The Amazon Effect   //   July 15, 2019

‘Be realistic’: Inside the role of Amazon account managers

When Revant Optics, which sells replacement parts for name-brand glasses, ran into IP issues on Amazon earlier this year, CEO Jason Bolt decided to shell out a monthly fee of $2,000 for access to a dedicated Amazon account manager. After a nightmare episode where product listings were pulled from the site, he saw paying for an account manager as “insurance” if something were to go wrong again.

Several months later, it did: An IP snafu resulted in more than 1,000 of Revant Optics’ products being pulled. But when reached, Bolt found the account manager didn’t have the answers.

For those who sell on Amazon, account managers have been considered a lifeline — the real people on the other end who can cut through the black box of selling on Amazon to field questions and offer support for individual sellers’ needs

Despite this positioning, account manager programs are often confusing and inconsistent in where they fit into sellers’ strategies.

“We have a merchandiser that manages all of our products on Amazon to stay up to date, but they move very quickly,” said Bolt. “It moves even too fast for the Amazon account rep. That’s the most challenging part. We do the most we can to stay on top of the rules and new policies, we pay for an account manager for hope that we can comply and stay ahead, but in these instances that hasn’t worked, so it is challenging to stay ahead, even with all of the resources.”

Most third-party sellers have to pay a monthly percentage of their overall sales to have an account manager assigned to them, and several sellers reported paying several thousand dollars a month for the service. In some cases, Amazon will work with sellers around special initiatives, which include incentives like free access to an account manager. Some account managers specialize in optimizing sales, while others’ expertise is driving advertising revenue for the company by getting sellers more involved in Amazon’s advertising business. Sellers reported different experiences with account managers that boiled down to that particular person’s level of experience and insight.

The issues are more prevalent for sellers, not vendors, who have managers assigned automatically to manage orders and choose inventory, more like a traditional wholesale relationship.

For sellers who want more than the automated seller policy responses spit back through the Seller Central Support system, account managers are seen as a competitive advantage worth paying for.

But they’re not a magic bullet. When it comes to issues that can impact sellers’ businesses, like suspended accounts, pulled product listings, IP infringements or warehouse inventory disasters, all account managers is open a customer service ticket on a seller’s behalf.

The problem is that Amazon’s business is uniquely nuanced, compared to marketplaces like Walmart and eBay, neither of which are necessarily known for great seller support but are typically smaller parts of sellers’ revenue than Amazon. An entire external industry of Amazon-expertise agencies has risen up, often established by former Amazon employees, to help sellers and brands figure out their Amazon businesses. Amazon’s internal answer to that is its account managers, but that same nuance of the marketplace means that knowledge gets lost in silos across these account managers.

Account manager expertise
As the team on the front lines with third-party marketplace sellers, that’s increasingly apparent as that side of Amazon’s business grows faster than its retail business. The marketplace drives more volume than the first-party platform, and saw $160 billion in revenue in 2018. At the same time, Amazon is pushing that side of the business to be a more self-sufficient platform, as the retailer’s priority has been to maximize sellers’ sales while minimizing the heavy lifting Amazon has to do to make that happen.

Amazon’s built out its seller services to include more in-depth analytics and reports, for example, so it can be more hands-off. Account managers are an expensive resource, and Amazon has to consider where to spend the resources that will help drive its business overall.

“You have to be realistic. Account managers can push problems to the right team but they’re not solving the problem for you,” said Dan Brownsher, the founder of Amazon consultancy ChannelKey. “There are so many things that can affect an Amazon listing or the performance of it, and they’re not always the ones capable of solving the problem. Nothing on Amazon is black and white, it’s very gray.”

Additionally, Brownsher said that account managers’ expertise is most relevant to sellers getting off the ground. For more high-level account strategies, they’re not giving particularly nuanced advice.

“Amazon at times can be very helpful,” said Will Johnston, the founder of Grow and Make, a brand selling on Amazon’s third-party marketplace. “If it’s something that they can quickly solve, but it seems like bigger issues just get passed around. They don’t have responses for nuance.”

In job listings for Amazon’s account management team working for the third-party marketplace, the account manager’s goal is to improve selection, quality and convenience across the seller network.

“They know how to set up listings, run campaigns — it’s a good resource when you’re starting out. But when it comes to more technical aspects to accounts, the knowledge and expertise is not there,” said Michael Maher, the founder of the agency Cartology that works with Amazon sellers. “Amazon is just trying to provide a helping hand but not at the biggest cost. When you look at how it’s transitioning sellers away from Vendor Central that aren’t making as much, it’s apparent Amazon is focused on higher-profit brands, so they’re putting more resources towards that vs. the newer sellers.”

Sifting through the noise
Problems are arising as Amazon’s rules change. Part of Amazon’s new shift in its retail strategy includes pushing all sellers to register trademarks in Brand Registry, but some are finding rules have changed around certain IP violations, and how Brand Registry considers trademarks. According to one seller, a trademark may apply for a product when it’s listed under one category, but not if it’s listed under a second category, even though it’s the same product. That creates headaches for sellers, who can lose business as products are pulled to be reviewed for violations first.

According to Brownsher, Amazon isn’t misleading around what its account managers are there to do. But, he said, when things go wrong on Amazon, the stakes are big and tensions run high. It’s easy to blame the only person at the other end of the line.

“I don’t think they’re overpromising or there’s a bait and switch. It’s just how Amazon works — it’s a big business and there are a lot of sellers and a lot of products. Very few companies get that really high level of service where things get done quickly,” said Brownsher.

To make up for this lack of support, sellers often join networks and hire outside agencies to help them grow their business and work their way through troubleshooting issues. Some brands are also building out their own internal Amazon expertise to invest in learning the ropes themselves.

“We basically decided to get really good at Amazon ourselves,” said Ryan Williams, the director of special projects at Rise Brewing. “When you do that, you get their attention, and then you’re asked to join special initiatives because you’re serious about your Amazon business.” Williams said Rise got access to an account manager for the first time when it was selected as a brand to work with Amazon to launch business in Canada. “We’re realistic about our expectations. Until you’re Coca-Cola, you play by the rules of the trillion dollar companies and not by the rules of your startup.”