How Will it Affect Sellers?

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This post is by Chris McCabe, owner and founder of ecommerceChris, LLC, an Amazon seller account consultancy.

In the middle of 2021, Jeff Bezos will stand down as Amazon CEO and hand over control to Andy Jassy. It’s a move that wasn’t entirely unexpected since the announcement that Jeff Wilke, the boss of Amazon’s worldwide consumer business, announced his retirement early this year.

With Wilke’s departure, Bezos needed one of his senior team executives to take on even more responsibility than they had previously. Wilke’s leaving combined with Bezos’s increasing wealth, and his long-time interest in developing the Blue Origin space travel company, indicated he’d have to step away as CEO eventually.

But what will Jassy’s ascension mean for Amazon sellers and stakeholders heavily invested in growing businesses that sell on the marketplace?

Will we see a different decision making style?

Bezos created the so-called “S-team” of senior executives who have been responsible for managing their respective corners of the company’s operations for several years. These range from the head of Global Retail Logistics, Dave Clark, to the executive in charge of Amazon’s PR machine, Jay Carney (Senior VP, Global Corporate Affairs to be specific).

Bezos made his chief goals and objectives well known as CEO, and everyone else’s role was to meet those demands. He gave S-team executives space to decide what actions to take in Amazon’s best interests, and made a clear distinction between his “hands on” and “hands off” ways of doing things.

Moving on to the part that we care most about, let’s look at Amazon’s oversight and governance of the marketplace. While no one person could control all facets of Amazon’s worldwide marketplace, a CEO needs to know what’s going right versus what’s going wrong when it comes to the sellers who account for 55% of the items sold to Amazon’s customers.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen numerous negative media stories relating to the Amazon marketplace. In particular, Amazon is sensitive to articles on consumer safety and counterfeit product concerns, government investigations into anti-competitive behavior, and of course any suggestion that buyers increasingly distrust product reviews found on the site.

How much of this will Jassy tackle himself, and how much will he follow Bezos’s style of designating a “lead” executive and leaving significant decisions to them? Is Jassy going to begin with more hands-on involvement until he settles into the role?

Way back, Jassy was himself one of Bezos’s notorious “shadows”, going along with him to every meeting and learning by watching the CEO’s problem-solving strategies, over an extended period of time. Following in Bezos’s executive footsteps would not be that surprising, at least initially. Jassy may even have his own shadow candidates lining up right now for future S-team roles.

How will Jassy’s leadership style affect sellers?

Andy Jassy has headed up Amazon’s cloud computing division, AWS, since its inception 18 years ago. Much of Jassy’s management of AWS has happened behind the scenes, but online sellers like Jason Boyce have pointed out the draconian effects of Amazon’s “machine learning” algorithms that AWS powers. We can only guess that Jassy’s management style may favor layers of automation overseen by higher-ups, but we don’t know how long a new CEO for a trillion dollar company takes to adapt an operation this big.

Amazon should not replace more human involvement with an even greater dependency on machine learning.

If his preference does indeed lean towards more automation based on artificial intelligence, then we’re in for a rocky few months when that takes effect, perhaps starting later this year. But AWS operations are not really comparable to the Amazon marketplace, so we shouldn’t take this comparison too far.

Coming back to the marketplace, it already has high levels of automation, but the seller experience remains very varied. We’ve seen messaging errors and investigative mistakes from algorithmic decisions that have led to a great deal of seller confusion and appeal problems, resulting in days or weeks of lost sales. Until they improve those “nuances”, Amazon should not replace more human involvement with an even greater dependency on machine learning.

How will Amazon’s seller communications change?

We have already seen evidence that Amazon automates parts of the seller suspension appeals process. For example, we’ve worked on numerous cases of “used sold as new” POAs where instead of written root causes, Amazon asks the seller to check a box to select a cause such as “deficient quality control” or “poor packaging leading to damage in transit”.

More crucially, Amazon closed off past appeal channels like email queues for Seller Performance, preferring instead to push everyone towards appeal buttons in Seller Central. However, appealing there often results in automated, generic responses that provide no useful information if the appeal is denied. Or there’s no response at all, which is increasingly common these days. Even Account Health Services (AHS) might not know why your appeal seemed to be ignored, unless there are clear annotations on your account.

Automation without oversight is not something Amazon accepts from their sellers, so why are they taking that route themselves?

We believe that many of the Product Compliance processes are being automated too, with the requested documentation now only being accepted via the Account Health Dashboard. In our calls with catalog and multiple other teams, they seem unable to discover what glitches on their end are holding up ticket resolution. We hear that the internal reaction to premature rollouts of half-complete processes is to point (or cross) fingers, while sellers lose millions in lost sales. Hoping and praying that a system works doesn’t constitute a safe basis of operations.

We’re expecting this to continue under Andy Jassy if Amazon’s main intention is to “streamline” how similar cases are handled, and make life easier on themselves. We’ve heard for years that Amazon views automation, not increased employee headcount, as the future for resolution of Seller Performance issues.

Apart from giving sellers a multiple choice format to identify the main causes behind a suspension, Seller Performance could just as easily create a similar process for “inauthentic item” appeals. For example, Amazon may ask if you’ve terminated sourcing from one supplier in order to start sourcing from a better one. If so, what are their contact details, including website, phone number and contact name? Do you have an invoice from the new supplier? This could all be loaded into a newly created appeal form.

Not all automation is bad, but it needs to be executed correctly, with some common sense mixed in with strong standard operating procedures. Automation without oversight is not something Amazon accepts from their sellers, so why are they taking that route themselves?

Who will be in charge of Amazon marketplace?

It looks like Dave Clark (currently the head of Global Retail Logistics) will take on more responsibility to govern the marketplace, reporting directly to Andy Jassy. We also expect a VP-level Amazonian to find themselves in a much larger role than they have now, and that person would report to Clark.

There will always be a need for managers and VPs to keep an eye on Seller Performance investigation quality, and review escalations as needed. The big question mark here is, will sellers need to escalate beyond VPs to S-team level executives, or not? Will Jassy’s solutions to the current problems (such as poorly reviewed appeals and lack of replies) result in improved efficiency? Or should sellers just expect more of the same?

We see one potential wild card here. Jassy could upend current channels of the escalation process if he reshuffles the deck of marketplace VPs, each of whom reports up to S-teams for his or her area of enforcement. That would represent a major development and also impact who sellers appeal to when Seller Performance teams, investigators or managers fail to act. We’ll see who stays and who goes, and if Jassy puts “his people” in place or sticks with the hand he’s dealt.

As noted earlier, Jay Carney, who formerly worked for President Obama as his press secretary, is the S-team executive in charge of Amazon’s public relations. That said, the CEO of a company with constant international media coverage and numerous contentious stories floating around, often needs to be responsive personally to criticism by media, governments, consumer groups and other invested parties.

Amazon releases carefully written statements to reporters after reviewing any questions they receive about a story before it’s published, or they decide if it’s not in their interests to respond at all. When asked for comment, they know the topic will be publicly explored in the near future.

As Al Pacino’s character in The Devil’s Advocate said, “pressure… changes everything. Some people, you squeeze them, they focus…others fold.”

Will Andy Jassy handle the spotlight of the CEO role with the same aplomb that Bezos always did? Bezos accepted kudos and accolades with modesty, using his “It’s always day one” mantra to accept credit only while telling us that Amazon had a lot of work left to do. It was always too early to celebrate any victories, lest they fall on their faces in one way or another the next day.

From what we have seen from Andy Jassy at AWS, he will likely stick with this day one motto, but could enhance it. We hope he plans to remedy clear shortcomings in marketplace systems and team SOPs with a fresh attempt to improve those operations.

How will Jassy perform under CEO-level pressure?

As competition increases, and anti-competitive behavior continues, sellers are becoming more desperate. They have started approaching media outlets in larger numbers to share nightmarish stories about brand abuse, funds permanently held, or account suspensions that they’re struggling to appeal.

Jassy will need to rapidly understand an Amazon CEO’s role to address lingering concerns around the integrity of the marketplace. Amazon needs to separate good actors from bad actors in order to protect buyer experience across the board. Historically they haven’t nailed down the ability to do this on a consistent basis.

Finally, Jassy will have to push Amazon Legal to implement robust systems to ensure employees don’t cooperate with “black hat” tactics by fraudsters looking to manipulate systems, teams or tools to their advantage. Given the difficulty of policing hundreds of thousands of employees globally, every effort must be made to limit the damage done to Amazon and its sellers by compromised staff.

This post was by Chris McCabe, owner and founder of ecommerceChris, LLC, an Amazon seller account consultancy. Chris was formerly an Investigation Specialist for Amazon’s Seller Performance team.

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