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Since the Internet burst into popular use a decade ago, e-mail has been its most popular tool. Thanks to its speed and convenience, e-mail is outpacing the telephone and postal mail as a means of communication for consumers and businesses. And perhaps no other business is more dependent on e-mail than online booksellers, whose next customer might be across town - or on the other side of the globe. But for a variety of reasons, lately it seems that using e-mail is getting harder, not easier.
In the past year, Amazon.com has erected several hurdles designed to block the direct communication between its Marketplace booksellers and their buyers. A few months ago, they removed buyer email addresses from the order detail Web pages used by many sellers to print packing slips and send shipping-confirmation emails. Last month, they removed buyer email addresses from Web pages within seller payments account, which had been another handy archive of customer contact information.
And - for a few days last month, Amazon removed buyer email addresses from the "Reply To:" field of the order messages sent to sellers. The change was reversed after howls of protests from sellers.
Yet bit by bit, Amazon is nudging sellers and buyers toward a Web-based contact form similar to one used by eBay. After typing a message into the form, Amazon forwards it in an email, but your transaction partner's address isn't revealed. If you haven't seen this form yet, here's what it looks like from the buyer's point of view (you'll need to sign in with an Amazon account).
Because it's so badly designed, Amazon's contact form isn't nearly as effective as sending a regular email. First, it's impossible to edit the subject line of the message being sent, and only a few choices are available from a drop-down menu: Returns, Feedback Request, Refunds, Order Information, Additional Information or Shipment Notification. As a result, sometimes buyers mistake these messages for an automated message and delete them unread.
Another drawback with the Amazon message forms is that the message - what the buyer or seller actually says - is buried under about 15 lines of boilerplate verbiage from Amazon. So, even when the buyer opens the message, they can give up and trash it before even reaching the message you've typed.
It's easy to see how customer service can erode with such barriers to communication. For example, let's imagine you received two Amazon orders this morning. As you pull the book for the first order, you notice it has a condition flaw not mentioned in your description, so you'll need to confer with the customer before shipping. But will they see your message? And on the second order, the buyer has neglected to provide a street address or box number. Will you be able to get their attention so you'll be able to ship the order on time?
It's similarly difficult for buyers to ask questions of sellers. This Spring, Amazon deleted seller email addresses from its Web site, so the Web contact form became the only means of communication. Since Amazon hadn't alerted sellers to this change, many of the messages were mistaken for spam and deleted.
Fortunately, for the time being, Amazon sellers still have access to buyer email addresses inside the "Sold, Ship Now" emails. But these messages aren't foolproof either - that is, they can arrive late or sometimes not at all. So Amazon announced several months ago that it plans to eliminate these "Sold, Ship Now" messages and is working on a better way to pass the order information to sellers.
Some curmudgeonly booksellers say they'll welcome the end of buyer emails. As it is, they won't even reply to some inquires - for example, "Why is this book so expensive? Is it a mistake?" Or, "Why is this book so cheap?" Or, the ever-popular, "I'd rather pick up the book and save on shipping. Where are you located?"
But on the whole, quick and easy communication among booksellers and their buyers prevents more problems than it causes. It stops little misunderstandings from becoming nasty surprises. And, it simply fosters confidence. That's the real reason for many of the silly emails book buyers send; they just want to make sure somebody is on the other end.
In the book selling community, Amazon's clampdown on emails has sparked outrage among those who believe unhindered communication is essential to good service. To be fair, several factors have probably forced their hand:
What can be done about all this? I hope the Amazon sellers who make the trip to Seattle next month for the annual Independent Sellers Conference can convince the company's management that the current communication system is inadequate. An improved system will prevent lots of heartburn for sellers and buyers alike.
If you're not planning on attending the conference, let Amazon know your thoughts by sending a message to seller suggestions.
And if you're using order-fulfillment software that depends on Amazon's "Sold, Ship Now" emails, you should have a backup plan ready. If past experience is any guide, Amazon will change its system with little or no warning to sellers.
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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