Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention

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There’s a lot going on with Amazon right now. Amazon is getting closer and closer to shutting down retail arbitrage and online arbitrage on the platform. The customer dissatisfaction metrics are due to go live at long last in October. A new paid Seller Support program promises better support for those willing to pay. Sellers have discovered new tricks to manipulate seller reviews…and Amazon is catching them.

We are opening new markets in China and the UK to help sellers learn and implement best practices in their businesses including a conference on August 29 (ShenZhen, China) and on October 26 (London). We hope to meet our international clients!

Lesley will be speaking at SCOE. Cynthia will be speaking at ShenZhen (Seller Summit at the Sheraton) and Hong Kong, CES IV, the Feedvisor Conference in LA on September 12 and at the Retail Global event the next week in Las Vegas – please join us for dinner or drinks!

The End of Retail and Online Arbitrage?

Four reliable sources informed us that Seller Performance will no longer be accepting receipts as proof for anything. This has already happened in the groups that ungate categories and it has been slowly happening in practice at Seller Performance as they refuse more and more receipts from retailers (online and brick & mortar), even places like Disney.com or Coach or Nike outlet stores.

While we have seen this coming for a while, what surprised us was that the rumored planned date for implementation is “sometime in October.” If true, that’s awful news as it would be happening right before the holiday sales season. What’s yet to be seen is how Amazon plans to enforce this new policy. It could be disastrous as many sellers have already sent inventory to FBA for Q4 that they purchased from retail stores. This gives sellers very little time to shift gears to wholesale or private label.

Officially, Amazon stated that there are no “immediate term plans” to change how they accept receipts.  This is the difference between a casual conversation and what a public company will say out loud before they are ready.  My hope is this also means that we are looking at Q1 next year rather than Q4.  Regardless, it is my opinion, based on observation and working with the seller performance team that this change IS coming.

Why is Amazon moving in this direction? To protect the customer experience. Basically, they don’t consider items bought retail and resold to be

By shutting down arbitrage, they will also have fewer complaints from rights holders and big brands. Goods will likely be in better condition as many will be shipped in pallets.

Regardless of WHEN it happens, here’s the implications for sellers as we see them today:

  • More buyers will go to eBay as they realize it is the only platform for USED, COLLECTIBLE, discontinued and hard-to-find/exclusive NEW goods normally only found in retail stores.
  • Long-tail sales items will disappear from the platform.
  • Sellers will be taking a high risk if they sell USED media on the platform. Used items will decline.
  • It will be harder for sellers to start an Amazon business because more capital will be required.
  • It will be even easier for evil sellers to take RA/OA sellers down. We expect there will be a lot of bad behavior for a while.
  • Brand restrictions will increase and become even more common. Sellers will need to be pre-approved for many, many brands and prove they are buying from authentic sources as a matter of course.
  • OA/RA sourcing and scanning tools won’t be needed. This will be a financial blow to the industry.

Our Recommendations:

This is based on what we know today. Things may change. It is possible that Amazon won’t actually start suspending on this new rule until next year (that would be so nice). In the past, they warn in Q4 and suspend in January. Let’s hope that is true.

  • Make sure all your inventory is perfect, pristine and packaged properly for rugged travel.
  • As long as you never get inauthentic or counterfeit claims, you should be OK.
  • If you get an inauthentic claim and it is your first claim, Amazon will likely forgive you even though they won’t accept your receipts. If you get a claim, you will need to remove your other RA/OA inventory at that time.
  • If you’ve gotten three or more inauthentic/counterfeit claims in the past year, you will want to consider moving your inventory through another channel like eBay once the changes take place. You may not have any chances left. You can still use Amazon to fulfill your off-platform sales.
  • Sell off your RA/OA inventory as quickly as possible or move it to another platform.
  • Find new sources from wholesalers/distributors or directly from the manufacturer. Make sure all invoices are detailed and your sources are legit.
  • Understand that USED books, CDs, DVDs, etc. are susceptible to inauthentic claims same as NEW items. Most USED sellers don’t have good receipts let alone invoices.

What about the first sale doctrine?

The first sale doctrine says that you are allowed to resell items you bought in stores and other places and that brand owners can’t stop you from doing this since you paid retail when you bought the item. If you buy Coach bags from the outlet store and resell them, that’s arbitrage and is perfectly legal.

Just because it is legal, doesn’t mean Amazon has to allow you to do it on their platform. All it means is that the rights holders can’t stop you from re-selling goods you bought from these sources.  Coach can’t forbid you from reselling a Coach bag you bought at their store.

Amazon has the right to not accept receipts as proof of authentic. After all, they have no way of knowing for sure where the other stores got their merchandise.

What about you? Do you see other implications? Have questions? My mind is still processing all this. Ask your questions below and I’ll try to answer them.

Colleagues who attended the Women’s Conference in Seattle this week indicated that Amazon still seemed supportive of the RA/OA model.  I imagine this is true. What we’ve learned in our work with Amazon is that Seller Performance is different from the rest of the company.  It is quite possible for one group to not know what is happening with another.

Paid Seller Support Program

At the women’s conference this week, Amazon rolled out some interesting ideas. One of them was a paid Seller Support Plus program that will allow you to escalate your issues for $400 a month. Here’s what they said:

Seller Support Plus (SS+): A value-added service that gives you access to an experienced single point of contact (Seller Success Manager) to simplify your selling experience and allow you to focus on your business.

For a monthly subscription fee of $400, you will be able to escalate important issues to your Seller Success Manager for advanced troubleshooting and time-critical resolutions. By understanding you and your unique business, the Seller Success Manager will seek to remove persistent technical barriers and offer coaching opportunities during the course of your escalations. For more information, please send any questions to Seller-Support-Plus-Inquiries@amazon.com.

I was able to find out more today and basically, this is still Seller Support which means they can’t help you with Seller Performance issues like suspensions, listings take downs, policy violations, etc.  They will forward your email to seller performance and act as a “liaison.”  I have not seen that be particularly helpful in the past.  It is possible that these guys have a special queue with seller performance, but I wouldn’t bet my account on it.  They will help you get ungated and get a faster response from Seller Support.

In addition to the subscription service, they are offering basic training for new sellers for $100 to help them understand FBA, creating listings and stuff like that.  They have three different training modules (each $100). In listening to the description (we talked with one of their coaches), it is VERY basic. I think this will be helpful for new sellers but not anyone who has been selling for a few months unless you have a gap in your business like creating new listings.

Dissatisfaction Metrics To Go Live

Since last year Amazon has been tormenting sellers with the metrics of customer dissatisfaction rate and return dissatisfaction rate. At first they were going to go “live” in January, then February and then May and now…October. We’ll see if they really mean it. I’m glad they waited because a lot of my clients were failing the two metrics for lack of enough responses to make a statistically valid ratio of negatives to positives.

Assuming this intel is correct, what does it mean to you? If you are a MF seller it means that you need to really be on top of these metrics. If your metrics are poor now, think about how you can bring them up by October. In other words, how can you get happy, happy customer responses?

We’ve been helping some of our MF clients to create customer service templates that encourage buyers to leave positive responses or at least not to leave negative ones if they are unhappy.  You can contact us at customerservice@onlinesalesstepbystep.com to learn more. It is part of our Get Clean Stay Clean services.

Product Review Manipulation Still Rising

We continue to see sellers suspended for using product review companies that violate Amazon policy – even when the reviews are off the Amazon platform. Amazon is very serious about cracking down on paid reviews of any kind, fake reviews, overly enthusiastic reviews, those that are written before the buyer gets the product and reviews that don’t use the disclaimer. As an example of what Amazon is suspending for, in the past few weeks we’ve seen sellers who hired writers to create hundreds of fake Amazon buyer accounts and write fake reviews.

This kind of behavior led directly to Amazon’s new rules about reviewers in that they CANNOT leave a review unless they have bought at least one full-price product on the platform for more than $5.00. One client had literally thousands of reviews from people who opened an account JUST to leave a hyped-up review for their product.

While those examples may seem obvious, sellers need to know that ANYTHING that smacks of gaming the system is suspect. AMZ Tracker has been directly named in numerous suspensions but that hasn’t changed their business practices. This is a letter they sent their sellers recently. See if you can spot the problems:

Hey,

I know that all the analytics in the world won’t help if you don’t have any sales or reviews for your product. That’s why we set out to create the ultimate review network for you. We knew that AMZ Tracker wasn’t enough. We knew we had to help our users kick start their sales and reviews, so they could start climbing the ranks and begin making money with their products on Amazon.

We’ve created an ethical review network for paid subscribers called Amazon Review Trader where you can offer heavily discounted and free products in exchange for reviews.

This is the perfect way to get reviews when you’re just starting out. We literally have thousands of potential reviewers just waiting to review your product. These reviewers have the freedom to leave any type of review they want, but 99% of them will always leave 4 and 5 star reviews.

We monitor our reviewers’ profiles, and boot them out if they leave too many negative reviews. We only want reviewers who are eager and upbeat about trying new products.

If you don’t have at least 15 reviews (or more for more competitive niches) with an average of a 4 star rating or higher, you could be suffering as a result.

Check out Amazon Review Trader now in your AMZ Tracker paid account, so those analytics start showing GROWTH in sales!

To your Amazon success,

AMZ Tracker Team

Our postal address: 20th Floor, Central Tower,, 28 Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong

Several things to note: 1) they seem to be moving away from AMZ Tracker to a new service that seems to be the same; 2) they kick out reviewers who leave negative reviews; and 3) they guarantee 4- and 5-star reviews. All of these are against Amazon’s terms of service. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing suspensions shortly from this new entity. Because they are located in Hong Kong, it is hard for Amazon to go after THEM, but they are certainly able to go after the sellers who use them. Beware.  Amazon has recently started suing sellers as well as service providers.

What everyone needs to understand about product reviews is that Amazon can see EVERYTHING. The data they have is breathtaking. It is pointless to lie or try to fool them about your reviews. When they ask for your non-compliant reviews, they already know the answer – they just want to see if you will be honest about it.

There are other reviewer groups that have the same rules as AMZ Tracker and we’ve had clients suspended for using private Facebook groups to giveaway product. While the client’s post may have been compliant, the instructions to the reviewers in the group by the administrator was not.

Be very careful who you work with. Don’t take anyone’s word for it that they are compliant. Instead, compare their programs and reviewer messages to Amazon’s terms of service. Ask questions. Find out what they are telling their reviewers. Be suspicious of anyone who offers you “guaranteed page one” and other rosy promises. To get you there probably involves gaming the system or manipulation of the platform as Amazon calls it.

People ask us constantly who we recommend.  There is enough gray language in Amazon’s TOS about reviews that I can’t declare that any company is 100% compliant and so I don’t name names or make guarantees.  However, there are plenty of companies who are clearly NOT compliant.  We see their customers suspended over and over again.

If you plan to use a service, be sure you see everything that they say to their reviewers and that their process meets Amazon TOS for giveaways and discounted products. Remember that paid blogs are not acceptable to Amazon and they are tracking them.  Next, if reviewers are coerced or “encouraged” to contact the seller first before leaving a negative review, get away from that service as fast as you can.

In case you missed them, here’s links to my previous blog posts on product review services. The second one has a comparison chart:  Safe Product Review Program and More About Product Review Programs.

New Product Review Audit Service for PL Sellers

Because we’ve had so many suspended sellers for product reviews, we’ve created a proprietary software solution and approach to help identify which reviews are non-compliant in our clients’ accounts. This is especially helpful for our clients who are suspended because we can give Amazon a detailed list of non-compliant reviews and tell them WHY they are non-compliant. It goes a long way to getting our clients reinstated.

For clients who are not suspended but are concerned that their reviewers may not be following policy, we have an on-going audit service where we check their reviews each week for compliance. It is part of our Get Clean Stay Clean services.

If you are interested, send an email to: productreview@onlinesalesstepbystep.com. We don’t have official sign up forms yet but will get back to you. Pricing is based on the number of orders you’ve had over the past 3 months.

International Events in China and UK

Cynthia will be in China at the end of August speaking at a huge Amazon seller summit on Monday, August 29 at the Futian Sheraton in ShenZhen and at a special Amazon sellers’ meet-up in Hong Kong on August 31.

Register to attend this free conference now – seats are filling up. An all-star lineup of speakers includes WorldFirst, Wal-Mart, Jet.com, SlickDeals, Anker, SellerLabs, Marketplace Ignition, MerchantWords and much more!: Cross Border Trade eCommerce Seller Summit

Let’s Meet!

In addition to these awesome conferences, you will find us traveling the US over the next two months:

  • Seattle – SCOE. Lesley is speaking on the latest suspensions from Amazon. Use code CYNTHIA for $175 off! Join Lesley for dinner at the exciting Crow restaurant downtown. RSVP required.
  • Nashville – CES IV. Cynthia is talking about risk management in your Amazon business. Join her and Lesley both for dinner at Flyte restaurant downtown on the strip! RSVP here. Space limited to 20.
  • Los Angeles – Feedvisor conference. Cynthia is talking about the latest challenges facing high-volume sellers with Amazon suspensions. Sign up here for a $75 discount! (First 20 signups only. Expires 8/28/16) Use CODE LAVFC75.
  • Las Vegas – Retail Global conference. Sign up for $100 discount with code: STINE100. We will be co-hosting a meet and greet happy hour and dinner Thursday night Sept. 22 with the ScannerMonkey group. Register here – it’s free!

Peering inside Amazon’s black box algorithm is a Kabuki play – full of style, drama and mystery. This week I interpret several new moves in Amazon’s ponderous fan dance including enforcement of UPC codes, inauthentic claims for USED products and a new pricing tool from Amazon.

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Amazon sellers who create bundles and multi-packs are worried. Amazon seems to be saying that they suddenly need a very expensive UPC code and that they have to have permission from the manufacturer/rights holder in order to do it.

People who are using their own UPC codes for multipacks and some bundles are losing their listing privileges. And to further make you unhappy, Amazon’s ability to check UPCs against the GS1 database has a huge impact on inauthentic claims – which are bringing down a lot of sellers of items that do not currently print UPCs on their items.

What Amazon is doing now is automatically checking Product IDs against the GS1 database. So if you are selling a product where you have added a UPC code that you purchased from eBay or some online dealer, basically, it won’t show up in the GS1 database as belonging to you or any other brand. IF this product is YOURS – a private label or manufacturer – you’re fine because you can register these with Amazon or even ask for an exception to have a barcode. In fact, they will give you a universal number for your unique products through the brand registry so you can sell them worldwide on Amazon’s platforms under that one number.

If the product is owned by someone else, then they have their own “product ID” [as Amazon calls the collection of UPC, ISBN, EANs (Europe) and JANs (Japan)] and you need to use that. Again, this is fine if you are selling solo items, but what if you have a multi-pack? You need a separate UPC code for that and if the manufacturer doesn’t have a multipack UPC code…then you can’t create one.

What Amazon says about Multi-Packs:

UPC Anatomy FINALFor most products listed on Amazon.com, a multi-pack listing is only allowed for a manufacturer-created pack with its own unique UPC. You must enter an Item Package Quantity (IPQ) for these products.

EXCEPTIONS: HEALTH & PERSONAL CARE MULTI-PACKS: One of the few cases where you can use 1 UPC code for all multi-packs.

Health and Personal Care Multi-packs — If you are selling more than one of the same product with the same UPC in “packs” (e. g. “Pack of 2”), enter the number of items in the pack into the “Count” field of the HPC template. Please note that you will need to upload your multi-packs in a flat-file.

Basic Bundling Rules:

There are a lot of rules about product bundling and you can read them in SellerCentral. I’m going to focus on the rules regarding Product ID numbers.

  • The bundle must have its own standard product identifier or manufacturer part number. The identifier of any individual product in the bundle may not serve as the identifier for the bundle. Using a UPC from any single product in the bundle to identify the entire bundle may lead to immediate removal of the listing. You are responsible for obtaining a UPC for each bundle you create.
  • Do NOT bundle branded products with generic products. This may mislead customers into thinking that the generic product belongs to the same brand.

If you read the basic bundling rules on Amazon, it would seem to be OK to use your own UPC code…as it has always been in the past. However, we see problems on the horizon.

Here’s the phrase that is causing so much angst:

“The use of false product identification information, including product IDs, is prohibited and can result in your ASIN creation privileges being removed. Product IDs will be confirmed against the GS1 database.”

Clear as mud, right? What is going on?

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. This rule is not new, but Amazon hasn’t enforced it until recently
  2. This is designed to stop sellers from creating derivative products from branded items
  3. It is designed to protect rights holders – a good thing if you are the rights holder
  4. It makes it easier for Amazon to verify authenticity of the products being sold on its platform
  5. It will encourage more sellers to go the Private Label route and….
  6. Yes, sellers will get suspended for not following the rules

We have two clients who are currently unable to create new listings because they lost their privileges.

Amazon started this last year about this time in Grocery. Food sellers were told they could no longer create multi-packs unless the manufacturer was selling a multi-pack (think Sam’s Club® or Costco® bulk purchases or wholesale bags/boxes) and commodity foods needed to be branded.

The interpretive dance at that time around this topic was a) what was a commodity food? And 2) would current listings be grandfathered in? Many current listings WERE grandfathered in. This doesn’t mean that Amazon won’t shut them down one day, but when the rules went into effect, they stopped sellers from creating new listings that broke the rules, but didn’t take down all the old ones necessarily (some came down).

Nobody got suspended at that time that we know of, but I have since seen warnings to sellers who are trying to sell commodity goods without properly branding and packaging their products. Under the new rules there is no piggy-backing on someone else’s listing for a commodity product unless they are buying it retail or wholesale, basically – like Hershey Bars®.

If I want to sell one-pound bags of certain kinds of candy, for example, I need professional equipment to take a 20-pound bag and place it into 20 bags with my brand on them – even it if it is a branded candy like M&Ms®. Someone else selling a 1-pound bag of M&Ms can sell the retail package or create their own brand and packaging. Confusing? You bet. Same with sunflower seeds, coffee or any other commodity. Simply putting it into a polybag or food-grade box won’t work anymore. If you want to make money on bulk food these days, you need to be in the food packaging business, basically.

People who sell bras, shoes and apparel need to particularly keep the GS1 database in mind. Often there is no manufacturer UPC code when you are buying the product at Marshalls® (for example) but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a UPC code for that item somewhere.

In the case of multi-packs, don’t buy a UPC code and use it unless you are SURE there is no UPC number for the item. Just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That’s why you may need to check the GS1 database yourself if you are selling a branded product where you can’t find the UPC code. Contact the manufacturer first and then check the database. The GS1 database doesn’t tell you every single UPC code out there, but it tells you if your brand has an extension registered with them. This greatly enhances the likelihood that there is a UPC code for that item and that you need to find and use that rather than using your own.

An extension is like the first few digits of a credit card. They tell Amazon and others who owns the codes that follow that extension. For example, if brand X uses 1234 xxx xxx xxx for product ID codes, you know that ANY UPC code starting 1234 belongs to brand X. You don’t need to check all the digits. That is what Amazon is doing when it checks the GS1 database. If your UPC code doesn’t start with 1234 for that brand? You’ll eventually be flagged.

Now don’t even start. I can hear it now. “How long before they flag us?” We don’t know. I just know it will happen because now it is automated. That means Amazon’s searchbots are at work. Resistance is futile. Assimilation is inevitable.

Q. Do I have to buy my UPC codes from the GS1 Now? They’re expensive!

spongebob gift setI don’t know. If you are a manufacturer or private label, I’d suggest you do. When you put your bundles together now, really think through the issues first. As long as your bundles avoid being associated with any one brand, you should be OK – think Cynthia’s Fabulous Gift Boxes vs. SpongeBob Squarepants® Bundle for 8-Year-Old Boys. You probably don’t have the right to sell SpongeBob bundles, but you can sell gift boxes. Semantics? Yes, but think about how the Amazon robots work. They use key words, titles, UPC codes.

Cordelia Blake in the ScannerMonkey group is conducting an experiment with her own GS1 code. Check it out if you are interested.

Q. Why is Amazon Picking on Us?

It is all about cleaning up the catalog. There are too many duplicate pages and too many improper listings. In addition, it is hard to test the authenticity of a product if the UPC in the catalog is wrong. Many major brands (really big brands like Disney and Sony) have provided Amazon with their UPC codes. This means when you list a Disney product that doesn’t match their list of UPC codes, you’re in trouble.

We had one client who used her own UPC code for everything she sold on Amazon.  It was a nightmare cleaning up that situation.  She thought Amazon was like eBay. It wasn’t deliberate, but you can see why Amazon takes a hard line with that kind of behavior. It leads to lots of duplicate listings.

Q. What Bundles CAN I Sell?

productbundleIf you’ve created a bundle of, say, Disney Princess plates, napkins and cups for a party pack, is that OK to sell? Maybe. 99% of those items are licensed rather than direct from the brand. If you buy them from the rights holder (licensee) AND you have permission to re-sell them on Amazon, then you probably can create a bundle. What if you buy them at Target and create a bundle? Probably not. I say that from experience. I’ve been kicked off of listings by Amazon because I didn’t have the right to re-sell part or all of the bundle on Amazon even though I bought them retail at Target.

What if you are selling a gift bundle and it is full of candy and toys? If all the items are branded, you are probably OK. You can have a Hershey’s bar with a package of Minions Mike ‘N Ike® with a SpongeBob toy and a Cars® coloring book with Crayola® Crayons. That’s how I read the rules. In the title you would call it a bundle and not list any of the brands until the description bullets: Bundle: 8-Year-Old Boy Special “Feel Better” Gift Box by Cynthia’s Fabulous Gift Boxes for Special People™.

Last Word on UPCs…For Today

I’ll write more about this topic as I find out more. Currently I’ve not been able to reinstate my clients’ ability to create new listings once they’ve lost that ability. I’m not giving up, however. This enforcement is new which means mistakes will be made and Amazon will improve the process as time goes on.

Bottom line, I predict there will be suspensions and sellers will need to prove to Amazon that their bundle or multi-pack follows policy. It may be that sellers will need to provide invoices for every item in a bundle. If your bundle consists of a bunch of dollar store items, you may have a harder time proving authenticity unless the invoices are detailed and you are buying wholesale from the Dollar Tree® or Dollar Store® vs. retail.

Is Amazon Changing its Policies for USED Products?

Recently I’ve seen inauthentic claims that surprised and worried me as someone who sells used books and media on the platform. My understanding has been that Amazon does not seek authentic sources for used items. They know we are buying this stuff at book sales and thrift stores, etc. – all places that have lousy receipts. In fact, most of my receipts are hand written (disallowed as proof by Amazon). Many of my books were bought in large lots. I used to find CDs and DVDs the same way.

However, three times now I’ve seen Amazon go after a seller (including me) for inauthentic for used media. In previous cases I basically said, “Used media is not subject to the same authenticity scrutiny as new items” and it was OK. My Carl Sagan Cosmos book was allowed.

Last week we got a different response back from Amazon that said, “counterfeit is against policy whether new or used.” OK, but seriously? This was some obscure classical music CD my client bought at an estate sale. I felt a chill down my spine. If this is truly new policy, the implications are horrifying. Nearly all used, collectible and possibly refurbished items on the platform would vanish overnight if sellers had to provide detailed invoices.

What is Going On Here?

We escalated this issue with Amazon to see if we can get a clear answer on policy from Jeff Bezos’ team or someone senior. Rachel Greer and her team at Cascadia Seller Solutions helped us with our research. After a flurry of emails, a member of the senior executive team reviewed the case and told my client, “counterfeit is counterfeit,” and they still want to see invoices.

Here’s the problem. Counterfeit sellers are selling their products as used to circumvent the Product Quality team (who focus on New) so now they’re having to review Used products as well. Category gating has made it harder to list items of uncertain provenance as new, but it’s still simple to list as used. To combat these black hat tactics, used products no longer seem to be exempted from the automated algorithms. And as Rachel noted to me, “You know they’re not brilliant at separating the wheat from the chaff.”

She’s a master at understatement.

We were also told that it was not likely to be a regular thing (even though I’ve now seen three).  Amazon knows that we won’t be able to provide receipts/invoices so how many inauthentic/counterfeit strikes do we get before we’re suspended? Three in six months, five in a year are the numbers I’ve heard before.  I can’t confirm with Amazon, but seems right based on our experience.

Will They Actually Suspend a Seller for Inauthentic Who is Selling Used Media?

Yes.  We have a case currently. It upsets me a lot. If you are selling counterfeit as “used” to avoid inauthentic claims? Your days are numbered. If you are an honest used media and collectibles seller? Those dishonest bastards just ruined it for the rest of us.

What Should I Do if I’m a Used Media or Collectibles Seller?

Assess your situation. 

  1. Do you already have inauthentic claims against you that you couldn’t disprove?
  2. Are you engaging in other violations like listing DVDs in the “Everything Else” category, selling poor quality product, etc?
  3. Do you sell collectibles, DVDs or CDs? They are at higher risk for claims.
  4. Are you buying from sources with poor receipts or invoices?

Determine your risk comfort level and act.

  1. If you don’t have any claims against you now, take a wait and see approach. Going forward, buy from authentic sources. (see my blog post on the Gray Market for more on “what is authentic?”)
  2. If you have product quality, inauthentic and counterfeit claims on your account already, get rid of the high risk items in your inventory and sell them somewhere else or destroy them. Going forward, only list on Amazon products that you would believe to be authentic yourself, as this is really a customer experience/perception issue more than reality.
  3. If you’ve already been suspended for inauthentic claims in the past, time to clear out your inventory. You can’t afford another claim.

New Automate Repricing Tool by Amazon?

In case you missed it, Amazon soft launched in beta its new repricing tool…maybe. I have predicted for some time that Amazon’s insistence that we enter our high-low range for our inventory was the precursor to a repricing tool. Check out these two videos: Amazon beta launch; analysis from Stephen Smotherman and this article from eCommerce Bytes to learn more.

My friends at Feedvisor pointed out to me that this is a rules-based program rather than algorithm based which means it is focused on getting you the lowest price rather than the Buy Box per se. This is the problem with most repricing tools. It isn’t their fault, but generally that’s how it works. They race you to the bottom even if you decide not to go below the lowest price.

Right now you have to be invited to beta test the program. My prediction is that when they launch it officially, many sellers who are currently using rules-based programs will switch. Amazon’s is MUCH simpler and – as near as I can tell – will be free. It will be an awesome tool for smaller sellers and I’m excited to see Amazon offer it. For the high-volume and private label sellers, I think they are still going to want an algorithmicly based tool that allows them to compare their sales against their competition’s.

[Full disclosure: I am a Feedvisor customer. I’m biased…but it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.]

May Travels

Atlanta Olympic ParkI’m heading to Atlanta next week for SellerLab’s RESONATE conference. In addition to being one of the experts at the conference, I’m hosting a dinner on Wednesday night (May 18) after the conference ends. Space is limited to 15-17 people. If you are in the Atlanta/Buckhead area, please join us!

The following week both my business partner Lesley Hensell and myself will be in New York City for the Feedvisor Seller Summit. I’ve been allowed to offer a handful of free tickets to this by-invitation-only event to my clients whose volume meets or exceeds $1.5 M annually (100K+ per month). The Miami Beach conference earlier this year was outstanding in terms of content and no sales pitches.

Please sign up HERE for the May 24 Feedvisor conference in Manhattan’s Meat-Packing District. You will be contacted by Feedvisor if you meet the criteria. RSVP cut-off is early next week. I am so delighted to offer this opportunity to my high-volume clients.

brooklyn bridgeIn addition to meeting our clients at the conference, we will be having dinner with our local clients while we are in town. Please check your in-boxes on Friday for an invitation to this very special private party at the Reserve Cut in lower Manhattan. It’s Kosher and supposed to be one of the best steakhouses in New York City. I can’t wait! If you don’t see your invitation by Monday, contact my assistant Lissa at: Lissa@onlinesalesstepbystep.com.

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to a large group of sellers at the Feedvisor conference in Miami Beach. Most of these sellers are $1.5M+ a year and higher and they are understandably concerned about losing their seller privileges. Feedvisor also shared a survey of 1,500 Amazon sellers with us and I was startled to see that 63% of sellers count fear of suspension as one of their biggest worries. Be sure to check out the full report, it was fascinating. Here are some questions and scenarios that came up that I thought would be of interest to you, my faithful reader:

Q. My Mom and I both have seller accounts. They are separate accounts but I’m worried that our accounts might be linked and if one of us goes down, we both go down. I’ve logged into her account to help her out sometimes. What should we do?

Your accounts are definitely linked. They know you are related. While you are both in good standing, you need to address the issue with Seller Performance. Follow the process for operating multiple seller accounts. Even though you are simply wanting an annotation on your account rather than owning two accounts per se. Here’s the process:

Operating multiple seller accounts: Operating and maintaining multiple Seller Central accounts is prohibited. If you have a legitimate business need for a second account, you can apply for an exception to this policy. From the bottom of any page in your seller account, click Contact Seller Support. Select Your account, then select Other account issues.

In your request, provide an explanation of the legitimate business need for a second account. To be considered for approval, you must have the following:

  • An account in good standing with excellent Customer Metrics
  • A separate email address and bank account for the new account
  • No intention to sell the same products or services in both accounts
  • Intention to sell in entirely different categories
  • The inventory sold in each account must be different

You’ll receive a response to your request within 2 to 3 business days.

Provide the information above for both accounts and explain that you are separate businesses and want to remain that way. You are concerned that your accounts are linked and if one account should be suspended the other one will be also. Explain your product mix and how each of you sources your products to sell on Amazon. Ask for an account annotation on both accounts stating that the accounts are operating legitimately.

Lastly, be aware that a seller should NEVER go inside another seller’s account without precautions. We have a client right now that used to help other sellers set up their accounts. She is linked to many seller accounts right now and we suspect that is why she is not getting reinstated. Once we un-link her, we hope she will be back.

The gray market isn’t just in China, of course, but this is a good chart of how it works. Where does your supplier fit in this cycle? Are you sure your items are legit?

Q. How does Amazon perceive the gray market and why is it cracking down on it?

Gray market inventory consists of legal, non-counterfeited goods sold outside normal distribution channels by entities (us third-party sellers) which may have no relationship with the producer of the goods. That’s the basic Wikipedia definition. In practice, this means that products don’t qualify for the manufacturer’s warranty and were never intended to be sold to you for resale. It also means the items could be stolen or could be inappropriately imported from another country that does not meet all of the U.S. regulations. It could also be slightly different from the version sold in the U.S. Or it could be forbidden for sale online.

An example that I see a lot in Beauty is sellers who also own a brick and mortar salon. They order designer hair product through their salon that their contract specifically forbids being sold online. They sell it on Amazon under a different store name. A competitor or the manufacturer complains (or else Amazon already has that brand in their list of restricted products) and the seller’s listing or account is suspended.

Another recent client was selling products from MLMs. She bought from Herbalife and Creative Memories distributors and then sold on Amazon.  While this seller is not violating a contract with the manufacturer, their hand-written receipts won’t hold up with Amazon who knows these are inauthentic goods. Why did Amazon allow them to be sold in the first place? I wish I knew. You would think they’d have made it impossible to list certain goods that are clearly inauthentic.

Why does inauthentic matter if the product is not counterfeit? Here is what Amazon says in its policies:

We take product authenticity very seriously. It is each seller’s responsibility to source and sell only authentic products. If you sell counterfeit goods, we may immediately suspend or terminate your selling privileges and destroy inventory in our fulfillment centers without reimbursement. In addition, if we determine that a seller account has been used to engage in fraud or other illegal activity, remittances and payments may be withheld or forfeited. The sale of counterfeit goods can also lead to legal action by rights holders and civil and criminal penalties.

We are constantly innovating on behalf of our customers and working with manufacturers, content owners, vendors, and sellers to improve the ways we detect and prevent counterfeit products from reaching our marketplace. We work hard on this issue every day because we know that our customers trust that they are buying authentic products when they shop on Amazon.com. This is why we stand behind the products sold on our site with our A-to-Z Guarantee. We also encourage anyone who has a product authenticity concern to notify us, and we will investigate it thoroughly and take any appropriate actions.

In the first place, it is related to counterfeit in that it is much more likely that you might be buying and selling counterfeit goods if you are buying from an unauthorized source. You might also be selling stolen goods. That is certainly one way to find inexpensive goods to sell on Amazon. You may not have stolen the goods yourself but you are equally responsible under the law and with Amazon. That is why it is so important to check out your suppliers to make sure they are authorized to sell goods to you for resale online. They may only have permission to sell to brick and mortar stores or they may be unauthorized to sell those products at all. Notice how Amazon says they are working with manufacturers, content owners, vendors and sellers? You can take that to the bank. I’m confident that a number of my client’s inauthentic claims came directly from the manufacturers. Amazon MUST take their claims seriously. So if you are screwing your supplier and violating your agreement….more fool you.

Wall St. Journal points out that gray market vendors for top luxury brands remained high despite Alibaba’s efforts to purge them. This is what Amazon is fighting.

Inauthentic claims abound in all categories and it is really hard to get some sellers back on the platform – particularly if they’ve been reinstated previously for this and didn’t change their ways.

I know other sellers who make up invoices, lie about their sources or refuse to reveal their source. Amazon is rigid on this topic. Confess, cough up the real invoices, throw yourself on Amazon’s mercy, and stop buying on the gray market. It is your only hope.

One seller said in all seriousness, “what will I sell then?” That summarizes the issue nicely. Sellers need to find product cheaply and don’t really care where it comes from as long as it isn’t counterfeit. Amazon cares and will kick you off forever if you can’t prove the authenticity of your goods. Remember, you signed a contract that said you would source and sell only authentic products. The burden of proof is on you.

Q. I’m confident that my goods are genuine. Are you saying I need to get proof from my supplier all the way back to the manufacturer/brand owner?

Yes.  If the supplier can’t prove they are an authorized reseller, or that they bought from an authorized reseller (or direct from the manufacturer), then you are buying gray market goods.  You can no longer afford to make assumptions.  It is your responsibility to verify authenticity.  And remember, if it seems too good to be true…it is.

Q. If I tell Amazon I bought from a gray market source, will they tell the manufacturer or legitimate supplier?

I don’t know for sure. I’ve seen no evidence of it. What I know for sure is that they won’t reinstate you unless you do. They don’t work for the manufacturers so my guess is no. This is about Amazon protecting its platform and reputation as well as possible legal repercussions. They have to show that they have policies in place to eliminate counterfeit from the platform or else they could be legally liable for counterfeit and stolen goods sold on their platform. This is why inauthentic and counterfeit are among the toughest claims to get reinstated. They have no tolerance for invoice fakers and repeaters who don’t learn their lesson the first time.

Q. I sell high-end luxury goods and I get a lot of inauthentic claims from Amazon and it is such a hassle to get my listings reinstated. Is there any way to make this faster or to make them stop?

Michael Kors is rabid about kicking sellers off the platform. The others are also diligent. If you sell these brands, you can expect to be questioned by Amazon and to have to produce invoices or receipts.

No. Your best offense is a good defense in this case. Make sure that for every product you sell you can immediately produce the invoices and trace the product directly back to the brand/rights holder. The shorter the distance between you and the manufacturer, the better. For each middle man you will need to provide information to demonstrate that they bought their product from a legitimate source. The best time to ask your supplier for a letter or other form of verification of their inventory source is at the time of purchase. Get it, file it. If they are unwilling to share their source, you may have a problem. A client of mine recently proved the purchase trail of her inventory all the way back to Versace in Italy. What a hassle!

Luxury goods sellers be aware that Amazon knows the legitimate distribution channels for these high end brands. If you come up with an unknown name for a supplier, it will come under intense scrutiny. Another reason not to fake your invoices. Also, some brand owners do not allow their items to be sold online. This is why it is important for you to determine if your supplier has the right to sell product to you for resale on Amazon – not just if they are an authorized reseller of that brand.

Q. Is there a specific number of inauthentic claims I get before being suspended?

Amazon doesn’t share that information. If you regularly get inauthentic claims but are able to prove you bought from legitimate sources, you should be OK. If you get caught buying from the gray market, you must stop selling all gray market goods immediately. You risk your entire account. If you get a bunch of inauthentic claims in a short time that is more damaging to your account than one here and there. If you repeatedly get inauthentic claims for the same brand and/or the same ASIN, that is more damaging than random claims for different items in your inventory.

If you are selling gray market goods now, I strongly urge you to find new sources for your inventory.  Amazon has an uncanny ability to ferret out gray market goods.

Q. What about items I buy new from thrift stores, garage sales, charities, etc.? Are those gray market?

Yes. There is no way to know if they are genuine. Do NOT sell them as New on Amazon’s platform. Two Miracle Max 1of our recent clients were able to get reinstated by getting a letter from the charity stating where they had received the merchandise initially (it was a large donation from the brand owner). They were LUCKY. You probably won’t be. Don’t do it. It took days-to-weeks to get these letters. It is a big hassle. Our clients lost a lot of money.

Another client had the brand owner accuse him of selling stolen goods and he has no recourse because he bought them at a garage sale and doesn’t even have a receipt let alone an invoice.  We got him reinstated but it was a “Miracle Max” miracle.  When he was filling his bags with cheap inventory he was thrilled and thought he’d found a bargain.  Now in hindsight he feels badly for being so naive and not questioning where the goods were coming from.

Q. Is there anything I can do if Amazon thinks my invoices are fake?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?  We have several clients who Amazon flat out doesn’t believe them – most for good reason.  I can’t emphasize enough how good Amazon is at spotting fake invoices and how seriously they take this issue.  It is better to throw yourself on their mercy and confess than to send in fake invoices.  I have a client right now who is sending in genuine invoices BUT they won’t believe them because they had previously sent in fake invoices.  I’m trying to figure out a way to fix this but for now it could be an account-ending mistake.

If our clients can’t put their hands on the invoices immediately, we know we have a problem on our hands. Friends, it should not take you hours to days to get us an invoice.

Q. Why does Amazon want to see invoices for 180 days of sales?

One trick some sellers use is to mix authentic goods with gray market goods to improve their profitability. By asking for invoices that show six months of sales, Amazon is looking for sellers playing these games.

Q. Why does Amazon keep rejecting my invoices when I know they are legit?

There’s a lot of possibilities.  They may know more than you do about your supplier/distributor.  You may have sent your goods to an unknown address – a trick used by sellers trying to fool customs (really, the things you learn in this job!).  We had  that happen recently with a client.  The address wasn’t a trick, but they had moved a year previously and not updated their Amazon profile.  That flagged their invoices and we had to prove the move and legitimacy of their current address where the goods had been sent.

Your product may also be one that is known to have counterfeits/knockoffs.  I have many clients that sell luxury brands which puts them under Amazon scrutiny to begin with.  If they are also buying from the gray market – importing from Europe to sell in the US, for example – it can be a problem.  Most luxury brands have very specific distribution channels in each country and don’t authorize goods from one country to be sold in another even if they are the same.  We have a sunglasses seller who ran into this problem when he brought in inventory from Europe to sell in the U.S.

Q. How can I avoid getting inauthentic claims?

Make sure your product is perfect and well packed. If you are selling a luxury item, make sure it is a satisfying experience for the buyer to open.  Gift boxes, tissues, seals, luxury labels — all make a difference.

We had one watch seller who was getting inauthentic and counterfeit claims for a luxury watch band.  He received them in a bulk package and then put them in a poly bag. Buyers thought they were fake. We suggested he call the brand and see if they could send him seals and/or official labels or tags – which they were happy to do.  Now his watchbands are better packaged and they look official to the buyer.  He eliminated the root cause of the complaints. Optics are very important when selling expensive products. Always keep the buyer experience in mind.  The more expensive your product, the more they expect.

This won’t necessarily protect you if the manufacturer is making the complaint, but it will help to show that your buyers are satisfied.  If you also had a lot of complaining buyers….that would be bad.  In the case of my client, he buys his watchbands directly from the manufacturer so there was no problem getting his ASIN reinstated once he fixed the buyer complaints.

Q. I bought gray market goods without realizing it. Will Amazon let me sell again?

Usually yes.  Are you a repeat offender?  Have they asked you to provide authentic invoices for the same product over and over again?  You need to stop selling those.  If Amazon lets you back, you need to clean up your inventory and get rid of inauthentic goods.  For all of those reading this with a pit in your stomach (and who haven’t been suspended or asked to provide invoices) I suggest selling out your current supply and making sure you are clean going forward.  If you are already in the cycle with Amazon trying to get a listing or your account reinstated, start your clean out now.

I know this is a very expensive proposition that will make a lot of sellers angry.  All I can say is that you need to decide the level of risk you can live with.  Getting back on after inauthentic claims is very hard…or maybe it just seems hard to me because so many of my clients have fake invoices I have to explain.  Regardless, forewarned is forearmed.

Time to Get Clean with Amazon!

For the past few months we have been developing and refining a new service for sellers that allows them to see the “hidden metrics” on their accounts and take action before Amazon suspends their listing or – worse – their account!  Called Get Clean Stay Clean™, our service provides a weekly “Canary Report” that gives early warning of product quality and performance issues that can bring your account to a halt.

For $250 a month, you can have the peace of mind knowing that you are addressing problems before they become big. You will also have access to us if issues come up that require more intensive attention like ASIN reinstatements.  LEARN MORE….

 

Skyline of downtown Salt Lake City with the Towering Wasatch Mountain range in the background

Skyline of downtown Salt Lake City with the Towering Wasatch Mountain range in the background

On the Road Again!

My next stop in my travels is beautiful, chilly, Salt Lake City for the Prosper show February 7-9. My business partner Lesley Hensell and our colleague Nate McCallister will be joining me as we anticipate quite a few of our clients will be attending. We are hosting a special client appreciation happy hour on Monday night the 8th – check your email for an email from us! I sent it on Sunday. If you are going to the show, please be sure to say hello!

You can see my speaking engagements and travel schedule on my Suspension Prevention website which I keep updated.

Suspension Prevention BookJan 22 16 ranking

Want to learn more about suspensions and reinstatements on Amazon.com? Be sure to get your copy of my new book Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and Protect Your Amazon Seller Account.  The softcover is on Amazon and the Kindle, Nook and PDF versions are available from me.

Already we are hearing stories of sellers who were able to reinstate themselves after reading the book – music to our ears!

Every time Amazon makes changes to its suspension algorithm, we know about it…not because they tell us, but because we start to see a rash of the same kind of Amazon suspensions.  From this we conclude that Amazon tweaks its algorithm often.  It is still mostly for product quality although we’ve begun to see a bunching of performance suspensions over the past few weeks as well.  This quick post covers some of the latest issues so you can look for them in your seller account.

Late Shipment – Confirmation Before Shipping

These two related issues have been rooted in a couple of changes. First, Amazon does not consider a package shipped until it is picked up by the carrier.  Some sellers missed the memo on this and were dismayed to learn that all their packages were suddenly late.  Some sellers marked the packages as confirmed shipped thinking that would fix the problem and got in trouble for confirmation before shipping. To fix this problem, you may need to arrange for your carrier to come at a different time or more often.  If you are dealing with USPS which is notoriously bad about scanning, give them a bulk barcode to scan that will register all the packages at once (check out how from USPS).

Valid Tracking Rate – Enforced February!

This was a head scratcher.  Most of our clients use a major carrier for their packages and they provide tracking data but Amazon was saying that they got invalid tracking data.  When we looked at the invalid tracking data report and checked the tracking data, it was all accurate! What the…?

After much back and forth with Amazon by one of my intrepid (and incredibly persistent) clients, we learned what was going on. It was a feed issue.  A space or weird character might get added to the tracking number and it would be recorded as “invalid.”  Later, it would self-correct as Amazon continued to interact with the carrier.  However, the seller was already dinged for invalid tracking data.

You can fix actual errors manually on the buyer’s order page. For errors that have been corrected, however, you need to inform Amazon immediately.  It can take 72 hour for updated metrics to show on your report.

Right now this metric is not being counted against you but it will in February.  In my opinion, Amazon is having problems on their end and I suspect a lot of sellers will find their metrics plummeting in February.  They have a special email just for this problem: sellersupport-performance-metrics@amazon.com.  If you find, as my client did, that most of the tracking data is accurate, then send them the report so they can annotate your account.

[PS. Be sure to send the email from the same email address you use for your Amazon account]

So how often should you check this report?  Every day.

How do you check it?

  1. From the Performance drop-down menu, select Customer Satisfaction.
  2. Click Valid Tracking Rate.
  3. Click the Request Report button.
  4. Select the date range you would like to view.
  5. De-select Shipped late and Delivered late to view orders with invalid or no tracking information.

When should you start? Today!

V080_TrenchLesson from the Trenches

This is a lesson for all sellers, MF or FBA.  When you have a problem with a listing or a feed, shut it down.  This seems obvious, but it is not when you are under stress.  Several of our clients over the past year have gotten in huge trouble because of a technology glitch (feed issues) or a problem ASIN that they compounded by not shutting it down immediately.

In most cases, the seller would call seller support and try to work on the issue but they would forget a critical step which was to stop the problem in its tracks.  They didn’t close the listing and got in more trouble as the product kept selling (which, maybe, didn’t match the listing or was the wrong item).

In one case with an MF seller, there was a huge glitch with Amazon’s feed system – it wasn’t an outside third-party software or anything like that – which caused a lot of orders to appear not to have shipped on time.  I mean A LOT of orders. This seller’s ODR was 98% (goal=<1%).  Amazon shut them down in a hurry, but it wasn’t so easy to get them back up.  For one thing, they had 700-800 orders to fix first.

What should they have done?  In their case, they could have manually fixed each order as they went along.  A pain in the butt?  Yes, but it would have saved their account until the glitch was fixed.  Alternatively, they could have closed all their listings until the problem was fixed.  Expensive? Yes.  Getting suspended cost them several days of sales and our fees, however.

Now this was Amazon’s fault, shouldn’t they have taken responsibility?  Nope.  You are responsible to manage all your vendors, suppliers, etc.  Even Amazon.  They did forgive him (for trusting in their technology!) and reinstate him after he fixed all those orders.

To add insult to injury, the ODR takes time to adjust itself back to normal which means his ability to get the buy box and to sell will be affected for a few days to a week.

In the case of clients who continued to sell faulty product or while they were fixing an ASIN, they were suspended which is a high, high price to pay.  In addition, their account will have this negative mark on it forever.  Even though they were reinstated, there will come a time when Amazon will not reinstate them again or, they won’t give them the benefit of the doubt.

That happened with a client this week. Amazon immediately decided against them in a situation.  We wanted to figure out why our normal tactics weren’t working for them for an ASIN issue.  We discovered that they had so many annotations on their account for using copyrighted images, copyright infringement, etc., that Amazon didn’t even read what we sent them.  They’ve lost the benefit of the doubt.  I haven’t figured out what we are going to do about that and it makes me very nervous if they are ever suspended again.  We were told that his negative account annotation was “one of the longest we’ve seen.” That’s not good my friends.

Most of our clients who are reinstated are eager to make things right and avoid ever getting suspended again.  Their accounts show a marked improvement in just a few weeks.  There is a certain percentage, however, that are slow learners and they get suspended over and over again. Don’t be one of those guys. Remember that EVERYTHING is in your account. It never goes away.

Coming to a city near you!robot-cocktail

My business partner Lesley Hensell and I are going to be coming to a city near you this year!  At least, we’re going to try.  I’ve set up speaking engagements so far in Miami Beach, Orlando, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis. I’m working on opportunities in Chicago, LA, Las Vegas, and Denver. I’ve also got regular meet and greets in Dallas that I attend.

In each city, I will be hosting a get together (for all my friends!) or a private client event.  I look forward to meeting many of you in person!

I’m in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale this week on the 14th.  Please join me for lunch or happy hour. I’d appreciate your RSVP so I can make sure we get a big enough table/space in the restaurant.

January 14, 2016 — In town for the Feedvisor Conference. Sign up for lunch or happy hour the day after in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale respectively.  RSVP here.

February 8, 2016 — This will be a private event for clients only at the PROSPER Show in Salt Lake City. Watch your email. I’m still working on the venue.  Save the date/time 5-7 PM on the 8th.  Lesley, Nate McCallister and I will all be at the show. We look forward to meeting you!

March 20, 2016 — Orlando.  I’m in town for the awesome ScanPower conference. I’m coming in early so I can meet local clients for brunch at the hotel. Please note there are only a few more days left to sign up for this conference if you want to attend.  Registration closes on the 15th. You donate to Wounded Warriors to attend. It is not your typical conference.

March 23, 2016 — Philadelphia. I’m speaking at SCOE and would love to get together for dinner the night before.

July 22, 2016 — Minneapolis. I’m speaking at Midwest eCom and will be arranging a dinner somewhere near the Mall of America.

As details for the meet and greets are arranged, I’m posting them on my speaking and events page so you can join me. I will also send out emails closer to time for those who are interested.

OK, I can’t fool you guys. You can tell can’t you? I don’t like to eat alone! 🙂

Suspension Prevention Book

If you’ve not yet read it, January is the perfect time to pick up a copy of Cynthia’s newest book Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and Protect Your Amazon Seller Account.  Amazon is getting stricter and stricter with its sellers. You owe it to yourself to be prepared and take a defensive approach.

http://suspensionprevention.com

 

 

Now that my book Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and SP cover_001Protect Your Amazon Seller Account has been out for a couple of weeks, questions are starting to come in. I’m grateful to my thoughtful readers – and hope their questions help you, too:

Q. Most of the first book you wrote told FBA seller startups to shop at retail and discount stores as a good way to get started. Given why sellers are getting suspended, if you were going to get into this business today would you?

Amazon FBA has changed a lot since I got started. Mistakes that I made in the beginning without consequence are more vigorously pursued by Amazon today. That being said, I still think Amazon is a great opportunity for a small seller on a budget to get started. I would still dive in. What I would tell the new retail arbitrage seller today is to make sure that the products you buy are PERFECT and gift-ready. If you find yourself standing at a shelf wondering if you should buy something based on its appearance…the answer is probably “no.” You can’t afford faded, dirty, scuffed packages with crushed corners, torn labels, etc. It needs to be pristine. Take great care removing labels so the box/package is perfect when you send it to Amazon.

Next, make sure that there is plenty of protective packaging whether it is bubble wrap, poly bags, double-boxing…whatever it takes to make sure that your product makes it all the way from your house to the customer in perfect condition. You can’t rely on Amazon to ship your product with the same care that you would. Ultimately, product quality is your responsibility.

Lastly, buy from sources that provide an invoice or receipt that Amazon will accept. You need to have the full name of the product on your receipt/invoice and – ideally – the UPC code. This means, for example, that Target receipts are usually OK, but Marshall’s receipts aren’t. If you are ever accused of inauthentic or counterfeit, you MUST have an acceptable receipt or invoice. When you shop, you need to look at the receipt first and then the product quality and then the price and potential margin.

You may want to sell some of your goods as Used-Like New instead of new.  While they do not explicitly say so, Amazon considers goods bought retail as being used and they are not currently pursuing product quality claims on used goods unless there are a LOT of complaints like you might see with a defective product.  I’ve not yet seen anyone selling used goods suspended for counterfeit or inauthentic.

I would also say for new retail arbitrage seller that the ultimate goal is to graduate to wholesale or private label. The reason I say this is that these sources provide invoices that meet Amazon’s requirements. Private Label products are branded by you and – presumably – unique to the Amazon platform and hard to duplicate. This provides maximum profit to you. Wholesale offers opportunities that may not be available via retail arbitrage or at least not in the desired quantities.

Q. How are you approaching your business today?

Even before I started reinstating Amazon sellers, I was moving away from retail/online arbitrage to wholesale sources and representing exclusive products. I did this for two reasons. In the first place, I was moving my business to one that was automated and where I could outsource many of the processes to a pick and pack company and my team of virtual assistants. I wanted to spend as little time as possible sourcing and shipping. When reinstatement work blew down my doors, I had to automate or close up shop. That meant wholesale. I didn’t have time to shop nor did I have time to teach anyone else to shop for me. Luckily my work with Frank Florence made it possible.

Once I saw how Amazon was suspending sellers for issues relating to buying retail to resell on Amazon and how having the wrong invoice could make the difference between selling or banned for life, I decided to focus on unique products where I would have little to no competition. I would like to stress here that there is no way I could have started where I am today. I had $200. Selling used books and retail arbitrage was the only choice I had with my limited budget.  I still have a lot of books in my inventory that I will be selling off over the next year or so.

robotsQ. Are there any stores you won’t shop at today?

Yes. I’ve stopped shopping at dollar stores, Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, thrift stores and other stores with poor receipts – at least for NEW items.  I’ll still shop thrift stores for used books, etc. I’m clearing out old inventory and won’t be buying more from those sources.

I stopped buying from ToysRus.com a long time ago because of their poor quality control. I would routinely order new product from them and get something that had obviously had some hard shelf wear before they threw it (yes, threw it) into a box.  I got tired of sending inventory back and decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.  They obviously re-sell returns as new to their online suckers…er, customers.

Lately, I’ve been equally unhappy with the Disney Store online.  They have cute, cheerful boxes but they take no care with my goods. If you are buying via online arbitrage or wholesale, it is important that you either see the goods before they go to Amazon or you work with a partner you trust to really inspect the items when they come in.  I outsource my prep and packaging and I have been very pleased with the experience because my partner is very particular about pulling out less-than-perfect inventory.

Q. Are there any “safe” categories?

Every category has its own rules and the seller who ignores them puts his/her account at risk. When I look at the majority of our clients, I can see that Amazon has been cracking down hard on health & beauty and electronics.  That doesn’t mean we haven’t had suspensions in the other categories.  What this also tells me is that we may see Amazon bear down on different categories over time.  They closed the fine jewelry category for more than a year while they tested everyone’s product and rooted out counterfeits.  Hopefully this will not be necessary for other categories.

I predict grocery will be next. There are a lot of sellers who are not following the rules in that category and Amazon just changed the rules this Spring without much fanfare (one email, basically) for commodity goods which includes candy. Most sellers don’t realize that.  I had to eat (not literally) hundreds of pounds of bulk candy that I suddenly could not sell and that I had ordered wholesale in advance.

Q. I’m nervous about selling on Amazon now. I don’t want to be suspended. Should I be worried?

Most people are worried about selling today because the suspensions seem so random and catch the sellers by surprise. Sellers are waiting for the other shoe to drop and fear that something they don’t know about will bite them in the butt. That’s why I wrote Suspension Prevention – to arm sellers with information, strategies and tactics to keep their accounts active. Forewarned is forearmed. Sellers aren’t happy to hear it, but many of us will have to change how we do business – there’s no way around that. A deeper commitment to the customer and to product quality often affects customer service, shipping, sourcing inventory and company policy. However, all of these are within our grasp. We can do it.

Q. You mention in the book that there were some sellers you couldn’t reinstate. Why not?

We’ve learned that there are certain situations that we can’t fix:

  1. If Amazon shuts you down for selling stolen goods or if someone has illegally accessed your account and you can’t plug the security hole, you are out of luck. Amazon will keep your money, your inventory and lock you out of your account forever. Depending on the situation, you may need to hire an attorney to protect yourself from prosecution (not from Amazon, from law enforcement).
  2. Illegally maintaining multiple seller accounts on Amazon. To do this successfully involves a great deal of deceit. While they don’t arrest you or anything, you are banned for life. Many people who secretly opened up additional accounts on Amazon were dismayed to learn once they were suspended that all their accounts were shut down. This is because Amazon doesn’t turn on the “seek and suspend” software until after you are suspended. All those folks who thought they had successfully hidden themselves from Amazon were unhappy to learn how wrong they were. While we have gotten some people reinstated who made this mistake, they still lost the second account and had considerable expense getting their inventory back.
  3. Old suspensions. We’ve had sellers come to us months to years after their account was suspended and we were not able to get them reinstated. There seems to be some time frame beyond which they will not look at your account again. If your first appeal was turned in within the 17-day timeframe and you keep working on your appeal with Amazon, there doesn’t seem to be a set cut-off time. If you let it go and don’t try to appeal again in a timely way (wish I could tell you what that was exactly), then they won’t look at it after a certain point.
  4. Genuine counterfeit. Most counterfeit claims aren’t actually counterfeit goods. The product may be damaged in shipping or may not be in the retail packaging the customer expects, or it may be dirty, dinged and faded, but it is authentic and we can usually prove it. Even if the invoices/receipts aren’t what Amazon wants, they will sometimes reinstate a seller because their source seems legitimate enough. If Amazon is convinced that your product is counterfeit, however, you will not be reinstated. We had this happen to a client of ours. She bought 1 DVD at a Walgreens or somewhere similar with a bad receipt. We originally thought they were denying her because of the receipt. We found out later that they denied her because she priced her product so far below Amazon’s that Amazon was convinced it must be counterfeit. After all, they get terrific deals that most sellers can’t get on DVDs, etc. They concluded that she had bought counterfeit product – it was the only way she could have priced her product so low. Tragically, we could not convince them otherwise. She was a new seller and made a bad pricing mistake on top of buying from a retailer with a bad receipt. Had she actually sold the DVD, it would have been at a loss. It was a rotten situation all around.
  5. Fake invoices. Amazon knows that some sellers will make up receipts and/or invoices. They are not amused. This is why they ask for contact information. They want to verify your source. We tell our clients not to modify their invoices/receipts in any way beyond inserting arrows and/or highlights. This is why they don’t like digital receipts from online arbitrage sources. They are too easy to manipulate.
  6. Repeat offenders. If our clients were suspended and reinstated previously and then suspended again for the same reason, then Amazon concludes you are a poor learner and unlikely to follow your second plan of action any better than the first.  If you promise Amazon you will do something in your plan, you better do it. I have gotten clients reinstated multiple times, but the situation was different in each case.  They had proven they could learn from previous experiences.

Q. What one piece of advice would you give a seller on how to avoid getting suspended?

Toe the line. Many of my clients are in trouble because they tried to get away with something whether it was sending in questionable quality inventory in as new or buying from questionable sources or opening multiple accounts. One seller broke his agreement with his supplier to not sell their product online. They made an inauthentic claim and he can’t defend himself because he did acquire the product improperly. It is not counterfeit, but it is inauthentic because it is disallowed by the manufacturer.

Q. I’m afraid a competitor can lie about my product and get my listing or my account shut down. How can I prevent this?

This is a rational fear and it happens. What I can tell you is that we usually get our clients reinstated in this situation…and then we go after the son of a…gun later. There are three things you can do to help yourself in this situation:

  • Investigate all claims. If Amazon is sending you performance notices and you cannot find the complainer in your negative feedback, messages, returns or product reviews, then what has most likely happened is that another third-party seller has filed a policy violation that you can’t see. Alternatively, it may be that the other seller left you negative feedback. This is helpful information to you when preparing your counter-claim later. So first, find out what someone told Amazon.
  • Send your results to seller performance – even if they say you don’t need to respond. Once you find out what is going on, let Seller Performance know that you investigated, what you found and what you will do later to prevent it from happening again.
  • File a policy violation of your own. Even though you may have no idea which of your competitors filed the bogus claim against you, you can ask for Amazon’s help to investigate the other seller’s behavior. Sometimes it is stupefying how obvious your competitor can be. I’ve seen cases where two buyers in different geographic locations sent in the same picture to Amazon (of the open box of the so-called counterfeit product). The exact same picture. Did they think no one would look at the pictures together?

Q. Is there anything new at Amazon since you wrote your book?

In the brief weeks since I finished my book, things are already changing at Amazon, some good some worrisome.  I’ve noticed that Amazon is giving sellers a bit more help with their plan of actions. They are now giving examples which is helpful. If you are suspended and you click on your “appeal” button you will see links to examples.  These are new and much better than what they used to give us.

Amazon is cracking down on listing quality now.  This is a natural extension of their focus on product quality.  What I mean by them cracking down on it is they are issuing warnings and making it a suspension-worthy offense if unaddressed.

I suggest that all sellers regularly close down/delete inactive listings.  You do not want to be on the hook for a listing quality issue on a listing that you are not even selling on anymore.  Also, you need to inspect your listings as you send in new product to make sure your product matches EXACTLY.  I can’t tell you how many of my clients swore to me that their products matched exactly and then when we looked at them together you could see the differences.  Whoops! You don’t want to be suspended for something as stupid as a listing problem.  If you can’t fix the listing, create a new one but make sure no one can claim “not as described” or “not as advertised” with your inventory.

Q. Are you teaching any classes on Suspension Prevention?

Next week (Friday, Nov. 6th) Chris Green, Stephanie Inge and I are hosting a full-day conference in Dallas, Texas and I will cover suspension prevention. It is $199 for the whole day and includes lunch. We have a few seats left.  It is a small group so sign up now if you are interested.

Otherwise, I don’t currently have plans for a formal class.  Anyone who leaves me an honest book review on Amazon over the next two weeks will be invited to a private video cast with me to ask questions.  I will also be speaking at various conferences next year on the topic.

Q. Where can I buy your book?

Just like my previous book, I sell the Kindle/Nook/PDF versions myself and Amazon sells the softcover version.

Suspended? Worried about being suspended and want an assessment?  Interested in having us keep an eye on your account for you every week? Check out our services at my new website: http://suspensionprevention.com. Still have questions? Please ask them in the comments below and I’ll answer them in a future blog!

robot thinking - halftone2These past couple of months have seen a large number of Amazon sellers suspended. In case you are wondering, it IS on purpose…and it is highly automated. More on that below.

For those of you wondering where I disappeared to, I’ve got an update at the end with what’s going on. In addition, I’ll be traveling and speaking a lot this fall. Hopefully I can say hello personally to many of you at Jim Cockrum’s CES III (Sept 10-12), the Sellers Conference for Online Entrepreneurs (SCOE) (Oct 2-4), StartupBros Import Summit Conference (Oct 8-11) or at eCom Chicago (Oct 16-17). Back to our topic…

Online Sales Step by Step LLC (my company) has executed more than 130 Plans of Action on behalf of our clients in the past few months. We have learned a lot about Amazon in that short time. Much of this is through observation and some is through the occasional rare conversation we might have with an Amazon insider. We have five U.S.-based consultants and a team of four in the Philippines for administrative support. We are still hiring and growing. That is what Amazon’s algorithm changes have made necessary. And it is not just us, of course, a whole crop of consultants are working to address the need. Recently we have begun getting clients who were unhappy with their first provider choice for whatever reason and it occurred to me that it might be useful to have a set of criteria/questions for Sellers to use when picking a consultant:

  1. Check their track record. How many successful reinstatements, how many failures? I’m surprised at how few people ask me this question.
  2. How thoroughly will your consultant investigate your account? If they don’t dig deep, they won’t find all the problems and your appeal could fail. We spend hours reading through our clients’ accounts.
  3. Can they articulate the difference between a reactive and a proactive Plan of Action? Amazon has drilled the word “proactive” into Seller Performance workers’ heads. Make sure you know the difference.
  4. Will they protect your account? We use layers of protection to keep our clients’ accounts from being linked to other suspended sellers (or to us!)
  5. Do they have references? Right now our client base is mostly referrals from one reinstated seller to a suspended colleague. We have a lot of great references.
  6. Can they explain what it means? Many of our clients don’t understand why they were suspended in the first place. Amazon terms can be bewildering. “Counterfeit” isn’t always counterfeit and “Used Sold as New” isn’t always about used product. Make sure your team understands the nuances.
  7. How long are their plans, typically? The right answer is “as long as it takes and no more.” Anyone who tells you they should be a page or less is probably not thorough enough. You need a proactive Plan for each item on Amazon’s complaint list. That is rarely accomplished in a page.
  8. What is their plan if you are denied? Make sure your team is persistent and has a plan if the first appeal fails. This is particularly relevant for many of our clients since they are already denied when they come to us.
  9. Have they gotten cases like yours reinstated before? Some of our clients came to us after been turned away by other consultants as being too difficult. If one consultant/company tells you no, try another.
  10. Do they understand business? Many of our clients get in trouble with Amazon due to their business processes, not just violations. Make sure your reinstatement partner understands how your business works so they can help you pinpoint problems in your processes and fix issues that led to your suspension. To be an Amazon seller isn’t enough. When you are suspended, you need a business consultant.
  11. Are they selling you a letter or a customized plan? I’ve seen some crazy stuff out there. Some guys give you a letter and if it works then you owe them a huge amount of money like $5,000. If it doesn’t work you owe them nothing. Talk about gambling! No one plan fits all situations. If it doesn’t work for you, then you’ve wasted your chance for a faster response and will be spending time sending in appeals to a backlogged PQ group. In one case, we helped the seller get reinstated and then the previous vendor came after him for $5,000 because that was the deal – the vendor didn’t care that my client didn’t use his letter.
  12. When do they stop trying? Some consultant’s services stop when you turn in your Plan of Action. We find that is often the midpoint. Amazon may come back and ask for more clarification or they might deny our client and then we have to shift into high gear to get them reinstated. Sometimes we’ve tweaked, rewritten and added to appeals many times before our clients are reinstated. Make sure your consultant is an advocate for you who won’t give up right away.

This list plays to our strengths, of course, and is not comprehensive. You may have other criteria that is important to you like reputation, credibility, complexity of your case and – of course – cost. I didn’t put down cost because 13 is an unlucky number, but I will say that it is relative (and relevant) to your situation.  A larger seller who is losing tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars a day sees cost differently than a smaller seller that is selling less than $10 thousand a month – they also tend to have more complicated suspensions.

robots

To get back to what’s happening in Reinstatements today, we’ve learned from a source what we long suspected which is that Amazon updated its algorithm for product quality earlier this spring/summer. By raising its standards, many long-time sellers were suddenly suspended for reasons that had not been previously as important to Amazon. Did Amazon put out an announcement or give warning to the community? They did not.

I call this the “Rise of the Robots.”  While it is really an algorithm, “robots” captures the impersonal and implacable behavior by Amazon once you are suspended.

Amazon did not anticipate how many sellers would be caught by the algorithm changes. According to our source, the PQ (product quality) group is backlogged three weeks. That was our observation, too. We do our best to circumvent this group when we can because every day cost our clients money. Sometimes we are successful and sometimes our clients have to wait. Our experience has been that the complexity of the case and whether or not the client was denied a previous appeal both impact the waiting time.

What’s Up With the Blog, Cynthia?

It has been a long time since I’ve written a blog post, but not since I’ve written. I’ve just completed my Suspension Prevention cover_001new book Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and Protect Your Amazon Seller Account. It should be on Amazon by the end of September. Between consulting and writing, I was maxed out. Things will hopefully be a little bit better now that the book is in the hands of the publisher.

Suspension Prevention is 200+ pages of Amazon suspension intelligence hard won from the trenches. I cover how to detect dirty seller tricks, how to get reinstated, and 15-steps to avoid suspension in the first place. While the names are all changed, I use real case studies to illustrate my points. If you sign up now, you will be the first to know when it comes out and you’ll be eligible for my launch deal. It will be available on Amazon as a softcover book and from me as a digital copy in the Kindle, Nook or PDF version.

Attendees at CES III will be getting for free a 37-page eBook that I created with Jim Cockrum on Suspension Prevention that shares the 15-steps to avoid suspension. I will also be leading the discussion topic group on “Reinstatement” during the conference as well.

Local sellers in Dallas-Fort Worth are all invited to my launch party/FBA in DFW meeting/networking event.

WHAT: Launch party for Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and Protect Your Amazon Seller Account and chance to network with fellow sellers. Cynthia will give a brief presentation, serve wine and sign books.

WHERE: Times 10 Cellars in East Dallas

WHEN: September 29, 2015

TIME: 7:00 PM-10:00 PM

WHO: We are inviting Stephanie Inge’s eBay group and all the Amazon sellers in the DFW area.

RSVP: PLEASE RSVP at the FBA in DFW Facebook group. I’m renting a room and need to know how many are coming and – more importantly – how many snacks and party favors to get. If you are not already a member of our facebook group, please join us!

In October, I will be on the road a lot and hope to meet many of my readers and clients at SCOE in Seattle, eCom Chicago in the Windy City and The Import Summit in Orlando, FL. I’m speaking formally and informally at these conferences on the topic of Suspension Prevention and reinstatement.Plus I will be signing copies of my new book.  Come by and say hello!

If you are coming to SCOE, type in STEPBYSTEP and you will get a conference discount of $100. I’m not sure what the cut off date is, but give it a try.

Next, I will be focusing my blog more and more on Amazon business issues and sharing stories of how sellers are solving challenges in their businesses and I will be writing again. I know it has been a while.

Lastly, I also plan to officially launch my Get Clean Stay Clean services this fall. This is why I’ve been armshiring and training. We are planning to offer ongoing services to our clients that will help them stay on top of their accounts, get an early warning if something is going wrong and help them avoid suspension. If you would like to be notified when these services are officially available, please sign up HERE. These services will provide ongoing, continuous seller support at an affordable price.

If you are going to one of the conferences mentioned above, let me know in the comments below so we can be sure to meet!

See you soon!

tokkenMaybe it is because I’ve been working with so many distressed Amazon FBA Sellers lately, but my perception is that the online business world has gotten harder and meaner lately. It is disheartening. Blood is in the water and it is stirring up ugly things in the collective unconscious of the seller community. Sellers are playing dirty tricks against me again (new tactic, same evil) which is disheartening to me personally. There is an undercurrent of frustration and anger flowing through so many things related to selling on Amazon that I thought it might help to talk for a few minutes about compassion and kindness.

Wha?!? You don’t think those two words have much to do with business? You would be surprised. In fact, those two words are critical to long-term business and personal health success. To act with kindness not only helps the world around you, it helps you. The greatest thing about kindness is that it is the secret to a happy life. If you don’t believe me, ask Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed to name just a few historical leaders who lived this truth and taught it. Because our businesses are an extension of us as people, when there is conflict between how the business is run and what kind of person you want to be, the result is chaos and failure on one side or the other…or both.

More mistakes are made in distress than in joy. More failures come from arrogance, lack of empathy, dishonesty, carelessness, pride, impatience, loneliness, greed, fear and anger than the virtues. Think back to your last three mistakes this week and see if you can trace what happened back to one of these human frailties. What? No mistakes so far this week? Umm, start with self-dishonesty. Seriously. I’m not talking about giant business-ending mistakes here, just the everyday stuff – the stuff that’s easy to fix or work around. Where did these mistakes come from – joy? Probably not.

In fact, how many business decisions do you make every day from a place of fear or anger? Oh, you might call it uncertainty, nervousness, doubt, frustration…but those are just smoothing words for bigger, scarier feelings. Because business IS a risk, there will always be some of that lurking around. It’s natural and human. So how do you reduce those feelings and negative influences and increase the positive? Kindness and compassion. While the words are often used interchangeably, they are different.

Kindness – the state or quality of being kind, a kind act, kind behavior.

Compassion – a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

As you can see, compassion the feeling often leads to kindness, the act. What surprises some people is that being kind can also lead to greater compassion and caring for one’s fellow man. It can be a virtuous cycle.

So what does this have to do with selling stuff on Amazon? Everything! Selling is about PEOPLE even with a technology aided platform like Amazon. Many sellers who get in trouble with Amazon do so because they forgot about their customer – something Amazon is RABID about. They are slow to respond, they are curt and rude in their responses, they sell shoddy product, they deliver late, they lie in their listings, they try to sell products that promote cruelty to animals (!), they let their edible items expire and then they wonder why their customers are so upset and Amazon has suspended them.

Even if you have never gotten in trouble with Amazon before, you might in the future because 1) Amazon is cracking down like Zeus’ lightning bolt on even minor infractions and 2) your business ultimately reflects your mindset. It is inevitable. The good news is that virtue also shows up in your business. A kind heart moved by compassion will ultimately be more satisfied in business and life. Kindness and financial wealth are NOT mutually exclusive, but sometimes people think they are. Values such as profit and efficiency sometimes take on greater importance at the expense of human warmth and genuine presence.

I think this trend is a mistake. Here is a look at the benefits of kindness and how they might benefit your business:

Honesty

To be honest is to live a transparent life unburdened by secrets and shame. It makes is easier for you because you don’t have to remember the lies you’ve told and it helps build trust with others. With no lies muddying the waters, you can see clearly into a situation or person. It is also a very hard way to live. It means being vulnerable. Honesty is often embarrassing. The truth can be sharp and uncomfortable. If you are admitting mistakes and other frailties, you are open to attack by the less compassionate. You may be afraid of what others think of you if you tell the truth. In business you may feel you have to lie in order to make the sale and it is important to sell, right? Maybe the person you are lying to is yourself when you say stuff like “that doesn’t really matter,” and “everyone else does it,” “Amazon will never know…” Here’s the thing with honesty, it matters to YOU. It is your soul we are talking about here. Whether you can justify an action or not is irrelevant in the long run because your heart knows the difference. Lie detectors work because they detect the STRESS we undergo every time we lie! Lying hurts us physically, emotionally, socially and financially. Every time we say “yes” when we really want to say “no,” hurts us. Every time we pull something over on someone else we are hurting ourselves. What a bitch.

Keep that stress in mind when you are conditioning your inventory, considering whether or not to buy from a shady source, repackaging returns or playing nasty tricks on other sellers (I’ve seen so much of that lately – it turns my stomach. WTF people, WTF).

Honesty isn’t just about the difficult, unpleasant aspects of life. Many people also hide their tenderness, goodwill, original thoughts and capacity for NO crying in baseballbeing moved. While part of this may be reserve (there’s no crying in baseball!), it is mostly a protective action. We feel vulnerable and weak. It is easier to be cynical and hard. In that way, however, we separate from the most spiritual and beautiful part of ourselves—and prevent others from seeing it and feeling it when they may desperately need it. The band plays on while the Titanic sinks.

To think that there’s no place for feelings at work is absurd. There are few things more personal than business when you are the owner. Everything you have is involved – your passions, desires, hopes, creativity, resources, relationships, sense of accomplishment, money…work is where we spend most of our time and yet we try to suppress the best of ourselves? It is very stressful and bad for business. If we aren’t congruent across every aspect of our lives we get sick and sometimes die. Really. It’s that important.

A few weeks ago I had a client going through a very rough business situation involving layoffs and a possible business shut-down. I know exactly how that feels and I sympathized. I comforted them by being present. I made it safe for them to grieve with me because I knew that was what they were doing – grieving a painful kind of death. I was honest about their chances. They needed 100% honesty in this time of crisis to do anything less would have been unkind.

I was brought in near the end of an ongoing situation with them. In all their time of stress they hadn’t told anyone outside the family (as it were). This “professional reserve” nearly sunk them. Once I knew what was going on, I brought in a financial expert to help them get back on their feet. Would they have told me about their problem if they didn’t trust me? No. Honesty builds trust. I also got them reinstated which helped, but did not fix all their problems. During their recovery, they will have to bare their financial and operational souls to a lot of people. It will be hard, but it will help them in the long run. I am very hopeful for them.

Unless you are a sociopath, dishonesty affects YOU terribly. Bring your life back into congruence here and you will sleep better at night which means you will work better during the day. This is not woo-woo here. It is human behavior. Peace is the side effect of honesty.

While you may think it is unkind to be honest sometimes, it is a greater kindness to tell someone the truth. Tact helps of course and can be a kindness, too, as long as it doesn’t obscure the honest message being conveyed.

Forgiveness

forgiveness-4This is terribly important for all of us imperfect human beings. Whether you believe in God or not, I’m confident you have benefitted from forgiveness both that you received and that you gave to another person. No matter how wronged you are or, perhaps how much you have wronged someone else, there is a chance for peace, healing and relief from suffering. To seek to earn forgiveness is important to our very souls when we have wronged someone else. That’s why it is so important in business to try and make it right for a customer. Not because Amazon says so, but because it makes us feel better to fix our mistakes!

What about when someone has wronged us? We desperately need to forgive them – not for them, but for ourselves. Holding on to anger, grief and feelings of betrayal destroys human beings. It corrodes us like battery acid (or Coca-Cola on teeth). As a business person, it is critical that we be able to let go and move on to the next thing whatever that is – a new opportunity, a new platform, a new relationship, whatever. Rage and grief will keep you stuck and churning inside your head instead of building something new and exciting. I know. I’ve lived it. I’ve had these feelings poison my soul and nearly destroy me physically, emotionally and in business. For those of you who believe in prayer, praying earnestly for those who have wronged you works if you are willing to do it for a long, long time. Of course, you probably already know that, but practicing is harder than knowing sometimes.

There is no forgiveness without compassion and kindness. Compassion says “I have hurt people too. I have made mistakes too. I know they are suffering. I know what it feels like to hurt someone else and I don’t like it. I want to help them.” Kindness says, “This person needs another chance. They are human like me. I can forgive and I will.”

Amazon believes in forgiveness. If you read the lengthy contract you signed with Amazon in the beginning, you may notice that Amazon can shut down your account for any reason at any time and that they don’t need to tell you why. You agreed to it and it is a pretty harsh and final thing to read in a contract. I imagine it will stand up quite nicely in court. And yet…Amazon forgives its sellers every day for large transgressions. They don’t have to but they do.

A cynical person might point out that if they kicked everyone off the platform it would hurt them financially. They need their third-party sellers so they have to work with us. This is true, but I have seen them forgive some really heinous behaviors from newbie sellers, for example, that weren’t even a tiny drop in their financial bucket. Maybe they do it because it is good business to forgive! They now have a chastened and eager partner who will be extra diligent, yes. AND they are living their principles of being the most customer-centric company on earth. In this case, we are the customer and we benefit.

Lastly when it comes to forgiveness by Amazon for suspended or banned accounts, it very much matters WHO you get on the other end of that appeal email and HOW you write your appeal. If you are looking for forgiveness and admit your mistakes, you are much more likely to get reinstated. If you ask them to be kind, they are more likely to be kind. How do I know that? I see it every day in my reinstatement practice. Asking for forgiveness is tough because, like honesty, it makes you vulnerable. You are admitting your mistakes and that you are in the wrong. Business people have it drilled into their heads by lawyers to never admit wrongdoing or you might get sued. And yet so much in life and business can be resolved by a heartfelt apology!

To be clear, forgiveness is not condoning, nor is it an act of self-righteousness in which we affirm our moral superiority and pat ourselves on the backforgive_attribute-strong-PS for how noble and generous we are. Forgiveness is uplifting. It lets us live in the present moment instead of the burning past. All the energy poured into blame, hatred, prejudice and revenge is now freed up to feed new, positive projects.

Some things are harder to forgive than others. It may take you a long time to release your feelings. Just remember that it is about you and for you and your peace…and keep working it. As a person who has been in analysis since 1997, I can tell you that forgiveness is worth it, that it doesn’t happen overnight, and that it is all about you and your heart, not them.

Sense of Belonging/Community

In business, partnerships and unified groups are important to get a lot of things accomplished from lobbying for new laws, to making your Amazon FBA business work. Business is a chain of goods and services that relies on other businesses to get done. Sounds pretty straightforward and machine-like. There’s a reason business uses so many gears as an icon – the interconnectedness of life, relationships and business are all reflected in that simple image – but a gear is also soul-less, implacable, relentless.

Kindness comes into play when we do more than work with each other. Think about some of those groups on Facebook that you go to again and again. Why are you there? Some will say to get help with their business questions, to learn from other sellers and to get new ideas. I submit that these are all side benefits of the real reason you are there – for a sense of belonging and community. Here are people who get you and your crazy business friendsmodel. They laugh at your funny pictures of shopping carts full of condoms and who will stand with you and call Kohl’s short-sighted because they won’t let you scan there anymore. They will freely give you great advice and ideas. They cheer you up when you are having a frustrating day and encourage you when you feel down. For some inexplicable reason they are invested in your success – as you are in theirs. Is this good business? You bet your life! It is through community and a sense of belonging that we not only discover things about ourselves, but we also find real friends and strong business partners.

Together we are more than the sum of our parts. By giving to the community, we are enriched. By sharing with others, we also learn things that help us in business and life. Kindness is the difference between warm community and hostile competitors. If I see you as different and I view you with suspicion, or at the best with cold neutrality, it is unlikely that I will feel kindly disposed toward you. If instead I look at you knowing we both belong to the human race, both have a similar nature, different experiences but the same roots and a common destiny (Amazon FBA), then it is probable I will feel openness, solidarity, empathy toward you. In other words…kindness.

Trust

There is no trust without kindness and compassion, and business runs on trust. Despite all the contracts that lawyers draw up every year, the reality is that contracts only work because of the goodwill and trust of the people behind them. People don’t honor contracts because they are afraid of being sued (well, hardly ever); they honor contracts because they are already honorable. Over the past 25 years I’ve gone to court several times and even though I won every single time, I learned that most companies who don’t have assets to be seized will simply walk away and not pay – with no consequences. I’ve learned that either you are dealing with someone honorable or you aren’t. If you aren’t, you’re screwed, might as well save your money. Most honorable businesses will never make you go to court because they have compassion for your situation and enough self-honesty to see that they are wrong in the first place or at least share the blame. They may try to settle or set up a payment plan because they believe in paying their debts. It is part of who they are as people and as an organization. I’ve experienced both.

One of my greatest business mentors and friends won my heart and my trust because he was honest about his situation and paid me when he could have weaseled out of it. He has passed away and I miss him so much. I reached out to him for all kinds of business issues and he was an excellent sounding board, and thoughtful guide. Why? What was in it for him to help me? I don’t know exactly but he had my unswerving loyalty and attention every time he was my client. I adored him. How many people can you say that about in your life, let alone your business life?

So, how do you build trust? Through relationship and the courage to risk having your heart broken. You could be betrayed. It is the thread behind every blood oath, promise, contract, pinky swear, marriage vow and handshake deal. But it is just this vulnerability that gives trust its power. It is because we put ourselves on the line that trust is so warm and precious. Trust creates intimacy. But here’s the catch, you have to give it to get it and there’s no certainty to the outcome. You either are willing to take the chance or you aren’t. You have to surrender a little bit of yourself which is really hard for the control freaks among us (business owner = control freak in case you were wondering).

Being able to trust is correlated to long life. Wow! That makes trust super important to us as humans. Then why are we so hard on trusting people in general? Because we are afraid of appearing naïve and of being vulnerable. Most of us believe that highly trusting people are idiots and naïve (at best! Sometimes people think even worse). Recent studies have shown, however, that high-trusters are not naïve, but rather have an intelligence that permits them to distinguish between the trustworthy and the untrustworthy. The low trusters do not trust others because they do not have this TRUSTcapacity, and play it safe by saying no to everyone. Their social life is poorer, their businesses less successful, their relationships more fragile. I’m not talking about healthy skepticism and due diligence here, I’m talking about when an inability to trust is part of a person’s and a company’s character. Then it becomes a hindrance.

Trust and kindness go hand in hand. Kindness is trusting and ready to risk; it brings us closer to others. To trust is to be kind to others. How do you feel, for example, when someone has more faith in you than you have in yourself sometimes? Uplifted! Strong! Brave! What about when they do not have faith in you? Shattered. Angry. Betrayed. Trust is the soul of a successful relationship whether it be your spouse, your friend or your business colleague. To give trust is kindness and joyful when given to the right kind of partner.

Empathy

Empathy is one of the greatest skills we possess as humans. The ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feel their suffering (or joy!) not only helps when we are comforting or celebrating with a loved one, but also when we are creating new products and solutions to problems, picking out items to sell and tapping into an emotional response among our buyers. Since birth we have been able to resonate with human beings (unless we are sociopaths) and yet sometimes we lose it as we get older and life gets harder. If we begin to see people more as objects – “them” instead of “us” – then we will manipulate and violate them. We become monsters.

While monsters are sometimes celebrated in our society as great business people; that celebration usually is short-lived. Bernie Madoff is a well-known example, but there are thousands of less well-known monsters out there who are almost all eventually caught and forced into ruin, jail or running away. I thought the Freakonomics guys asked the right question when they asked “If drug dealing is so profitable, why are so many drug dealers still living with their Moms?” Apparently for every Miami Vice high roller drug dealer there are thousands of minions that are barely getting by. Many of them would be better off getting a job at Starbucks or Target with a much lower chance of getting shot or going to jail. Most of them aren’t very good business people (gasp!), nor do they work well with people (shock!).

I digress. If we see our customers, business partners and competitors as “them” instead of “us,” then we will stop caring about them and it will show up in our business in the form of complaints and poor metrics. We will lose the partners we need to be successful and we will become obsessed with our competitors to the detriment of our businesses.

While it is very important to be able to see our partners as people, what is miraculous about empathy is its power to heal. Suffering individuals do not need diagnosis, advice, interpretations or manipulations most of the time. They need genuine and total empathy. When at last they feel that someone identifies with their experience, in that moment they are able to let go of their suffering and are healed. I’ve experienced it and witnessed it both personally and professionally. It is life changing.

Empathy sounds awesome! What’s the catch? Our own suffering is the grounds for empathy. Ouch. Pain is, in varying doses, a companion for life. When confronted honestly, pain can bear fruits of great importance. It digs down deep inside and opens us. We grow more mature, discover emotions and resources we were not aware of, and become more sensitive, humble and wise. Pain is a harsh reminder of what is essential and it can connect us to others. Suffering can make us kinder. When we see another’s suffering, we recognize it and want to help them. This helps us in business because we become more connected and we WANT to help each other.

An expression of empathy is one of the kindest things we can do for another human being – and one of the most helpful. An early boss taught me this lesson well. Our clients were usually paying us $5K-$15K a month for our services so an unhappy customer was a BIG deal. We would go in to the conference room with them quivering with rage sometimes. Marianne would sit and listen to them (she’d already told me to shut up and not be defensive). She’d sympathize with their situation, how their boss was breathing down their necks, and she’d give them a genuine apology and pledge to make it better. In her world, they were perfectly justified in being furious and she accepted responsibility. She was a partner with them in making the big boss happy. When they were done telling their story, poof! All the fire went out of the room. Now they were ready to move on to solve the problem or whatever needed to be done. It was like magic. As desperately as my young 20-something-self wanted to explain, protest and defend myself; it was irrelevant. Marianne got us to where we needed to be – working together again. Usually at some point in the meeting she’d get our side told, but it was done casually and not defensively. It was more like “how can we do this better next time?” She was brilliant, inspiring and kind. I learned so much from her.

Conclusion – Pay it Forward

This blog post is not nearly done because there is much more I could talk about in terms of how kindness is crucial to business. Humility, generosity, loyalty, respect, joy and more are affected by kindness and require kindness. If I wasn’t so darn tired, I’d keep writing. Maybe another week. These virtues impact our personal and professional lives. I hope this blog post has encouraged you. If you are feeling discouraged, angry, afraid or sad about your Amazon business, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to 1) be kind to yourself and 2) be kind to others.

Forgive yourself and others for mistakes made in distress. Allow yourself to express your innate compassion and kindness and you will be amazed how quickly things change for you. Reach out to others you trust and let them uplift you. Ask for help and don’t hide your human frailties or strengths – someone else will benefit from them. Share your story and feel the relief that telling it brings. Find someone who is suffering and be present for them. I promise you your life and your business will change.

Kindness is before our eyes. The opportunity to put things right or to help someone presents itself almost every moment, and if we respond accordingly, we affirm the truest feelings and highest values life can give.

Each person is kind in his or her own way. The ways of being kind are infinite. Find your own way. You may not realize it, but being kind is taking a stand. By itself, it might not help: Maybe our kindness will be ineffective. Our donation not enough to feed the world, the neighbor we help stand up after a fall doesn’t change the fact that she will fall again. The blood we give can’t meet the overwhelming need. Never mind. We have affirmed a principle, a way of being. We have affirmed that kindness matters. That doing something is better than nothing.

Zen and most major religions affirm that microcosm is macrocosm. Each person is the whole world. This means that each individual in some subtle and mysterious way embodies all people. If we can bring some relief and well-being to just one person’s life, this is already a victory, a silent, humble response to the suffering and pain of the planet. This is the starting point.

While perhaps selling zit cream or dog costumes is not addressing the pain of the world, the fact that we help bring products to the world is important because they fulfill a need. Business is bigger than sales charts, competition and whose bank account is fatter; it is about the kind of world we want to create. It may seem paradoxical, but the most sensible way to further our own interests, to find our own freedom, and to glimpse our own happiness is often not to pursue our goals directly, but to look after other people’s interests, to help other people be freer from fear and pain, to contribute to their happiness. Ultimately, it is very simple. There is NO choice between being kind to others and being kind to ourselves. It is the same thing.

Pay it Forward Meme_thumbOn international “Pay it Forward Day,” April 30th, I encourage you to consciously make an act of kindness and see if your day isn’t somehow more cheerful, productive or uplifting because of it. The ScannerMonkey team has arranged for free consulting for its members with some of the top Amazon FBA consultants in the world which is pretty damn inspiring. They only ask that the people who get the free consulting find a way to pay it forward to someone else in a way that works for them. I can’t wait to read the heartwarming stories and to see the results in the months to come. Kindness is a big rock in a pond. The ripples go on and on.

Still skeptical about the power of kindness? Consider this true story from my family:  When my Grandfather Stine was growing up he lived in a house in rural Michigan with a dirt floor and no plumbing. His parents had little schooling and no religious affiliation.  The town mail carrier, Clare Wolfe took an interest in him and invited him to attend a Christian camp where he committed his life to Christ and to a Christian ministry. My grandfather graduated from high school during the depression with no means to pay for college, but Clark Wolfe offered to pay his way if he would work summers to earn what he could. All he asked in return was that my Grandfather help others get an education when he had an opportunity.

My Grandfather got his degree from Asbury in Kentucky. In 1950 he and my Grandmother went to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as missionaries, and immediately began to pay back Clare Wolfe by helping young Africans get an education, some with finishing 8th grade, some with high school, and even the first Rhodesian from the Methodist Church to attend college in South Africa. Later when the best options for Africans for college were in Europe or the United States, Grandfather contacted some wealthy individuals to get their support for students. The first African Methodist Bishop, Abel Muzorewa, who also became the first Prime Minister at the time of independence, was one of these. The first Secretary of Parliament, who later became first Chancellor of the Africa University, was another. (His name is John Kurewa, Asbury class of 64, with my Dad.) And when in the early 1960s the Methodist Church in the United States took on a program to send hundreds of young Africans abroad for college, Dad was the one to head up the program in Rhodesia. A number of these he sent to Asbury. At the time of independence in the mid-60’s, these well-trained people formed the core of leadership not only in the Methodist Church but also in government and in business throughout the country.

Rhodesia was admired throughout Africa because it had the ONLY bloodless colonial independence and transfer of power in Africa. Unintentionally, my Grandfather’s acts of paying it forward transformed the leadership of Rhodesia. The country took a different path than so many other countries because the sons of the chiefs had been educated. They had a perspective not shared by many others on the continent. Some had lived in the UK or the US which shaped their idea of politics and governance.

After retiring in Southern Illinois, my Grandfather continued to encourage young people to attend Asbury. He didn’t talk about what he did, but when he died my Grandmother received lengthy heart-felt letters from all over the world – particularly Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) – from men who were grateful for their educations and who told her how they had themselves paid it forward in their communities. I still cry thinking of these astonishing, surprising and unexpected letters.

My Dad said, “Some people have trouble believing in the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000. But when my family thinks of how God took the gift of small-town mail carrier Clare Wolfe and multiplied it thousands of miles away and decades later, feeding 5,000 seems child’s play as miracles go. We are not asked often to do great things; we are asked to give what we have and let God be the one to use it and multiply it. We cannot know how our actions will affect others or even change the world which is the humbling, amazing and beautiful power of service to our fellow man.”

My Dad’s middle name is Clare which was not only in honor of Clare Wolfe, but also an unspoken obligation to live up to that name – which he has many times over.  My Dad continued to give it forward by becoming one of the world’s most renowned linguists and helping translate and distribute the word of God all over the world in different languages. His work for the United Bible Societies would have made Clare Wolfe so happy. To name just one accomplishment, Dad set up the world’s largest printing press in China. It prints Bibles 24/7 for distribution in China at cost. My Grandfather and Dad’s lives of service would not have happened without Clare Wolfe.

Infinite are the ways of being kind.

If you are interested in reading more about the power of kindness, I recommend one of my favorite books: “The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life” by Piero Ferrucci. Talk about a life-changing book. Every time I read it, I find something new to inspire me and nourish my soul. You’ll want to take notes and, hopefully, act.

If you click on the links above to join ScannerMonkey or to buy the book, I make a modest affiliate fee which is how I monetize the time I spend writing my blog. If you prefer not to use the affiliate link, you can go to Amazon.com or ScannerMonkey.com directly.