For some third-party merchants who sell wares on the Amazon website, dealing with the company can be so bewildering that a cottage industry of consultants has sprung up to help them navigate the company’s rules and practices.
To some of the independent merchants who make a living from selling on Amazon.com, the tech giant can come across as baffling and unforgiving if they run afoul of its rules.
“I’m afraid of them. I’m afraid to send them an email because you never know what their guy’s going to do,” David Gruman, a New Jersey merchant who runs a large apparel and beauty products reselling business, says of the Amazon team charged with keeping merchants in line. “I call it poking the dragon.”
That’s where Chris McCabe comes in.
McCabe is a former seller-performance investigator at Amazon who is now an independent consultant. He helps merchants like Gruman communicate with Amazon analysts who evaluate hundreds of troubled sellers a day.
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“It’s kind of like being a translator or an interpreter,” McCabe says.
Gruman employs McCabe on a retainer basis, and he’s not the only one. The Boston-based consultant has clients as far as China. “There’s a tsunami of work coming to me on a daily basis,” McCabe says.
McCabe is part of a growing industry of consultants, in many cases former Amazonians, who purport to offer insight into the mysteries of the Seattle colossus.
“It’s become a big thing” in the past three years or so, says Rhonda Schneider, the organizer of the Sellers’ Conference for Online Entrepreneurs, a twice-yearly gathering for online merchants, about the consultants.
The proliferation stems from the rapid growth of Amazon’s Marketplace, the platform that allows third-party merchants to hawk their wares and who now account for half of the items sold on Amazon.com.
Many of these consultants claim they owe their livelihood to how Amazon has become stricter in recent years, as it tightens up what for years was a freewheeling arena. That means an increasing number of merchants running afoul of Amazon’s rules and getting their selling privileges revoked.
Amazon sees the situation differently. Scott Kubicki, the executive in charge of the seller-support team, says Amazon isn’t becoming stricter, just more effective at communicating already established requirements.
The company is focused on creating a seamless self-service experience using machine learning and automated tools to help merchants stay ahead of trouble on their own.
It also employs thousands of associates in 30 call centers worldwide to assist merchants with their problems.
Kubicki acknowledges that suspensions of merchants have been rising, but that increase lags far behind Marketplace’s overall growth.
“Only 1 percent of sellers tell us that we miss the mark,” he said in an interview.
Michael Ghiyam, co-founder of MaryRuth Organics, a seller of organic supplements, is one of those happy merchants. “Anytime I call, middle of the night, during the day, someone’s picking up the phone,” he says of his dealings with Kubicki’s seller support team.
He acknowledges he’s been frustrated before when one of his listings was removed because of a customer complaint. But that forced him to up his game.
“In hindsight I did see a tremendous benefit,” he says. “For us the pain of going through some of those things did help us improve our product.”
Yet there are enough bewildered sellers to provide fertile ground for a nascent industry of advisers.
Rachel Greer held various roles at Amazon, including in global regulatory compliance and product safety. She left Amazon last year to found Cascadia Seller Solutions, a consultancy that promises to help merchants navigate “Amazon’s murky, snake-infested waters” and stay compliant with the company’s policies.
Her firm helps clients deal with product-quality issues, customer service and brand development. From her experience at Amazon “I knew that a lot of third-party sellers didn’t know anything about policy and compliance,” she said in an interview.
Greer says she has helped about 160 clients so far and now has seven full-time employees. “We’re very busy — to the point that I’m just completely overwhelmed,” Greer said.
Attorneys are also jumping into the mix. C.J. Rosenbaum, a New Yorker, calls himself the “Go-To Amazon Attorney.”
Rosenbaum helps clients deal with intellectual-property complaints, which occur when merchants are accused of purveying fakes or selling a restricted product without authorization.
The latter is increasingly common, according to Rosenbaum, as major brands become important players in the Marketplace.
Many of these brands aim either to sell their wares exclusively or to tightly control distribution, and resellers are often required to get permission from the brand. Rosenbaum claims to help strong-arm brands into responding to these requests.
“What’s my special sauce? I’m a lawyer, and I can actually address these IP complaints,” Rosenbaum says. “When I write to the brand manager, to the lawyer, I can say this is (B.S.).”
What many merchants fear most is a sudden suspension of selling privileges, usually after customer complaints, shipping delays or other performance issues.
Amazon typically sends out an email to the merchant announcing the suspension and citing some of the product listings at the source of the trouble. Amazon expects sellers to investigate these issues and respond with a “plan of action” that shows the seller addressed the complaints and is making sure they won’t recur.
Some sellers find this guidance, and the ensuing feedback, frustratingly vague. Gruman, the New Jersey seller on Amazon, says in 2014 one of his items, a beauty cream, was suspended because customers complained it was inauthentic. Gruman says the reason was that the manufacturer used to make a purple cream and then switched it to a white cream, but it took him a while to suss it out.
“They don’t tell you the exact complaint,” Gruman says of Amazon. In various emails with Amazon’s seller-performance team, including after submitting the plan of action, “I got a generic response” requesting more information, he said.
Danielle Strome concurs. A Portland-based merchant, she was banned in April after operating for more than eight years over what she says were unsubstantiated claims of fake items. The emails “left one doubting that a human had been involved in the review or email writing,” she said.
A typical example, provided by Strome: “Thank you for responding to our request for information. However, the plan of action provided is not viable. We still need more information regarding your plan of action for these complaints before we can reinstate your selling privileges.” Various Amazon emails sent to her in a back-and-forth had very similar wording.
McCabe, the consultant, says that in fact there’s a human behind those emails, but the responses are canned. Investigators in the seller-support centers on the globe usually pick responses from a drop-down menu, McCabe says.
It’s that way because investigators have to police a market populated by millions of third-party merchants and they have to move fast, according to the consultant.
McCabe says many of the merchants submitting plans of action may not be the best communicators, either.
“Both sides are reading tea leaves,” he says.
Kubicki, the Amazon executive, said the emails “may not be personal, but they help sellers quickly identify action.” The merchants are used to the consistency and structure, he said.
But he emphasized that humans are in charge of dealing with suspensions. On average, investigators see five to 10 cases in an hour, but if they run into a complex issue they can spend more time focusing on a single case. “Quality always trumps speed,” Kubicki said.
The executive said Amazon “consciously” overstaffs its centers so there are enough associates to help sellers. Those merchants who have a critical issue can be sure an Amazon associate will be reading their email within 15 minutes more than 95 percent of the time.
And if sellers need to chat or talk with seller support, they can get someone on the phone within 40 seconds on average. Most questions are resolved within minutes, he said.
But Amazon’s focus is to minimize interactions in the first place, by constantly releasing new self-service solutions, including using artificial intelligence to anticipate sellers’ questions and warn about potential enforcement actions.
In the second quarter of this year, more than 85 percent of sellers who were warned by Amazon about a potential enforcement action managed to fix the problem before being suspended, Amazon said.
“We don’t want to have an intervention if we don’t need to,” Kubicki said.