you hope in the midst of the storm. Today, we're talking about listing take downs and suspensions on Amazon, both how to avoid them and/or mitigate them, and then how to get things back up and going when you do face either a listing take down or a suspension.

Brett:

My guest today is an absolute expert in this category. You'd be hard pressed to find someone with more experience on this topic. I have joining me today, Chris McCabe, he's the founder of ecommerceChris. I want to hear how he got the nickname ecommerceChris, that's an awesome nickname and the name of his company. He was a former policy enforcement team member at Amazon. So the stuff we're talking about today, he did at Amazon back in the day, so I want to hear maybe a couple of good Amazon stories while we're at it. And so with that, Chris, welcome to the show. How you're doing? And thanks for coming on.

Chris:

Yeah, thanks for having me. That's an excellent introduction. I loved it. I loved it.

Brett:

Good, man. Yeah, I really appreciate this. I've heard good things about you. I think your nickname/company name alone is a good reason to have you on the podcast, ecommerceChris, you go there. But if you would talk a little bit about, what was your experience like at Amazon? When were you there? And just in general, what did you do? And what was that like?

Chris:

I worked on this so-called seller performance teams, the performance evaluation and policy enforcement teams. What you said about the nightmares that sellers might fear after this episode, I'm numbed to those nightmares. I went through six years on the Amazon side of it, I've been doing this for six years, so about 12 years total at this point of the day-to-day, hour in, hour out of, "How do I appeal this suspension?" That's what all these sellers are afraid of. When I worked at Amazon, yes, we were reviewing accounts all the time, every hour, sending warnings, deleting listings, sometimes canceling all their listings if they hadn't been properly, put together, broke rules, and of course, suspending accounts.

Chris:

The flip side of suspending accounts was we got to reinstate them if we found that they had submitted an acceptable appeal that hit all the right points and addressed whatever shortcomings we had previously identified. So that was the day-to-day of the job. In terms of interacting with other Amazon employees and managers, Amazon's just a heavy duty place to work, there are high expectations, they want you to be quick, they want you to be smart, they want you to be good, and you have to perform. Just the way sellers are evaluated with performance metrics, so were we, and if your number is wavered, then you'd have a little sit down.

Chris:

I ended up getting promoted and mentoring others because my numbers were good and my accuracy was good. That's the shorthand version of why I excelled in my position. Towards the end of my time at Amazon, I got what you've maybe heard from other books and articles about Amazonians getting burned out a little bit. But I think by the end, I already had a sense that I wanted to do this for a living and not stay in Seattle, but also not stay working for Amazon. I wanted to help sellers from the other side of the fence.

Brett:

That's awesome.

Chris:

The pace, I was used to it, but years and years of that pace does grind you down, that's a fact.

Brett:

I could totally see that. All right. Well, I want to unpack a few things. So Chris, tell me about the grind because I hear stories all the time, I know several former Amazonians. I've heard the Jeff Bezos quote that, "Hey, you can work long, smart or hard, but at Amazon, you can't choose two out of three, you just get all three." And so, what was the grind like?

Chris:

Amazon's a company where you're supposed to feel honored and privileged to work there too, so they don't give you a lot of freebies or free meals or they don't coddle you. People know about the Google cafeteria and working at Facebook and all these perks.

Brett:

Yeah dude, I've been to several Google campuses and it's like a playground. And they expect the people to work hard too, but they really take care of their people unbelievably well. The food was just fantastic.

Chris:

Yeah. Amazon is more workplace where it's believing in their mission, being excited with their goals, which has taken over retail. Let's be honest, what are they trying to do here? It's not just about ecommerce, they've already done that. You're there to put your brains to work, you're happy to be there. Their attitude towards a lot of employees is kind of, if you don't like it, leave. So you're not coddled. There's good parts about working there. I wouldn't have stayed there as many years as I had without enjoying most of it, but it's not a place where dissent is really tolerated. And they don't reflect that in their core principles when they say like be open to disagreement and discussion. I never found that to be the case. It was a top-down hierarchy.

Brett:

Oh really? So they were not open to disagreement?

Chris:

Yeah.

Brett:

And that's so interesting. So we're actually, as a company at OMG, we're going through some of the Amazon leadership principles, like the 14 Core Leadership Principles, and they're fantastic, but that's really interesting that they don't... So they preach dissent and disagreement, but they don't necessarily welcome that from everybody?

Chris:

Well, you have to be open to being wrong if somebody disagrees with you, but proves you wrong with either data or experience or examples that I think you have to be willing to admit that you misjudged something, maybe not made a complete and total mistake. But I didn't get that sense from manager or above types, they seem to say like, "We're being measured on these very strict goals, we have to meet them. We've decided how you're going to help us meet them and that's the end of it." A lot of stuff just started not making sense towards the end of my tenure there, especially my last year at Amazon, I was being asked to do things that made no sense.

Chris:

And not only does it kill your morale, but it makes it hard for you to do your job if you don't even believe that what you're doing is accurate or useful or necessary. If it's just like, I don't know what an example would be, somebody who's just asked to push paperwork around but they're not really doing anything with their day, the old fashioned corporate people who were numb to that. And there's just so much room for improvement with what Amazon's doing. As much ass as they're kicking right now in terms of ecommerce and the growth of the marketplace, there's so much they could be doing better with sellers in particular.

Brett:

Yeah. I'm sure there are a lot of sellers listening right now that are giving you a virtual fist bump...

Chris:

Yay.

Brett:

... Chris, that Amazon could be treating their sellers way better. And I'm sure that is true. I know that's true. And yeah, it's one of those things where you can handle long hours and you can handle the grind and you can handle the pressure and the expectations. If you agree with what you're doing and you feel like you're serving a purpose, but then when there's incongruency or being asked to do things that don't really line up or make sense, I can totally get how that would fuel burnout, speed it up and just make you... If you are thinking about doing something else anyway, that's going to likely speed up your time horizon and make you want to exit the whole cluster.

Chris:

Amazon's expecting you to consider your job the number one thing in your life. You can have a family, you can have other things in your life, but you have to be able to juggle them all or balance them all. That's on you, they don't consider it their role to make that juggling act easier on you. That's up to you to figure out.

Brett:

Yeah, that's what I've heard from. so many.

Chris:

It's fairly consistent. Yeah.

Brett:

Yep. So then, where did the nickname ecommerceChris come from? Do you remember the actual story? Obviously, it makes sense, you're in ecommerce plus all that.

Chris:

I didn't want to have Amazon in my company name, just a basic legal angle there. But beyond that, when I first started, I wasn't planning on only doing Amazon, and for the last six and a half years, I have only done Amazon. That wasn't my original intention. So I didn't want to be Amazon centric, I wanted it to be ecommerce, maybe even I would learn about some of these other marketplaces. I was researching Etsy and handmade and stuff like that just to educate myself on other kinds of sellers that I wasn't maybe used to dealing with. But then as soon as I updated my LinkedIn profile and said what I did at Amazon, the flood gates opened and I just had all these Amazon sellers constantly asking me for help.

Brett:

Yep, totally makes sense. Two million Amazon sellers and growing, and the problem you address is a growing problem, it's real, it's painful. And so, yeah, I think you've got all kinds of room to grow and expand just doing what you're doing.

Chris:

And I didn't even know that really at the time. I knew the marketplace was growing, I knew some of the basics. When I left Amazon and took a year off to travel, probably over a year. And when I came back, I wasn't 100% sure what the state of the marketplace was or how they were dealing with sellers. I had to go through some of the messaging that sellers had, which back in 2014, the messages were much higher quality. They weren't great. That was one reason I left, I didn't think Amazon could communicate with sellers anymore, but they were much better than they are today.

Chris:

So I didn't really know that until I started helping sellers with Q&A and writing appeals and, would it be reviewed properly on the inside? I wasn't sure until I tried it, really.

Brett:

Yeah. I want to get into some specific tips and tactics and things to avoid. And I think this is going to be an extremely helpful podcast for people. But I think part of the problem, part of the reason why Amazon doesn't communicate well with sellers is just the growth is too fast and they're not able to cope with it, or is there something else there that's causing this?

Chris:

More specifically, I think they're having trouble marrying their automation to human investigation. Their machine learning hasn't caught up to all the things that are going on. There's a lot of abuse of their tools, of their algorithms. A lot of people gaming the system. I don't think their machine learning's caught up really, whether it's reviews abuse, something like that, or buyers.

Brett:

Yeah, it's just I think such a huge problem. I know people with legitimate reviews that are getting dinged and then you see some listings and you just know that it's been manipulated and they're not real reviews.

Chris:

They're still catching up. They're finally adding more head count. The reviews abuse team is a good example, PRA. Product reviews abuse has by some measures tripled their head count. They finally added more people, but it's not syncing up enough with their automation to make it meaningful. So they're still struggling with standard operating procedures, different systems and processes that they're trying to put in place to make the scalability of the work more within their grasp, and they just haven't gotten there yet.

Chris:

Unfortunately, I think people who are looking to abuse the system or cheat their competitors out of some revenue are aware that Amazon is way behind on some of this stuff and so they're manipulating things for their own ends. And it's unfortunately creating not just bad seller experiences, but I don't know if the wider public understands that this creates more negative buyer experiences.

Brett:

It totally does.

Chris:

You mentioned Jeff. Jeff's number one goal with creating Amazon was to create the best online buying experience-

Brett:

Yeah, the most customer-centric company on the planet.

Chris:

Most customer centric, but no one's really connected the dots to how negatively impacting buyer experience some of these tricks and gaming the system and some of these fake out moves that sellers are doing are hurting buyers too.

Brett:

Yeah. And it just makes you question your next Amazon experience too. If you do get duped, you buy a product that's not as great as the reviews say it is or doesn't really live up to the description and things like that, it really questions your next Amazon purchase. So obviously, Amazon has identified it as a problem, but the AI and the human efforts just are not in alignment yet. Hopefully they'll be able to fix that soon.

Chris:

Maybe this is Andy Jassy's big move when he comes in this summer, he's going to figure out how to take machine learning and combine it with a human account reviews, manual investigations and make them 10 times more effective.

Brett:

He'll end up appearing before the Senate. He's going to be the anti-trust stuff. But yeah, that's a really good point. Andy Jassy, he was the head of AWS, potentially no better person to be running Amazon to work on some of the AI problems and automation problems, so super interesting. Well, let's dive in here. We're going to talk about listing take downs, we're going to talking about suspensions. The two are related, first comes to the listing take down, you get enough of those which will then the suspension happens. What are some of the common causes of a listing take down? And if you can share any of your experiences while you were at Amazon, if that's still really relevant, that's great. But why do listings get taken down?

Chris:

They changed a few things after I left around this concept of product quality, item quality. So the number of investigations and listing take downs around authenticity exams or item condition complaints. Item quality complaints or item condition complaints are the big thing right now. A buyer's complaining that they got something that's not what they paid for, not worth what they paid for, not the same quality they expected, not the way it was described on the detail page, any of those things.

Chris:

Obviously, condition, if you're buying something and you get something that looks and feels and sounds used, you're unhappy automatically. So they're drilling down into those types of complaints. They are unfortunately just copying and pasting things around. A buyer might not understand a product or they might not have read the product detail page closely, but they still might blame the seller for, "Hey, you didn't represent this right on the site," or this word of inauthentic gets thrown around. Items might be inauthentic. Well, that means the buyer probably didn't say that it was fake, sometimes they say that too, but they probably just say it wasn't the quality they expected for the price, or it wasn't the kind of item they expected.

Chris:

Those are the main reasons why listings are suspended and why they're asking for a plan of action. Lesser known causes would be like expired products, expiration dates and compliance issues, which I know you and I have had conversations about compliance before. But if Amazon thinks you don't have the right documentation, whether it's FDA documentation or safety testing documentation to list and sell those products on the site, they err on the side of caution and remove those listings until you can prove otherwise.

Brett:

Yep, totally makes sense. So clearly, if the condition is not what you advertised or if it's not the right quality or people are thinking, "Man, I got ripped off, this was not worth what I paid for," then you're going to be in trouble. It seems though, and I'm part of several ecommerce communities and forums, and of course, talk to a lot of sellers, we're all on the growth side, the ad side, the listing optimization side, things like that, but it also seems like there's some good sellers with good products that get their listings taken down. Is that going to be on some of those lesser known things that you mentioned, the perceived compliance issues? When do good products and good sellers get impacted by this?

Chris:

They've had a lot of trouble separating good apples from bad apples, real problems from fake problems, so they're applying the same principles to all sellers, whether or not they match the situation. That's what's scary. If you want to talk about what's scaring me and our clients it's that people who don't really have that many buyer complaints about the products are sometimes being nudged by Amazon to send in an appeal, maybe not a plan of action, but just, "Send us an invoice, we want to look at your supplier. We want to hear what you're doing for better due diligence, better quality control to make sure the product is sound."

Brett:

And that's always scary. Amazon says, "Hey, send us your supplier." "Okay, yeah. Thank you Amazon."

Chris:

Yeah. That's another thing, they're very interested in your supply chain documentation for a variety of cases, whether it's compliance, whether it's proving authenticity, or it's a buyer complaining that you didn't send them something new or you didn't send them something authentic. Amazon is very interested in letters of authorization and invoices that they can accept. They've tightened the criteria around which invoices they can accept. We have some clients that are their own brands making trademark registered brands, and they're wasting a lot of time trying to communicate to Amazon that they are the brand, they are the manufacturer and the invoices shouldn't be rejected for non verified because of what? They tried to call some factory in China and nobody picked up the phone. That doesn't make any sense.

Chris:

But you shouldn't be spending a lot of time defending the authenticity of your products if you are your own brand.

Brett:

Exactly. Yeah. So let's talk about prevention here. And we talked about this when we were doing our prep call a few weeks ago that the old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Sometimes we think the cure is just easier. I think in this case, we're all pretty scared and we want to make sure we are preventing. So what are some of the steps that good sellers need to take to prevent as best they can or mitigate or reduce the likelihood of a listing take down?

Chris:

In terms of the compliance documentation, make sure you have it and have it ready to go. Some people contacted us when they got these alerts from Amazon and they didn't have any of the tests done, they had to find labs, things like that.

Brett:

Is a good resource your site or somewhere where we can quickly get the compliance-

Chris:

You know what, that's one of the big problems in the space. I can say as a consultant that we haven't had solid bonafide... I made a recent connection to Tyler Israel, I don't know if him?

Brett:

No.

Chris:

He is one of the people I met recently, but over the past few years, there wasn't a go-to person for this. There wasn't a firm that was like, "Yeah, we do all sorts of compliance documentation and testing for all kinds of categories of items." That's what we've been missing. It's not something I do. We handle the appeals process. It's the same as legal issues, I'm not a lawyer, but I handle the Amazon side of the process when for legal reasons, the listing is taken down or an account is suspended, I handle the plan of action, part of the appeals process.

Chris:

Same thing with compliance, you need a compliance expert who understands those types of things. And I had a conversation with Tyler, which was really good. It's unfortunate that it took me a few years to find the right person, but documentation is essential. And make sure wherever you're sourcing it, this applies to any kind of seller, reseller, your own brand, you've got a supplier who answers the phone, describes their business relationship with you if they're called, doesn't act like they don't know who you are. They give you invoices that don't look like they were written with a crayon on the back of a newspaper, really acceptable, clean, easy to read.

Chris:

Because sometimes the appeals that we do for people are accepted but then Amazon will reject it based on the invoice or they don't like the supplier and they say, "We looked at your supplier's website, it doesn't look like they make items like what you sell." And they'll reject it for that reason. So make sure that the supplier... Essentially, you have to prepare now and you can't just wing it because-

Brett:

Prepare thinking that a listing take down is coming, right? That's the way we have to think-

Chris:

Well, because an appeal can be rejected for like four or five reasons now. It used to be they just didn't like your plan of action, there was really one reason that they wouldn't take it. Now, there's at least a few. So there's no point spending all your day, lots of energy and research and writing and rewriting a plan of action and then the appeal and they bounce it back because they're like, "Well, we did a Google search and we couldn't find your supplier anywhere, so we don't think they're verifiable and we can't accept this."

Chris:

It's unfortunate that that happens, but like you said, some people don't take that seriously. They get one listing taken down and they take their time getting it back. I don't know, I've seen a lot of sellers not acting with urgency unless that's their top selling ASIN, but they don't understand. I understand account health and your risk score at Amazon is algorithmic, but they don't understand that if you have a few ASINs that have been suspended and you're taking your sweet time getting them reinstated, your risk score is suffering.

Chris:

And account health now has that dashboard, they finally made it easy for you to eyeball it and say, "Hey, I'm in trouble." In the old days you were just looking at reams and pages of performance notifications and you had no idea where you were or what your status was.

Brett:

Yeah. So, let's talk a little bit about that account health dashboard. Where should we really be paying attention? What are the numbers that may matter more than others? And when should we start to get concerned as we're looking at that dashboard?

Chris:

Yeah. Again, algorithmic, so what's a five for one seller is not the same as a one for you, you want zeros across the board. If you have a policy warning, you want to appeal that with all the links to policy pages you've gone over and new procedures you've put into place to make sure you're enforcing that policy internally. You want to appeal that sooner than later, but appeal it well, of course. They have product, condition, item quality, or authenticity complaints. You want to get those resolved because Amazon doesn't want to believe you've got piles of inventory sitting in FBA that could easily, if left unresolved, result in many more complaints.

Chris:

That's a big part of what the appeal process is all about. They want to make sure that you're taking measures now to prevent complaints later or bad buyer experiences later. And then beyond that, obviously, anything intellectual property related, received IP complaints. You want to follow up with those, even if they look like BS, and follow up with the rights owner. It could be a so-called rights owner, but you want to message them, find out the nature of the complaint, what they want from you to resolve it. If it's not a legitimate rights owner complaint, then there are ways of disputing them.

Chris:

There isn't a lot on the dashboard that I wouldn't take seriously except for some restricted products messages and some like food and safety complaint messages, go out to sellers just so Amazon can tell every seller selling that item, "We don't want this item to be sold on this site anymore." That's really all they're saying. They're not expecting you to necessarily appeal it because it's not specific to you, they don't want products with that particular ingredient sold anymore, so they're just telling you all, or they don't want products for whatever other safety reasons, other reasons.

Chris:

There's a lot that goes into that decision, obviously, product recalls, compliance issues. But the bottom line is they're telling everyone that they don't want that to be sold, it's not something you in particular are in trouble for.

Brett:

Cool. So, what other preventative steps would one take? So we're going to be watching our account health, we need proper documentation, we need to have a good relationship with our manufacturer and they need to be someone that visible on Google through Google search or visible on the web through Google search and they answer their phone and those things. What else can we do to hopefully prevent this from happening?

Chris:

And don't blindly ship product sight unseen from your manufacturer to FBA without having some samples at least sent to you, maybe a percentage of each batch or a percentage number of the units that you deal with monthly go to you so you can open them up and make sure that they're exactly as you described them on the site. Because some people I think get in the habit of not seeing product and they just ship to FBA. This is what Amazon is afraid of, that you're never seeing this stuff and that you're not even familiar with the item quality. So when buyers are complaining about it, if you go back to them, "Well, we have a vendor, we're drop shipping. We never see this stuff."

Chris:

I'm not saying you would phrase it that way, but if they get the impression-

Brett:

You can apply that.

Chris:

Yeah. If they get the impression that you're handing the responsibility off to somebody else for quality control, for auditing, picking and packing processes, what the packaging itself is like, the likelihood the item's going to stay secure in the packaging and show up in FBA still in good shape, if they think you're outsourcing all of that or not paying attention to it, then they more or less believe that you're guaranteeing certain amounts of buyer complaints.

Brett:

Got you. So if they get that impression, they're much less likely to reinstate your listing or to resolve it?

Chris:

Yeah. And also I've seen those appeals that sellers write for themselves. They tend to deflect blame like, "Well, this is our manufacturer. They have an agreement with us and they'll inspect product before it leaves the factory and they didn't do it." And there's lots of them. Sometimes people also rephrase it, like, "Well, we hired the wrong employee and it was the employee's fault. And they're the one who was supposed to stay on top of it, and they're the ones who weren't doing it."

Brett:

And really if you think about this, like just leadership principles or the way it sounds is that to Amazon, to the policy team or to anybody that's thinking with a critical eye, it sounds like you don't know what you're doing. You're in a tight ship.

Chris:

Managerial like taking ownership has to be a part of any appeal. We failed to monitor our employees. We didn't manage this process appropriately. That's what root causes are in a plan of action. We could talk a whole other show about how to write a plan of action, but the bottom line is you have to show that you diagnose the problem from an owner or managers perspective. If you're just finger-pointing, honestly, they stop reading and they kick it away.

Brett:

Yeah. Which makes sense, because if Amazon truly wants to be the most customer centric company on the planet, and I think they do, then you better have that mindset as well. And that means you're taking care of the customer, well, not my fault, I can't be held responsible for this way, then you're not going to be selling.

Chris:

A lot of sellers have been doing this with product reviews abuse, suspensions, "Well, we hired some marketing company, I don't know what they're doing. They said they followed the rules." Or, "We used the messaging sequence and I showed it to somebody who says they know compliance in Amazon, they said it was okay. It's like, you're the one who's in charge, the buck stops with you. So if you hired a service like that, Amazon blames you for not vetting them appropriately. You can't blame the service. So I'm not sure why I'm reading…

Chris:

I still read these appeals where people are like, I'm not going to name companies right now, but, "These guys said rebates were okay. We did 100 % giveaways. We did all these." It's like, "Well, you believed them. Whose fault is that that you believed what they were telling you?"

Brett:

It's like telling the officer, "But my neighbors that was okay if I went 100 miles an hour on the street."

Chris:

Or my speedometer doesn't work, so I don't know how fast I was going. So that's okay, right?

Brett:

Right. It always works. That line always works for sure.

Chris:

Don't try this with cops, it is not going to work.

Brett:

Yeah. For sure. That's great. Super helpful. Then let's talk about suspensions. And I'm sure we'll circle back to some other thing, take downs too, but when do suspensions occur and what do we need to keep in mind there?

Chris:

The easy, short answer is watching your account health, and you see a lot of crooked numbers. They used to say about baseball, fucking numbers on the scoreboard for like a high scoring game. If you're looking at your account health and you're not seeing a lot of goose eggs, then there's a problem. You're either not moving fast enough or you're not taking those indications seriously that there's an appeal that needs to be submitted, you're letting it fester over time. If you accumulate more of those, typically these days, they've got that visual display now, you go from green to yellow, to red.

Chris:

Well, by red, you're probably already suspended. It's the people in the yellow range at risk. You have figure out why you're still there. If you appeal something and they accept your appeal, but the numbers don't change on the dashboard, Amazon's tools are ancient. So sometimes the dashboard doesn't, not sometimes, often it doesn't update in real time.

Brett:

Got it. So you may have successfully won an appeal, things are moving in the right direction, you're maybe actually green, but it's still showing as yellow. That's common?

Chris:

Or you shouldn't be at zero for product condition complaints, because you've successfully appealed to them all, and it still says one, two or three or four or something like that. It's because the visual display hasn't updated yet. The important thing is you've got the notification saying, "Yes, we've reinstated you to sell ACE and blink. That's what matters because if you ever get into a call from account health, which you were saying, what happens? How did these suspensions happen? These days a lot of them, you get a call from account health, they gives you 72 hours to write a plan of action to prevent a suspension.

Chris:

So at least then you're still in the game and you can still appeal to prevent it from happening at all. But what are the account health guys looking at? They're looking at your dashboard. On that phone call, you would have to tell them, "Look again, we've successfully appealed a bunch of these, the numbers haven't updated. Maybe you didn't see that in our account annotations." But they don't always just suspend you out of the blue anymore. Amazon had a lot of heat for that. So you should always put your-

Brett:

So you're saying there are more warnings now, there are more that's 72 hours?

Chris:

The Account Health Services, AHS for short, gives a lot of sellers a call, a heads up, "You have 72 hours. Here are the problems in your account. We're calling to discuss them with you." Sometimes it's in writing, it's not a call, if they call you and you're not home or you don't pick up. But a lot of those do turn into full account suspensions because the plan of action that the seller sends in isn't complete, a lot of those get rejected.

Brett:

Got it. Let's just play your nightmare scenario here. We get the dreaded call, it's AHS on the line. You'd rather like talk to the IRS or somebody else probably.

Chris:

Yeah. Same idea.

Brett:

It's the AHS. You got 72 hours. What do you do at that point, Chris?

Chris:

First, get whatever information from them while you have them on the phone or have to call them back about the ASINs. What were the complaints on the ASINs? We looked in voice of the customer, we looked in return comments, we looked in buyer messaging. We didn't see negative feedback for this agent. What are the complaints that flag these on the Amazon side? You want to get that data, you want to get factual information from them. They also exist to help you write a plan-

Brett:

Are they forthcoming in providing that information? Are there are they trying to hide that from you?

Chris:

Yes and no. It's hit or miss. A lot of these teams at Amazon, the training's very inconsistent, the execution is very spotty, but I think that sellers that are savvy about this stuff can push them a little bit to give you the right kinds of information, and maybe that'll make up for some of the shortcomings on the Amazon side when it comes to sharing information.

Brett:

So, ask good questions. You've got them on the phone, don't leave that phone call without getting all the info you need.

Chris:

Yeah. The reason we can debate whether or not this is a real reason, the reason they're cagey about it sometimes is because either they can't see it, they can't find it or see it themselves for their own chaotic reasons, or they are pushing you to go through voice of the customer that in talking to you, they don't think you've done any research, ASINs level research in your account. And they think you don't know what's going on with buyer complaints or brand complaints. It depends on what they're calling about.

Chris:

Complaints about those ASINs, they think you're behind the curve and that you need to do some catching up and they don't want to just set it all up on a platter for you. They want you to tell them in a plan of action, what you could have done better, what operational or deficiencies you failed to correct.

Brett:

Sure. So maybe as you're asking those questions, you're phrasing it, not in a way that's defensive, but in a way that, "Hey, we take these problems very seriously. We want to get to the bottom of this. We want to make sure the customer's taken care of." Rather than getting combative and getting emotional and being defensive. You might not get as much cooperation at that point.

Chris:

Exactly. And that's the root causes that I was talking about a moment ago, you have to nail the root causes, which causes are just what caused the complaints. They don't care about the causes, they already know the causes. And they probably know that you have a good idea what the causes of the complaints are. Root causes, where did this come from? Why did it happen? How did it happen? Why didn't you catch it? What was the failure that wasn't identified and rectified before there were buyer complaints? That's what root causes are all about, your analysis of what went wrong, but in detail.

Chris:

And a lot of sellers miss that chunk, and then the root causes are generic rapport, and then the rest of the POA doesn't matter. Plan of action in terms of... Yeah. Sorry.

Brett:

Just to clarify, we have the phone call, we ask questions, we try to understand as much as we possibly can from the agent. Then from there, we're now seeing our job as get to the root cause. So the where, why, how it happened and how to fix it so that we can map out from there?

Chris:

You're presuming that they gave you some info on the buyer complaints. The nature of them, maybe not how many they were, because they don't necessarily have to be a lot, but the nature of them. In theory, there were some consistent complaints about those products. If you can't figure out what they're telling you in terms of what went wrong and you address the wrong root causes, then your POA, your plan of action is way off and it doesn't have a chance. So you're using them for information, not so much to coach you through the POA writing process. You can do that too, but that should be secondary to getting facts and data from them. Once you nail the root cause is-

Brett:

Your plan of action to be way off base, so it's clearly going to be rejected.

Chris:

Because some people are just guessing because I say, "Well, there's nothing wrong with my products. And we haven't even had that many buyer complaints and account health reps didn't really tell me anything. And I looked in voice of the customer and I saw the usual scattered random stuff, and we took care of those buyers. What's the problem?" One thing you definitely don't want to be is defensive where you say, "Nothing's wrong, what are you talking about? This is BS. Get away from me." That's like rubber stamp denial. We all have things we can improve. I have things I can improve in my due diligence on consulting side.

Chris:

Every seller has something they could improve or maybe they just had a couple of bad luck incidents where things were damaged in transit. Maybe it's a good opportunity to look at the quality of your packaging to see if items were properly secured inside or if they were just banged around and were defective from the damage. If it's really just about the quality of the detailed page content, your images, the written content on the page, there's loads of services out there that help you optimize by clarifying what the heck it is you're selling and getting you better images, making the messaging very clear to any potential buyer that will reduce the likelihood of complaints on the other side.

Chris:

Amazon knows this, I know it. Brett, you're a smart guy, you know it. But people who have manufactured their own products, they're sometimes missing the forest through the trees. They're a little bit too close to it, they're more subjective than objective. Sometimes that's really what it's about, buyers not understanding this description of the product and you have to amend the detail page and that's what needs to go into the plan of action.

Brett:

Yeah. It's one of those things where, "Hey, my baby's not ugly," sort of thing, or to use the Amazon language from their leadership principles, my body odor doesn't stink, some elite leaders don't believe that, is an Amazon principle. So that totally makes sense. Now, how big of a problem is it? And it seems like this is maybe a growing problem where just like we talked about earlier with review quality, people getting fake positive reviews and sometimes thousands of them and it looks totally phony. Or what about a competitor saying, "Huh, I see your listing, it's having success. I'm going to bombard it with fake negative reviews."

Brett:

We have we have a client that we just launched on Amazon, pretty big brand. They're very successful off Amazon, we help them advertising off Amazon as well. And they got a couple of just, you could tell it was folk fake results. It was like, "Oh, the product was way smaller than advertised. And it ran out too quickly." There's no way they could have even used it all. The listing hasn't even been up long enough for someone to consume all of this particular product. And so how big of an issue is that? And is there any way to combat that, people that are just trying to sabotage your listing?

Chris:

Sabotage is rampant and omnipresent. So how bad is it? It's gotten worse and it's become pervasive. It's become commonplace unfortunately. The good news is there are better ways of combating it. There are more places to report that. There are starter email queues that you can try, and sometimes people get results from those, but often they don't and they have to kick it upstairs and see if somebody, manager level or VP level do something about it. The good news is, again, that there are VPs who are dedicated to reviews abuse, and to this kind of bad behavior.

Chris:

Again, their machine learning and their algorithms and their AI isn't quite up to snuff to just identify that stuff easily and delete it before any buyer see it. Often you have to report it, but a lot of systems work that way at Amazon, they're reactive, not proactive. It's reports based, they don't get to it first.

Brett:

One thing I've heard is that sometimes it's hard to get a bad review taken down, and then I've also heard that you can seen negatively if you complain about reviews too much, or you make too many requests for negative reviews to be removed. Any insights on either of them?

Chris:

I certainly wouldn't spam them, especially if you're just giving them conjecture and casual observation, "We think this is fishy." They'd throw that away, they always have. Trying to determine some patterns. Obviously you can't just throw a bunch of data at them and expect them to say, "Yeah, you're right, the math checks out. These reviews are all fake." They have to do their own investigation, but it's good to give them facts and data. And this is entirely implausible. We can't show you exactly who the people are behind these buyer accounts.

Chris:

I've worked with some sellers who were able to trace back some of these reviews to reviewers and get the reviewers banned. When the reviewer is banned, all the reviews they left are gone too. That's a good approach that people weren't doing last year or the year before, but also sometimes they trace them back to a certain Facebook group, which the entire purpose of the group is just a fake reviews or an entire company.

Brett:

We'll pay you four good reviews or bad reviews or whatever the case may be.

Chris:

Yeah. And some of that is just by doing some research on what your competitors are doing to fake the reviews. Sometimes it's as easy as buying from them, looking at their product insert and following the link back to whatever group they created to help you get free products.

Brett:

Yeah, shop your competitors, which you should be doing anyway. Well, you should be looking at some of your competitors' products just to QA it and to get ideas and to see how they're marketing, but yeah, follow their steps and see how they try to market to you to leave a review or whatnot, and then try to catch them. Any other little insider tips like that you can give related to any of this?

Chris:

For reviews or for brand abuse? Because what we're dealing with a lot, is people have their listings taken down because of competitor hacked into their brand registry. That's a big problem.

Brett:

Let's talk about brand abuse, because it does just seem like, obviously Amazon's always been a bit of a jungle and there's always been things that you're playing whack-a-mole with problems that come up, but this sabotage from ruthless competitors is really popping up. So talk about the brand defense there.

Chris:

Yeah. A lot of backend keyword abuse is happening where people have their listings flagged because an elicit term showed up in their backend keywords, but they're not the ones who put it there, somebody else inserted it there.

Brett:

How's that happening?

Chris:

Somebody overrode their flat files with their own, synced that up to the API and overwrote that listing content, which if you're in brand registry, you would think that wouldn't be possible. Unfortunately, it's entirely possible.

Brett:

Interesting. Just a quick side note, I used to do a lot of SEO back in the early days of OMG Commerce, we were primarily SEO. And for a while, there was some negative SEO practices that would go on, where you learned that, oh, if somebody gets too many spammy backlinks, Google the Index as your hard stop, do that to your competitor. And so it was nasty, well, still is, I guess.

Chris:

Similar concept.

Brett:

Google had to create parameters to not penalize you for that.

Chris:

Similar concepts. And then there's just people who buy from their competition and say, "This is fake." Or, "This is unsafe," just to try to trigger some-

Brett:

It ran out, it's too small, silly things. Got it.

Chris:

But things are turning a corner. I hope they continue along that. Two years ago, there was no way to really troubleshoot this stuff. I didn't offer any services about this two years ago because Amazon didn't seem interested in the reviews abuse or the brand abuse, but now brand abuse is everywhere, and reviews abuse has continued to expand. So they had to do something and they're starting to do things that are helpful. So that's a good sign. What that means for you hopefully is that you've got numerous places where you can communicate what's happening to you so that somebody higher level don't open cases with the support, don't stay in the lower level range with this too long. That's just a big waste of your time.

Brett:

So opening support tickets or staying lower level support is not worth your time?

Chris:

Open one ticket so that you can reference a case number when you start complaining elsewhere that nothing's happened. That's it. Don't expect anything from support. Don't really expect anything from initiating a complaint about something in seller central. They've got mountains of those just resulting copy and paste responses that are very watered down, very murky that have very little meaning. Unfortunately, Amazon is still a marketplace where anecdotally things are escalated and that's where the lion's share of correct work and proper review is done.

Brett:

So you've got to escalate things before any work really gets done, before the solution is found?

Chris:

Right. The good news, more good news, we don't want people walking away afraid waiting for the next nightmare.

Brett:

We want to sleep at night.

Chris:

You mentioned the antitrust investigation and around that, and other public stories have brought to light high-level management at Amazon, people that you'd find on LinkedIn that you'd know by name. They might be somebody who doesn't respond to you personally if you emailed them, but they've got staff that they delegate to... Their email might not be public, but maybe you can send them a message on LinkedIn. So these people are known, they're well-known, and you can find out what they do.

Brett:

These guys are switching trends, now are like big time execs, leaders at companies that are pretty well known because they're famous in some cases. And so that hopefully pushes them to take the right action.

Chris:

And if you testify in front of Congress, then people are automatically going to know your name and be interested in finding out how to reach you and show something to you.

Brett:

Yeah. So this was great. And understanding that the brand abuse and review abuse, that creates negative customer experiences as well, and so it has to be addressed. I'm happy to hear that Amazon is working to address it. Couple things I'm curious about from your perspective, one, I'm going to get the name wrong, but there's a program where you can have like a dedicated rep for lack of a better term from Amazon, like dedicated support personnel or whatever. Do you know the program I'm speaking of? And is that worthwhile?

Chris:

I know the strategic account managers.

Brett:

That's it, yes.

Chris:

And then they call it SAS core, but it's essentially strategic account management. Those are the people who have managers who are supposed to be helping them grow, helping them troubleshoot problems. Sometimes that can help with the abuse related work, sometimes they can help introduce you to a category manager. That's what we're spending a lot of time on now for people who are growing and growing, doubling and tripling every year in a category, but still haven't met or interacted with the person that manages the category. That can pay off with growth, with your sales.

Chris:

And just being in the know. I think we've gotten past the point where brands can just happily sell off in the corner and do their own thing and ignore everything that's going on around them. I don't think Amazon hosts that kind of marketplace anymore. So I think you really have to just be with it on trends and what's going on, and what competitors are doing to each other. Not being in the know can really hurt you.

Brett:

Yep. It is one of those classic scenarios of it's what you know, but it's also who you know, and knowing the right people at Amazon, or at least knowing how to get connected to the right person at the right time is super critical. What advice would you give there on how do people stay in the know? Do they follow you at ecommercechris.com and get all your information? Or are there other podcasts or news sources or group, anything you'd recommend so that people stay in the know on these policy issues?

Chris:

I have my own podcast, Seller Performance Solutions. We're covering a lot of how to, and a lot of hot topics on there. And also having some interesting guests for things that sellers might be interested in, but might not impact their day to day so much, but it shows the overall marketplace and how things are going. Also, yeah, ecommerceChris, I've got my blog on the website and I do quite a bit of videos there just covering how to write a plan of action, what to do if you're stuck in the appeals process. I talk a lot about escalations, and that's obviously because I used to work on the escalation teams, but that's the kind of strategy you need to be clued into. It's not just copy and paste.

Chris:

I think sellers that are out there using templates and generic content are falling way behind the times. That stuff doesn't work beyond maybe a single digit percentage of times. It's just not a good use of your time.

Brett:

Awesome. Well, I highly, highly recommend people go check out ecommercechris.com, get that information, listen to the podcast, understand how to go through this appeals process and the escalation process and all of these things. Any other asks you have, Chris? Or what if someone says, "Okay, this sounds good. I feel more educated, I feel like hopefully if I go check out some of these resources, I can sleep a little better tonight." Or what if they just say, "Yeah, but I'd rather just work with Chris if I have an issue." What does that look like? And how do people get started that process?

Chris:

Again, ecommerceChris, my services page, we have a wide variety of levels of service and also different services on there. Some people just want me for an hour, they want to tune things up, they want to do it themselves, they just want some guidance, coaching, suggestions, and so forth. So I have one hour consults, my calendar is open to the public. People that want to hire us per se, to run the project, I'll work until they're reinstated, there's a flat fee, project rates. It differs of course, whether it's ASIN level or account level. But the concept is the same. We manage your appeals process and we write them up, go over it with you.

Chris:

Of course, there's quite a bit of interaction with our clients to make sure nothing's missed. All the Is are dotted, all the Ts are crossed because you want to reduce the likelihood of a denial of any appeal that you send them. And we're easy to find, we're working most of the time. We're not-

Brett:

Yourself, and not just to make Bezos and team more wealthy.

Chris:

We're running a tight ship, but we're also around and reachable and communicative. So if you have a problem, we can at least give you a sense of what we think you need to do to fix it, whether or not you have us fix it for you, we can figure out later. But we understand it's a stressful, frustrating experience. We also understand that if Amazon ran a tighter ship, you wouldn't have the need to call me as much. So it's a tight spot to be in when you've invested that much in your business.

Brett:

Totally makes sense. And just as a quick plug, we know a lot of people that have used Chris and team, and that's why he's on the podcast because my Amazon team said, "You need to talk to Chris." And had several good referrals and recommendations. And so this has been really good, this has been really educational. I feel better for our clients and we also invest in brands and other things. I feel better knowing this information, better knowing you as well. So Chris, man, really appreciate the time. This has been super helpful. I'll link to everything in the show notes, maybe some of those specific resources as well, but go to ecommercechris.com. And then links to the podcast are on ecommercechris.com?

Brett:

Yeah. Sellerperformancesolutions.com if they want to go there, but yeah.

Chris:

Cool. All right, Chris. Awesome stuff, man. Thank you so much.

Brett:

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Chris:

Absolutely. And as always, thank you for tuning in. I hope this has been helpful and instructive. And hey, here's my ask for you. If you know someone that this podcast will be useful for, share it with them. We'd love to grow our audience. This is really just so we can connect with the community, and so I can meet smart people like Chris. And also want to hear from you, what else would you like us to cover on the podcast? Any guest suggestions or anything like that? And connect with us on the socials. I would love to chat with you there. And with that, until next time, thank you for listening.

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