by Steve Weber

#73, 17 July 2006

Can Amazon Sellers Rely on Email?

Selling on Amazon

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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, 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:

  1. Spam. Increased spam volume in recent years has made the delivery of legitimate email less reliable. Internet Service Providers have gotten much more aggressive in trashing anything that looks like unsolicited advertising. For example, Verizon, my ISP, has twice this year deleted my "Sold, Ship Now" emails from Amazon before I received them. Luckily, I discovered most of the problems in time, but a few have slipped through the cracks, resulting in unfilled orders and angry customers.

  2. Phishing. By now, you'd think everyone with an Internet connection had heard of the dangers of providing account numbers or passwords in response to emails, even when they appear legitimate. It's gotten to the point that some people just refuse to click on links anymore. Unfortunately, it only takes one in a thousand people to fall for this trap to create problems for lots of people. Several Amazon seller accounts have been hijacked within the past year after the sellers received phishing emails and provided their passwords. The crooks used the passwords, in turn, to change banking information and list bogus items.

  3. Abuse of email addresses. Amazon's participation agreement prohibits sellers from contacting buyers except to fulfill orders. Yet some sellers have bragged on Amazon's own seller discussion board of conducting surveys or advertising using the email addresses from Amazon orders. Some sellers have even described how to sell the addresses to list brokers. Amazon has no choice but to prevent such activity if it wants to protect its business.

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.

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