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If you are an Amazon FBA seller who is worried about Amazon suspensions and you want to do what you can to stay compliant with Amazon TOS, you will want to listen to what Chris McCabe has to say. Why? Because Chris is the only former Amazon Seller Performance Evaluation and Policy Enforcement team member who is now consulting and helping suspended Amazon sellers everywhere get reinstated and back to selling. With about 11 years of total experience (several years working at Amazon within their Seller Performance Team and four and a half years as an Amazon seller compliance consultant), Chris is the man who can answer your Amazon TOS and suspension questions.
Whether you’ve had your account suspended, ASIN suspended, reviews deleted, or just have general TOS compliance questions related to selling on Amazon, Chris is poised to help and guide you.
In episode 24 of the Serious Sellers Podcast, Helium 10’s Success Manager, Bradley Sutton, and Chris discuss:
- 00:40 – Introduction To Chris’s Background
- 02:10 – Generic Amazon Suspension Language
- 04:20 – How To Respond To Suspension Notices
- 06:30 – Suspensions For Safety Concerns
- 08:10 – Do Your Due Diligence When Responding To Amazon
- 10:25 – The Majority Of Suspended Products
- 12:15 – Top (Avoidable) Product Issues That Could Lead To Suspensions
- 17:00 – Reporting Competitor Black Hat Tactics
- 19:35 – Dealing With Hijackers
- 22:20 – How Legitimate Sellers Are Being Attacked By Hijackers
- 24:30 – Vendor Account Abuse – Measures Taken To Address It
- 26:40 – Brand Gating Decisions And Approaches To Getting Brand Gated
- 29:20 – Recent Suspension Reasons
- 30:40 – QR Codes And Product Inserts – What’s Allowable?
- 33:30 – Arbitrage – Trends And Challenges
- 35:15 – Giveaways And Discount Promotions – What’s Allowable?
- 39:10 – Risky Gray Areas – Rebates After The Fact
- 41:30 – Giveaways – Actions To Avoid
- 46:05 – How To Contact Chris
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Bradley Sutton: Today, we’ve got Chris McCabe. He used to work for Amazon under seller performance team, and to date now he’s helped hundreds of suspended sellers get reinstated. So, this guy knows the best as far as what you should, and should not do in the platform. And we get to pick up his brain about it.
Bradley Sutton: How’s it going, everybody? Bradley Sutton and this is The Serious Sellers Podcast by Helium 10, and we have a very critical timing here. Yes, Chris McCabe here, who has to deal with a lot of people who get their accounts suspended and people who want to get reinstated. A lot of legal things that happen with Amazon. So, Chris, this is very timely that we have you on here because a lot of people are freaking out about reviews, and my ASIN was suspended, my account was suspended, the sky is falling. You are one of the top people in the industry who has knowledge about this. So welcome to the show. How’s it going?
Chris McCabe: Thanks so much! It’s great to be here.
Bradley Sutton: Awesome. Now tell me, you have a unique perspective because of your background? There’s a lot of people out there who do help Amazon sellers with suspensions, or where the terms of service. But what’s your kind of leg up that you have?
Chris McCabe: I used to work on the performance and policy teams, performance evaluation, and policy enforcement teams on the various kinds of investigations that typically touch sellers who get suspended. So, several years working for Amazon, doing this kind of work and then doing the same kind of work after I left as a consultant. So, it’s been about 10 or 11 years now total. And I guess the leg up I have is that there’s nobody that worked on those teams that are now currently consulting Amazon sellers. So, that’s my background that of course, we’ve been consulting for four and a half years.
Bradley Sutton: Okay. So now, are you one of those annoying people who just copies and pastes reply when we’re trying to get our accounts unsuspended. Were you one of those teams who just, we keep mentioning what our plan of action is, and all you do is copy and paste the same thing. Was that you?
Chris McCabe: Yeah, it’s gone downhill since I was there. It wasn’t quite like that in those days. There have always been prewritten blurbs, prewritten messaging. But investigators do have the ability to modify some of that language? I don’t think Amazon will ever get to the point where they’re sending custom content every time. It’s just not scalable, not the way they’re going to do it. But, I guess I was one of the annoying people in terms of sending first specific thing, suspension language that would be more generic. The good news was I was on the team. They edited the blurbs when it came time to change the wording and change the language. And, I think what’s happened in recent years is there’s been a lot of languages that slip through that doesn’t get edited by somebody who’s actually done professional writing before or published writing before. They’re just sort of slapping it together and maybe it’s not done appropriately. So some of the languages that you see nowadays doesn’t even make grammatical sense or there’s typos or investigators don’t fill in brackets. That’s kind of the most embarrassing thing you see where they don’t even fill in the ASINS, are supposed to be or what the brand is supposed to be. So you just see in certain content here between brackets. It’s unfortunate that that happens.
Bradley Sutton: Okay. Here’s a question this is from me. I have actually– when I was a consultant, I’ve always done wholesale a little bit on the side and had Amazon account. I got suspended once, and now here’s and I’ve had many clients who have done dumb things and gotten suspended. Now here’s one thing, I haven’t dealt with this in about a year or so, but back in the day, and this is what really irritated me, it seemed the only way to get unsuspended was too pretty much lie and admit to doing something that you didn’t do. And they would say, okay, thank you for admitting this and we will go ahead and reinstate. You’d be, for example, let’s say you got a fraudulent safety claim, but it was completely fraudulent.
Chris McCabe: Right.
Bradley Sutton: But the only way you could get reinstated was if you say, yes, this was a safety issue and it’s because of my manufacturing problem and then that’s what you’re trying to say what they wanted to hear. Is that still the case nowadays?
Chris McCabe: I don’t recommend making things up and most of the time when I’m working with clients, and either discussing it with them on the phone or looking at written documentation that they send us, or going through Seller Central. We find what Amazon’s driving at, and what they’re looking at. Most of the time their buyer complaints about quality or condition that may be classified as inauthentic, but it’s not the same thing as accusing you of selling counterfeit inauthentic products. The quality wasn’t quite right, or it wasn’t what they expected, or it broke easily, or just the condition complaint. A lot of times you see you sold as new. That’s one of the complaint categories, but that really just means it’s a condition issue. So, some of this is just their language being misinterpreted. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to make something up because they found something that came from buyer complaint. The buyer didn’t know what they were talking about and they felt the need to follow up on it as if every buyer complaints a hundred percent accurate. They know not every buyer complaints are 100% correct or true or accurate. Usually, they’re warning you and taking in based in a way or even suspending your account because they find a pattern or a consistent, or a systemic problem centered around that particular ASIN, or that group of ASINs. So, it’s not just one incident. One– you brought up a safety complaint, which I have to admit, yes, there are certain times where one or two safety complaints out of thousands can be actioned unfairly and inappropriately as if your entire batch of the product might be unsafe. Some of that is just again the scalability problem that they face. How are we going to enforce safety without necessarily calling up and discussing with each buyer that makes the safety complaining faculty why they thought it was unsafe. And then doing bid checks on all the inventory of the Amazon seller sends it to FBA to make sure that the products are entirely is described and test them ourselves to make sure they’re– so on and so forth. They can’t do that, they have not enough hours in the day or weeks in the year to do that. So, to a certain extent, they have to trigger investigations based on the nature of the buyer complaints. And unfortunately, their SOPs right now, they’re very risk-averse. They want to make sure that if people allege potential safety issues, they jumped on it and they enforced it aggressively. And unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that often they’re assuming that it’s 100%.
Bradley Sutton: Yeah. I just think that is super shady because basically in many cases, especially when you were talking about the supplements. I’ve worked for companies where I worked for a huge company once. I was their sales manager and is one of the top or the number is basically the number one diet pills in the US, and they’re on infomercials all over the place. And so, they’re under regulation by FTC because of that. So, they had a safety complaint, which is completely bogus. Somebody said I got diarrhea, or something like that that literally and scientifically is impossible no matter what based on the ingredients that are in the product. And now, that’s the exact thing happened to maybe five other people I know. And they all just said, oh yeah, they literally tried to do it the legal way where it said we don’t see any problem. This customer is wrong. Scientifically, this is impossible. But they’re, nope, you’re still suspended. So the only way they got unsuspended was they said, Oh yeah, we noticed a lot here. Might have not gone through our quality check and we’re going to fix that. And then they got unsuspended. But this other company I worked for, they couldn’t lie. They can’t lie. They’re not going to go say something. Or when you start saying stuff and admitting that maybe there was an issue, you’re like becoming liable. So, how does that work?
Chris McCabe: Exactly. No, I don’t recommend that anyone make things up just because they believe that Amazon wants you to make something up. If you want to look at it as an exercise and explaining what your due diligence is and how it can be improved or let’s just say your quality control, how it functions now and how you can improve it and upgrade it. Any of us in any kind of business could be making improvements and upgrading processes. We could be auditing what we do more. I know I could be. We can be auditing ourselves or it could be double checking things more often. We can be training a bit differently or perhaps revamping our training to include some improvement or some additional steps and layers of due diligence. And, that’s if you have to think of it mentally as a due diligence exercise and explaining how you’re going to execute new improvements, then so be it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are making up a problem. Well, root causes are required, so I’m just going to say that we weren’t checking boxes enough and the items weren’t properly secured inside the packaging, so we’re going to improve the packaging, but I’m not going to do any of those things. You can’t make promises that you will not keep in a POA, a plan of action just to get reinstated with your account, and it’s tempting to think that way, and sometimes I definitely agree. Amazon nudges you in the direction of telling them what they want to hear. But if you tell them something in a plan of action, they will hold you to it. You’re not just throwing words down on a page to get it over with and get back to normal if they believe it, and they expect you to do it. You will have to do it.
Bradley Sutton: You probably have for your company, I would imagine that you deal with hundreds of cases a year as far as suspensions and ASINs suspensions and other things. Thousands. All right. So what would you say, you don’t have to give me exact numbers, but what would you say are the number one, two and three reasons why somebody got suspended?
Chris McCabe: The performance metric misses are more straightforward. There are people, of course, you get suspended for high ODR or for late shipment rate. We get a lot of those canceled orders, but I’ll set those aside because those are more straightforward suspensions. Those are usually tools that misfire and nobody who was managing number keeping an eye on them. The majority of the suspensions we work are, again, from item quality, item authenticity, or item condition complaints. Sometimes they come from the brands that you’re selling if you’re a reseller. Other times your private label and you’re selling your own products, and buyers are complaining about differences between the quality they expected after looking at the product detail page and what they received once they have the item. Listing violations, there’s a lot of policy abuse because people incorrectly create detailed pages, sometimes as resellers getting trolled for piggybacking on improperly created listings. That’s been a big suspension cost lately. And then, of course, policies around product review abuse. That’s been a hot topic for a while and we’re still seeing a lot of people suspended for that. So policy abuse, item condition, and item quality, those are two big ones. And then lastly would notice claims and infringement claims. So people who were either reported for violating a patent or design. It might be a private label seller and somebody comes in and says, well this is our design that you’re using. Trademark violations. And then, of course, intellectual property complaints, or copyright infringements. Those are pretty common as well because generally speaking, Amazon does not want to be caught in the middle between two other parties, whether it’s a reseller in a brand or two private label sellers. Whoever it might be, Amazon’s just the marketplace and just the platform. They will take a listing down and send a warning, but they don’t want to officiate all the different legal disputes that might crop up between two parties. So generally they rather suspend for an infringement claims than getting involved.
Bradley Sutton: Alright now, let’s see. There are things that are unavoidable. Somebody gets sick on a supplement and, or not really on a supplement, but they get sick and then they blame it on the supplement, and they give a– that there was no way for a seller to avoid that. Or there’s a black hat person who’s going to attack them with fake reviews, there’s nothing that you can do to control that. But, what would you say in your experience are the top two things that are avoidable that you see people getting suspended that maybe our listeners can make sure that they don’t do? What are the two easiest things that you say that you’re like, oh my God, I can’t believe that this person was his dumb to do this? They’re totally asking for, I’m sure you get that all the time.
Chris McCabe: I don’t know if I’m saying dumb. There are some people who I think are not reading the tea leaves or they’re not paying attention to what’s going on in terms of enforcement trends, and I don’t know if they’re asking for trouble, but they need to pay more attention and it’s not certain just about stupidity. It’s about risk. I’m not sure if those sellers understand how much risk they’re taking with their entire Amazon business, for example, just because they want to continue selling a brand that they’ve always sold. Just to stay with the infringement example for a moment, because at this point in the game, if you’re a reseller and you’re selling a brand who you already have a couple of infringements and a couple of ASINs, it’s clear that Amazon is going to keep taking your listings down. It’s clear that they’re going to keep sending you back to that brand. Maybe it’s time to sit down and think about whether or not you can tell that brand anymore. Without trying to debate or argue outside of a courtroom, and try to figure out how you can defend yourself against these infringements and your legal right to sell these items, and e-commerce sites are on Amazon because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about are you willing to risk the entire Amazon account just to sell those brands? And I think sellers are starting to turn the corner on that. I’m still surprised at how many infringement cases we get every week. Because I think a lot of the time sellers are maybe in denial or just not paying attention to the fact that this brand is reporting your storefront. Maybe not every store that’s selling these products, but they’re clearly trying to get you from away from selling their products. And if it comes down to you or the brand, Amazon is probably going to side with the brand, especially in a legal fight, and you’re probably not going to sell us to that brand just to keep selling those items on Amazon. So you have to kind of learn when to cut bait and to focus on other brands or reach out to brands and make sure that they understand who you are, the storefront name, your company name, where you’re getting the product. Maybe they won’t submit and infringe against you if they know more about you. Maybe your supplier can tell– there are things you can do to try to troubleshoot this and try to prevent additional infringements in the future that’s just part of the reseller universe, that Amazon’s created in the marketplace now. So hiding from it, running from it, kind of sitting there hoping that brands don’t report you. I think that’s something that’s easily avoidable at this point. As long as you understand the risk of selling brands that were trying to push you off the platform. The second thing I guess would be going back to the product review and to use, I still see sellers, I even created a new service around just the messaging. Show me the messaging, let me sign off on it as compliant. I can do that probably in 20 or 30 minutes for you. And I can look at whether or not it’s going to attract negative attention for product review abuse teams because I can guarantee you from many conversations I’ve had over the last six months, product review teams don’t have a lot of time and bandwidth and energy to chase off-site activity and this or that Facebook group that are constantly popping up and going away. They can’t seem to get a handle around the black hat services that are out there, and proliferating and offering sophisticated fake review services. What do they go after? They go after the low hanging fruit, which is you’ve got content in your messaging wishes and compliant. It’s easy for them to spot it. It’s easy for them to assess it quickly and decide it’s non-compliant, and suspend you. So messaging, and the same goes for product inserts by the way. I’m getting a lot of people reporting to me. They take pictures of product inserts that they see in their competitor packaging. They– I take a quick look at it, I realize it’s breaking the rules and I know that anybody who reports that it’s going to get that seller suspended. So it’s just– that’s an easy step to take and make sure that you’ve got somebody who knows what’s going on with these teams to look at the messaging that you’re sending out and think carefully before you put a product and get you suspended.
Bradley Sutton: You talked about reporting. We’re not suggesting people become tattletales or something like that. But at the same time, if you– if there’s a competitor who is hurting your business and they’re doing it with black hat ways, that hurts Amazon, that hurts your business. So how does somebody do that? How does somebody report? Does it actually work?
Chris McCabe: It depends on what– obviously it depends on how extensive, you don’t want to send them volumes and pages and pages of things. They’re not going to read that. So you want to be brief, you want to be concise. It depends on what the nature of the allegations, are or the violations are. Sometimes you’re reporting it straight to the product review of these teams. There’s PRA, Product Review Abuse, and they, of course, handled reviews, issues and then there’s MPA, Marketplace Abuse. Obviously, these teams coordinate with each other.
Bradley Sutton: How do you contact– is there a button? Or is that in your seller central or how do you find those too?
Chris McCabe: Most people don’t spend a lot of time with seller support and hoping that something will come out of that. That’s a good place to start and do it open a quick case. Just you can cite a case in future emails, but you can report violations, policy and listing violations in Seller Central. It can get a case open with seller support, but that’s kind of a quick initial step. There are lots of their various email cues you can use, and I can, I don’t know if you want to provide them at the end of the podcast. There are different cues that people can use. A lot of people have complained that nobody answers those and they just get an answer saying, we’ll look into this. We can’t tell you what we’re going to do. What’d I do with my clients and what I recommend usually now since most people are complaining that they’re not seeing any action from legitimate reports is: A. Show me what you’re sending them. So I can tell you if it’s too long, too hard to follow, They’re not going to action things that are really long, or really difficult to understand. So sometimes I’m working with them to help them just craft the language and represented the way that at least there’s the potential for policy abuse teams to act. So it’s what you’re sending and it’s where you’re sending it. And if they’re not going to respond when you send it to them, there’s an email address, suspect abuse, that Amazon, that’s just one for example, that you need to escalate it elsewhere. And of course, escalation is a whole other topic. But we could talk about various places. You can report things either directly to team management, or of course, the Jeff email is the executive seller relations one. But if they’re not going to act and if you’re losing sales, if you’re being relentlessly attacked and no one’s doing anything about it, that I always advocate that people start reporting it as soon as possible.
Bradley Sutton: Now, if somebody hijacks your listing with a counterfeit product. They jumped on your listing, you know that there’s no way that it’s your product because you don’t wholesale your product out. What I’ve told people in the past, no, I’m no legal expert, but in my opinion, it always, I do two things. I say, by a test when yourself, because actually Amazon a lot of times would ask me, do you have a test purchase and do you have a product? But then should they also have a customer buy it as well and have a report come from a buyer, or just the seller doing it. So all I have like another, a person buys it as well so that it comes from a buyer accounting. Okay.
Chris McCabe: No, I haven’t heard that. Maybe people have found ways of doing it just as a confirmation of their complaints, but I haven’t heard of a need for that or I didn’t know people were really doing that. But you need to show them a test if you’re suspecting counterfeit. You can’t just assume counterfeit and grab some attorney and have them draft a letter. God knows there are attorneys out there will write whatever you say as long as you pay them, but you don’t want to set a precedent where you’re making false or counterfeit. There have already been some of this suspended publicly discussed. There have already been re-sellers who have sued brands for falsely accusing them of selling counterfeit simply because they felt like it, for whatever their reasons were. So I definitely don’t recommend taking that path that can come back on you legally. But make it, if it’s your brand, you don’t know where they’re getting it. You don’t know if it’s a non branded generic version, cheaper manufacturing version of your product. The only way to know that for sure is currently at least is to do a test by– I’ve got a couple of clients that are already being invited into the project zero pilot, which is kind of not very sophisticated crude tools right now. But obviously, that will develop and to– more of a full-fledged program where you can, if you’re not sure if the re-seller is or where the getting your product, you will have some access to the tools to manage those listings and delete those listings. If you don’t know who those people are. I’m imagining you’ll have a chance or they’ll have a chance to defend themselves and you’ll have a chance to reach out to them and say, where are you getting our stuff? We don’t wholesale it, but right now project zeros just kind of just getting off the ground. You still have to submit infringement claims based on testifies if your religion counterfeit and don’t forget brand registry. You can open up tickets in the brand registry, and defend your brand that way because you don’t want those listings to remain up if you’re pretty sure those are–
Bradley Sutton: Now, speaking of black hat or being hijacked and stuff. What are some of the things that– we actually had somebody talking about the things that are going on. Howard, was on a couple of episodes ago talking about the kind of things that are happening to sellers, but in your experience, what are some of the things, or how are legitimate sellers being attacked by a lot of these sellers? The things that you talked about was sending fake reviews with trigger words using vendor central to change their images and title and things. Is those kinds of the 2 prevalent ones? Or what is other ones that people need to be aware of is going on?
Chris McCabe: Right. Vendor Central, there’s been mountains of abuse, everybody’s aware of it, and vendor central managers I talked to in Seattle are aware of it. And, they’re going to have to make some big changes to vendor this year. They’re making big changes to vendor anyway, but between vendors central abuse, and it’s not so much about hijacked listings anymore. It was about people getting a catalog or captive team people to make changes to listings that they never should have done in the first place. How they’re persuading them to be that is another story. But, what would a lot of people are doing is they’re hiring black hats services that have armies of buyer accounts too. Either buy from you that those accounts showed no connection to you so they can leave mountains of nice reviews and it will look in the tools those buyer accounts are connected to you. Or if you’re trying to take down your competitor, you use those services to get the buyer accounts, which you would assume have no connection to each other, not just disconnected from you, but they’re disconnected from each other. They won’t show any relationship in the tools, and they’ll leave negative reviews for your competitor. So those are the two biggest problems: listing manipulation and fake reviews. Obviously, when it comes to black hat, there are tons of behaviors going on. There’s services proliferating every day, every week that we hear about. I think Amazon’s just behind on enforcement and trying to catch up, but it’s a tools problem. It’s a headcount problem, and it’s going to take them some time to figure out the best message that we have.
Bradley Sutton: Actually we just saw over 70,000 people in our portal. 60,000 in our FBA high rollers Facebook group. And somebody from there just the other day, Garfield had posted something that he had heard Scuttlebutt that now brand registry is going to trump Amazon retail. So that means if that’s true, that might mean that vendor central, or just because you have a vendor central account doesn’t give you god mode anymore to change anybody’s listening. So that would be a pretty big thing if that actually happens right?
Chris McCabe: Yeah. So there’s a couple different pieces to the story. One was Amazon had to go through everyone’s, access the tools and tried to figure out who’s making all these changes to listings that are wreaking havoc for these individual brands. The brands in theory should have control over there on listings instead of the private label brand owner. They shouldn’t have somebody come in who has a vendor central account and change images, change brand names, change titles if they’re not the brand. That doesn’t make any sense. So that was just an abuse loophole that hadn’t been closed. They partially closed it by changing around who’s permissions inside Amazon, who’s permissions to access what tools were available. And then beyond that, they’re pushing a lot of people out of vendor anyway, weren’t going to be if they’re not retail managed and if they’re not at least 5 million for some categories, and at least 10 million for other categories, they’re not even going to have a vendor account. They’re going to be seller central accounts. So vendors changing and also we’ve picked out a couple of instances where we had to try to report vendor abuse and we’ve gotten better at it, which is the good news. The bad news is that obviously it’s difficult to report what internal Amazonians are doing to these listings. So, it’s not quite the same as working there, of course you have to reach out to people and say, look, there are teams that are within your umbrella of teams that have people who are doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Where do you want us to report that? Obviously Amazon’s kind of scared to have that discussed widely, publicly. So they want to kind of close those impulses–
Bradley Sutton: Now, brand gating. Have you heard of anybody being able to get brand gating on their own? With a company I used to work for, we tried for a year and we had a legitimate complaint because what happens was people were doing arbitrage on some of them, but actually not even arbitrage. They were getting close out lots or something. And with a supplement. that could be something that is sitting in somebody’s car for two years, and who knows what condition is, it pose a legitimate safety risk, but they could never get brand gating. And another brand I work for never asked for brand gating once, never had counterfeiting issues at all. Very tiny brand. And then boom, one day they had brand gating on their account. So is there any rhyme or reason these days too?
Chris McCabe: There is somebody who’s a brand new account who suddenly got gated out of nowhere with no history of problems with counterfeiters safety issues. That’s somebody who’s got a friend inside soap in the mouth. There’s no other explanation for it. Anecdotal gating was at least a year ago or so, or maybe even more at this point. It was something you could try to accomplish if you had a pattern of counterfeits and you were playing the whack a mole game and just knocking them off one at a time. You were able to make a case to the proper Amazon teams that it was disruptive to your business to have to constantly report counterfeit. You had tons of examples of it, you had a timeline that you could establish over months or years even of having to report cases over and over. How many testify you had to do the financial duress you experience may be from all the testifies over the last year or two and they had to do it. And you could make a legal argument based on this is really disrupting us to the point where gating tools are all Amazon can give us to protect our brand selling on Amazon. And obviously you had to have the right legal representation and it had to be competent and it had to be reliable in order to make that argument. But as long as you have that kind of data behind you, you had probably long term experience with dealing with the whack a mole problem. You were able to make an argument for gating. The issue of more recent, that was like 12 to 18 months ago. The issue more recently was gating was being abused like crazy, which is situations that you mentioned to some brand new seller had a friend inside the company, you’ve got the data that’s not supposed to happen. So if it was on, it’s reacting strangely around the gating question now is because you know that they are aware that gating was being abused and people are tapping each other on the shoulder in ways they shouldn’t have been.
Bradley Sutton: We’re almost out of time and there’s still so much I want to cover. So real quick, the last two days I’ve been getting all these PM’s on Facebook from people, something about getting suspended because of something to do with pesticide or something like that. Do you know anything about that?
Chris McCabe: I’m working on those now. That started about seven or eight days ago. I can give a brief explanation. It’s kind of become a more complex topic over the last 48 hours. So, it was an automated action. They run these a lot where there’s a script that runs and they’re either flagging, one of two things happens. They either flag a bunch of listings and dumped them into cubes and investigators go through them one at a time or they just delete everything at once and then it’s a manual correction to automated action. That’s what’s happening right now. Investigators are going through and manually seeing if people were pushed out of the category that they belong in or where they told that they were in a category that they shouldn’t be in. And where listings to lead to this shouldn’t have been deleted. So all the tickets to seller support, most sellers are just getting the message that they have to wait. It’s been sent to the right team and you’re just supposed to wait. And of course we don’t advocate waiting. You’re going to have to escalate it for sure. And the calls I had this morning, based on that information, I’d say escalated more than one place.
Bradley Sutton: Alright, next thing. QR codes, product inserts, what is definitely not allowable and what is allowed?
Chris McCabe: Product inserts which seem to fly and stay away from kind of evasion and policies. If you have a customer service number, it’s on your packaging already or your URL is already on the packaging, and you have stuff like that on an insert that doesn’t– technically you can be flagged for try to divert sales to your website, but that doesn’t seem to attract too much negative attention. The problem lately is you send people warranty information that they need and then you say, by the way, can you leave us a review? I’ve seen some warnings around that. Not suspensions necessarily yet, but who knows what’s coming next. You don’t want to send a card that says do you have any problems that require customer service? We’ll fix it. Here’s our phone number, here’s the link to our website, and so forth, and that has the flip side of the card or somewhere else on that card it says, oh no problems. Well, leave us a review then. Can you leave us a review and help us out? That’s considered inducing positive only review behavior and people aren’t getting suspended for that. So, with inserts is tricky. It’s not the same as changing your messaging, right? With inserts, you can’t necessarily pull all your items out of FBA and open those boxes and remove the guys that are already–
Bradley Sutton: Talking about the reviews, I know one thing for sure is not allowed anymore is that people who said, if you had a great experience, here’s the link to the reviews. But if you didn’t have a great experience, click here and it was going to feedback or something. But somebody pm me the other day, there, hey, I can make a link that can take them to the review page, but it automatically pre-fills five-star review now that I know is that in my opinion is–
Chris McCabe: Yeah. That’s kind of a bad idea. Actually, the product inserts that I’ve seen that have five stars at the bottom, those can technically be considered a violation too, even though you’re not necessarily asking them for five star.
Bradley Sutton: I don’t know such a link existed. If you actually make it a link, that would be super asking for a suspension of Amazon.
Chris McCabe: It will. There’s a lot of things. Some people are saying we put on there that we only want an honest review and then somewhere else we asked them if they’re happy to leave a review. That’s not going to fly, that’s not honest anymore. And a lot of people still believe they’re okay. They can say a lot of the language that’s non-compliant as long as they don’t say, leave us a nice review or leave us a five-star review or leave us a positive review. No one really asks for a positive review anymore. That would be crazy. Everyone’s kind of nibbling around the edges trying to ask for it in a different way and that’s what they’re getting suspended for lately.
Bradley Sutton: Okay. Next thing, wholesale, retail arbitrage. What are the recent trends? Years ago a lot of people would be scared that this is going to be completely a model that doesn’t work at all. But at the prosper show, I met $70 million a year seller who just does wholesale and arbitrage. So I know it does still exist, but what are the trends? Is it becoming more and more difficult due to the counterfeit claims and things like that or, okay?
Chris McCabe: Yeah, it is for sure. I don’t deal with arbitrage type sourcing clients very much anymore, I guess because there’s fewer of them. Why are there fewer of them? Well, for pretty good reason. A lot of people have jump ship on that business model and found that buying from wholesalers are authorized distributors and brands is a lot safer given the current climate around infringement based suspensions, counterfeit claims, the kinds of authenticity complaints buyers make. We’re at the point you can’t just show a receipt anymore. Amazon wants to– Amazon investigators make phone calls. They tried to call your wholesaler and say, I want to confirm the quantity of items on this invoice. I want to confirm your relationship with this seller. They can’t do that if you’re just giving them a store locator as a link to a website and if you’re just giving them an 800 number to call, but a target store or best buy and it doesn’t work that way anymore. The types of information they’re asking for you simply can’t provide if you’re doing arbitrage. And, I know there’s a lot of large accounts out there that are still doing it that way. And they do manage to get some inauthentic item complaints reversed by showing a receipt, but that’s not the norm anymore. Those are exceptions. Those aren’t the ruling party.
Chris McCabe: Okay. Next thing. Let me just take a minute to give you my personal interpretation of terms of service. And a lot of people have different viewpoints on this, but about giveaways and discount promotions. Obviously, there are some things that are just completely against the rules, but in my opinion, the traditional kind of launch promotion, giving a two-step URL technically is not against the terms of service. Because when you look at the search experience that talks about it, that talks about using bots. It talks about manipulating the BSR, which launches are not meant to manipulate BSR. It talks about putting ASINs, or brand names in your hidden search terms, your subject matter to try and give irrelevant information and make you come up for brands that you’re not– it talks about all these things. Exactly, they easily to say two-step URLs are against the rules. They could hide the two-step URLs. To me it’s not– it could be interpreted. I have never seen somebody hundred percent get suspended for using a giveaway service to date in my experience. What about in your experience?
Chris McCabe: Yeah. In terms of the giveaways, what became a problem was, people were getting a spike in positive reviews as you kind of would expect they would within a tight timeframe. And then there might be evidence of the giveaway or somebody competing with you or some other party would report the give way to Amazon and Amazon would see what to give away was, and then they will put that information up against how many four and a half to five star reviews did you get within the period that you were doing it, or the period around when you were doing it. And if they thought the timeframe lined up with the promotion and the giveaways and the discounts were 90% off, and they considered that a violation.
Bradley Sutton: There’s a case to us, one of these posts that went viral in one of our message boards where somebody says, Oh yeah, I did a giveaway and that’s why you got suspended. And I was, okay, let’s take a look at the– what you got at this got the standard copy and paste reply. We’re really don’t say why. But then as we dug into it, we found out that he had done a Facebook promotion, gave 80% off, but then every single one of those people he emailed asking for a review. So in my opinion, there it is right there.
Chris McCabe: That’s a layup. That goes back to your early question of asking for trouble. You don’t want to ask for trouble anymore with things like this. And a lot of sellers, I’m not sure why they start the conversation with me saying, well, everyone’s doing it or well I know tons of people who haven’t been caught for this. Measure yourself against you and your account history and your own situation. Never compare. And this is good advice for writing a plan of action to never compare yourself against other sellers, or other trends in the marketplace because they don’t care. They’re looking at you against your own history. They don’t care if somebody out there is doing exactly what you’re doing and that’s a violation too, and they’re getting away with it and you’re not getting away with it. Their answer to you would be, well, you should tell us who that seller is and report them to us and we’ll go after them next. They’re not going to go easier on you because of that information. They know that enforcement’s very inconsistent and they know that it’s hit or miss. They might not admit it, but they know it to be true. So just be careful. These are easy to avoid and it’s not necessarily the service, by the way, people contact me all the time and say, should I not be using this messaging service? Should I not be using this discount service? It’s how you use the service. It’s not the service itself. It’s not that. In some cases, sure, Amazon’s going to start using black hat companies left and right. You’re going to hear about that this year or next year, but for legitimate services that are not black hat, it’s how you’re using them. It’s not the service themselves.
Bradley Sutton: So what about though having the one part that’s a little bit more of a gray area and I’ve done some testing, I still had never heard of anybody getting suspended for this, but to me even more so than just the traditional discount services is the ones where you give rebates after the fact because to me this is more of a gray area since it could fall under the compensation to buyer clause and the TOS, right?
Chris McCabe: The rebates after the fact are they’re considered a gray area, but it’s a risky gray area. Sure. Because if you’re, here’s another thing that a lot of people didn’t realize. You can’t fix somebody’s problem and then say, can you change your review that you said not really be a problem to do? And now they seem to be suspending people for it. So it does change over time. But after the order, actions do matter. So be careful with because that can be seen as kind of a bait and switch. If you’re saying that you’re not asking for anything and they leave you a nice review, but when they leave you the review, they’re expecting something on the backend. Is that right? That’s the issue.
Bradley Sutton: So basically, for now, your interpretation– anything can be interpreted in any way. But as far as speaking about the traditional discount giveaway method, there’s nothing explicit against it in the TOS. But at the same time, just one day, incentivize reviews was okay and then the next day it wasn’t, they changed the TOS. Probably it could happen at any time, but are we on the same page? There’s nothing really explicit against it now, but obviously, it could change from one day to the next.
Chris McCabe: The policies are intended and this goes for the legal language you get around infringements and multiple other policies. They’re written in a vague way on purpose. Amazon reserves the right to interpret those policies as they see fit. And that interpretation can change over time. They don’t want you quoting language or lingo that they’ve used back to them. And challenging them on the nature of the language. They keep it vague for a reason. They don’t want you quoting back to them and they don’t want every seller to come into every situation making their own interpretation of, well, it doesn’t explicitly say, I can’t do this. So that was okay. No matter how I do it. And you can do discounts, you can do promotions. No one’s saying you can’t do those things, but just understand that it’s going to be, it’s risky to do them if it’s going to be a situation where you get a huge pile of positive reviews overnight, they’re going to flag that and look at that. If they think there’s a promotion behind it and those are heavily discounted products then they certainly could consider that abuse of the review system and suspect you for it. Even if you’re combing through the policy pages and you don’t see that explicitly banned.
Bradley Sutton: No, no. To me, there’s a rhyme, I know it seems like it’s not, but there are rhyme and reason to Amazon’s action or inaction, the things that they start getting bad press right. Then that hits their bottom line. When Wall Street Journal comes out with something and says, Hey, look at all these reviews that are fake, now all of a sudden Amazon’s cracking down their views. Hey, there’s all these infringement issues now Amazon starts putting out programs. Now, nobody has complained about discount services because it’s not really causing harm to anybody. The Amazon Algorithm is so advanced, it doesn’t matter how you get to page one nowadays if whether it’s a discount, even black hat if you get to page one or the PPC, whatever. The bottom line is, if you don’t, from that day that you’re on page one, if you don’t start converting organically, you’re going to fall right off because the algorithm is so advanced. So, nobody’s being hurt or it, so in my opinion, yes, it could become against TOS, one of these days. But right now I don’t see a big push to make that happen because Amazon’s not getting bad press about it. It’s not hurting their customers, which is the most important thing Amazon, and they’re getting tons of 15% commissions on orders.
Chris McCabe: I understand that a lot of sellers– it’s hard when you’re competing against people that you see them– I don’t know if I’m saying getting away with something. You see getting a lot of reviews or accomplishing a lot revenue-wise. And you want to start doing what they’re doing just to keep up with them. I understand that motivation. And I definitely understand that the rules aren’t a hundred percent clear and they’re interpreted in ways that you may never anticipate by Amazon policy investigators that in ways that sellers would never interpret them. But it’s the risk management a question and you have to think of the equation of how much risk can I tolerate when I know that these teams, especially PRA, the product review abuse guys. As we sit here now, we know that they are under fire. They’ve had a lot of negative attention on the way those teams operate. I think most people who buy or sell or do anything around Amazon understand that there’s a percentage way above 1% of reviews on the site that are fake. Amazon says they estimate 1%. I think we all have a higher number and that hurts sales and that hurts the integrity of the site. And that hurts the reputation of the marketplace. And those are the types of things that get under just skin. And those are the types of things that lead to negative news stories and bad media reports about rampant abuse at Amazon policy teams can’t keep up with and can’t stop. So PRA is under the gun right now. And what does Amazon historically do when they’re under the gun and they’ve got policy investigators thrown in to solve the problem, they act very aggressively and they start carpet bombing things. And when they’re carpet-bombing things, they delete lots of reviews. And when they delete lots of reviews, they delete a lot of legitimate reviews. And we all saw that from the examples last year and so on. It’s the same thing with the infringement claims and with legal issues. Amazon is sick to death of being caught in the middle of between resellers and brands that don’t want those listings on the site and they don’t want to mediate any legal disputes. Well, how do they handle that? Well, they tend to suspend a lot of resellers who are accruing too many infringement claims within a certain time period. That’s an algorithmic and there are human beings investigating those cases. But those investigators are told to aggressively enforce those SOP. And it’s just that’s the way the marketplace is going to be regulated and police for a long time to come. There are things you can do to prepare and to prevent that from taking your business down. But you definitely have to get used to need to prepare for these kinds of account defense, or account protection.
Bradley Sutton: Well alright. Chris, we’ve actually gone 15 minutes longer than I really ever do, but it was just there’s just so much good stuff that you have here and I have more questions, but I’m sure some of our listeners might have more questions, or might even want some help with something that they’re dealing with, so how can they find you on the internet?
Chris McCabe: So the contact form on my site, really easy to find ecommercechris.com. If it’s something that you think would be, a really long story, you want to email it to me instead, it’s Chris, c-h-r-i-s. Chris@ecommercechris.com and I obviously tried to get back to people as quickly as possible. So just let me know if it’s, especially if it’s account suspension related, I answer those very quickly. And if you’ve lost your top selling ASIN.
Bradley Sutton: Thanks a lot Chris again, and we’ll definitely have you on the show in the future because I’m sure you know this space, things are constantly changing on a daily basis. So six months from now, a year from now, we’re going to have a whole another 45 minutes of topics that we could probably talk about. Alright, thanks. We’ll talk to you later.
Chris McCabe: Happy to do it again. Thank you.
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