Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention

Suspension Prevention Tag

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!