Poor Processes

The Little-Known “D” Team @ amazon.com: Seller Services

If you’ve ever bought a used item at amazon.com, you may not know what goes into the whole process.  It’s really not that complicated.  Anyone – and I mean anyone – can register on their website to sell items.

But what happens next?  On the buyer side, you buy the item, and it shows up.  On the seller side, the seller receives an email notification with purchase and shipping details.  And additionally, an entire team of Amazon workers is there behind the scenes, in theory, to make the whole process work right.

In theory, it’s not complicated stuff.  But oh yeah, who are those people again, who in theory make the whole machine work?  The seller services team?  Well, I’m going to pull the curtain back just slightly, and show you a place that can only be described as an appallingly bad, alternate Amazon universe.

Believe it or not, that division constitutes the near-antithesis of what is commonly believed to be Amazon’s internal zeitgeist.  You know… the values, the ideals, the vision, the philosophy… only the opposite!  That might sound kind of crazy to hear or even believe… until you fully understand how bad that team is.

First, it’s a rare – and I mean rare – occasion when these Amazon employees have a recognizable, pronounceable name.  Starting with some of the easier names to pronounce, you’ll find employees with names like Srinivas and Divyank, and trust me from there it only gets more difficult.  Now, since English is my native language, and since these services cater to a large U.S. seller base, all I really care about in this case is whether or not these Amazon employees can communicate with me, in English, effectively.  It is business, after all!  Needless to say, some can, and some are more challenged.  Errors in communication are common with these Amazon employees.

Out of a veritable sea of incompetence, I’ll share a few lighthearted examples:

Sunil from Amazon seller services once sent me some wise correspondence with the following entreaty: “Do not pressurize buyers to remove feedback.”§  I’d have to agree.  Since only the most grizzled, tough-as-nails customers could withstand even a few minutes in my dungeon’s pressure chamber, it’s simply not cool to take it to that level.  (But, he didn’t mention water boarding…)  But what’s funny though is that statement was in a block of text that was clearly copy-and-pasted into his message.  (“Copy-and-paste” is usually these employees’ second language.)  In other words, it was a stern admonition given to every seller he spoke to!

But it’s when the errors become intentional, that this team of Amazon employees truly earns its “D” grade!  On occasion, some of these Amazon employees will actually misstate something on purpose, using their English language impediment as a cover for their mistake!  Pretty crazy, huh?

Here an unnamed (literally unnamed) Amazon employee submitted a report on my behalf relating to customer fraud.

It was supposed to read: “Buyer is sending incorrect pictures suggesting that the seller is sending damaged products”

But she decided to write: “Buyer is sending in correct pictures suggesting that the seller is sending damaged products”||

This particular employee also shared a customer’s private contact information with me, for no reason!  It was a truly bizarre violation of protocol.

Moving on to long-standing negligence, if you’ve never seen it, it’s time to let you peek behind the seller side’s web-curtain.  This is what the little Amazon seller portal looks like:

At the very top, you have the most important information: What kind of interest rate can I get if I take out a $1,000 personal loan from Amazon.  It’s good that’s at the very top.  Where else would someone go for a loan, plus what happens if the interest rate changes.

Next you have information pertaining to new orders that were placed.  I guess that’s semi-important for sellers?

And then next, near the middle of the page (roughly where the sports section would be if this were a newspaper), you finally get to highly-critical-but-completely-obscured information like ‘Buyer Messages’ and ‘A-to-z Guarantee claims’.  (The A-to-z Guarantee is basically Amazon’s guarantee that a buyer will actually get what’s advertised from a third-party seller.  If they don’t, they can file a claim that Amazon will investigate.)  These particular fields represent information that materializes infrequently, but is highly, highly critical in nature, and absolutely must be addressed immediately!

(And in case you’re wondering – no, all of the various widgets and sections are not movable within the webpage.   They’re not arrangeable.  You can’t close them!  You can barely even collapse them!)

Excuse the pun, but unhandled A-to-z claims, and unhandled buyer messages, are of prime importance to sellers on Amazon.  So why do sellers have to scroll down half-way down the page to even find this information?…

Yes, I do think we ought to live in an America where individuals can take out small, uncollateralized personal loans from online shopping websites.  But, I’m still profoundly confused as to why that “Amazon Lending” widget is on that particular web portal, much less in the single most important spot on that web portal – an Amazon portal that’s succinctly titled “Amazon Seller Central”, meaning a location where sellers are supposed to take care of their seller business.

Amazon warns sellers that their respective email clients are a potential hazard, and that buyers’ messages or even A-to-z claims might be incorrectly routed to their junk mail folder.  Along with that hazard, we can definitely add intensely awful, intensely ridiculous website design by the website designers at Amazon seller services.  Folks, that’s not just broken website design and broken information architecture.  That’s not just incompetent and inexcusable.  That is negligent.

But will Amazon honor its own policies with respect to sellers?  No, not necessarily.  One Amazon webpage titled “A-to-z Guarantee: Frequently Asked Questions” lays out policies relating to various A-to-z claim issues.

Near the bottom, we have one discrete section titled “Am I required to represent A-to-z Guarantee claims submitted against me?”  (In Amazon terminology, “representing” a claim means you’re responding to it.  Yup, it sounds kind of strange to me too.)

I’ll blow it up slightly and highlight the relevant portions:

And so when I forget to respond to one dubious and fraudulent A-to-z claim, what is their response to me?  Their response to me is that my appeal will be summarily rejected, on procedural grounds, since I forgot to respond to the claim initially!  (Forgot, because of, you know, those previously-mentioned hazards.)  Strange verdict, and even sadder to see Amazon seller services auto-violate itself – even as their own crystal-clear policy on their own website is shown right to them!  And even though it only involved a small sum of money, I really don’t have enough negative things to say about that “D” team at Amazon!

So no, Amazon will most definitely not honor its own policies on the seller side.

Regarding interactions with employees working at Amazon seller services, on the whole, about 50% of those interactions are acceptable.  About 15% are above average.  And roughly 35% are below average.  And needless to say, some of those 35% are shockingly bad.

Which really gets back to the previous statement about how this “D” team constitutes the near-antithesis of Amazon’s perceived values.  Part of what makes it so shockingly bad is the contrast with the rest of Amazon.  Sometimes it’s literally as if you’re in an anti-Amazon parallel reality.

And I haven’t even touched on the dozens of ostensibly-ignored (and even sometimes brazenly misrouted) suggestions that I’ve volunteered to that division, purely out of good will, many of which actually have little to do with sellers, but are instead low-impact changes on the seller side that would greatly benefit customers on the customer side.

And the dozens of other problems that really deserve their own treatment.  For instance, how Amazon seller services displays web advertisements to all third-party sellers, and how some of those ads are for God-forsaken “nag” software that automatically spams customers until they leave compliant “positive reviews” and “positive feedback”.  (I can’t think of a review system that’s any more broken than that.  Plus folks, make no mistake – that software itself is analogous to adware, which is considered to be malware.   Amazon is allowing companies to advertise nuisance software to sellers, who would then utilize that malware against customers.)

Solution?  Obviously you can fire the seller services leadership and fire a bunch of lame employees.  (That’s exactly what I would have done in a heartbeat a long time ago.)  That type of boldness is the American way.  But half of what’s so sinister with something like this… is figuring out whether this shadowy division actually profits Amazon more, or less, when it serves the sellers incorrectly.


†  The national unemployment rate  is 4.3% in mid 2017.  That means about 1 in 25 American workers don’t have employment.  Considering the fact that these Amazon seller services jobs require almost zero technical skills, and in fact only require basic reasoning, basic comprehension, and English proficiency, the obvious question is why are these simple, English-language-based customer service jobs being outsourced to foreign countries in the first place (or “insourced” for that matter)?… We’ve seen multi-billion dollar corporations like Facebook attempt to evoke notions of corporate responsibility by implementing things like fake-news alerts.  While these constructive ideas shouldn’t be discounted, when you get to nine zeros and beyond, real corporate responsibility ought to include more opportunistic hiring of citizens in your own community.

‡  After this blog post was published, I found an easy-to-reproduce bug on the seller portion of the Amazon website.  This was right around August 4, 2017.   I submitted a bug report to Amazon seller services, at which point a string of 12 employees failed to discern that it was actually a bug report.  Ajaz, Kanchan, Amrit, Shubham, Bharat, Abhishek, Manish, Sunil, Radhika, Radhika, Radhika, and Manoj each copy-and-pasted generic answers to irrelevant questions that had nothing to do with software/website bugs.  Two other representatives, Keshav and Alok, discerned that it was a bug report.  However, Keshav re-requested  the relevant data necessary to reproduce the bug, even though it had been provided, succinctly and unambiguously, in the case details.  Alok did everything correctly, but was not on the case long enough to drive it to a successful conclusion (which in this case, meant logging a single bug in their bug database!!).  Jenny correctly discerned that it was a bug report, but merely did some meta-level administrative work on the case, and did not see it through to a successful conclusion (which again, only required logging a single bug in their bug database!).  For this incident/interaction, that’s a competence rate of roughly 7%.  Technically, that might have been a new low, but I also can’t say it surprised me.  (Also, this division does solicit and process bug reports, so in general this wasn’t something foreign or new.)  Most importantly, it tended to corroborate my suspicion that English speaking wasn’t the extent of the problem, but also English reading and comprehension.  That’s not really the representatives’ fault, but it is the fault of the hiring managers and executives who thought it would be a good idea to hire them for this job – a job whose principal requirement is English proficiency.

§  After this blog post was published, I actually received a new message on July 19, 2017 from an Amazon employee (in their seller services division), regarding previous suggestions on fixing their broken website for sellers.  It was true to form in every unfortunate way: “I really appreciate your idea of having this feature as it will improvise buyer experience.”

||  “I would kinldy request you to let s know what exactly is your concern.”  Yes, after this blog post was published, that message verbatim was actually sent to me by an Amazon employee (in their seller services division).  (The employee ignored the previous message history that he had been assigned to handle, and asked me to restate everything back to him.  Which sadly is almost the rule over there, not the exception.)  1.) It’s clearly 150% unprofessional.  2.) Yes it sure does seem like there’s too many typos.  3.) How to attribute those glaring, conspicuous errors… that’s another matter altogether.  Those ubiquitous spell checkers and grammar checkers – I guess employees over there turn ’em off.

¶  Later on, I accidentally discovered the most hilarious thing yet – a contingent of sellers who earnestly swear that you actually have to post all seller issues onto the “Amazon Seller Forums”.  So that other sellers can somehow solve the problem?  No.  So that the problem might be solved at all?  No.  They say you must do this because of rampant, chronic incompetence in the Amazon seller support division, and apparently there is (or was) a single named moderator whose job it is to watch over that massive seller forum (containing zillions of comments about bugs, issues, problems, complaints, and threats against Amazon), and this lone Amazon forum moderator has been known to be competent if she chooses to attend to the issue!!  I’m not joking in any way about this, and I’m not even sure how many levels of dysfunctional this is.  First, that the “best practice” for addressing any issue on the seller side would be to not contact Amazon seller support!  And second, that this hidden work-around  involves some kind of unofficial Amazon Lottery.  And third, that all of this zany dysfunction almost looks like some kind of concerted move thrown together by the greater Amazon corporation.

Great Design

Transparent Entrapment

In my previous post, I took a look at one government dysfunction.  Although bigger problems in Texas might theoretically exist, it’s really no different than any other dysfunction in terms of how it can be fixed.  The solution, in my own words, is transparent entrapment.

We are actually told by the Bible that it’s God’s preferred model.  We are told that God has designed transparent entrapment for humanity.

The Temptation of Christ by the Devil.  By Félix-Joseph Barrias in 1860.
The Temptation of Christ by the Devil.  By Félix-Joseph Barrias in 1860.

It’s entrapment because the subject is being tempted to take an action he or she would not otherwise take.

It’s transparent because the subjects have been given forewarning or foreknowledge of it.

One can certainly debate the merits of entrapment, and plenty of other theological questions, but I will tell you this… I have trained a number of dogs employing this device.

For humans, the legal definition of entrapment centers around the use of coercion and other overbearing tactics to induce someone to commit a crime.  In general, this method is a legal non-starter, and a solid defense strategy in court is simply to shine a spotlight on it.

Opaque entrapment would simply be the use of entrapment, but without any advance warning that such activity was taking place.  Saddam Hussein was allegedly a prolific, incredibly successful practitioner of opaque entrapment.  And his long-time grip over his government and his people more than validated that attribution.  Iraqi government figures were solicited for betrayal, and if they chose betrayal, they vanished.

Opaque entrapment has an interesting quality, in that if the subjects start to suspect this model is being used, the model still works.  And it was said that this was indeed the case in Iraq.  Saddam’s regime acquired an unofficial reputation for using this model, and it still worked perfectly, and it still snuffed out nearly all hope of internal opposition, because the subjects could never discern whether a betrayal solicitation was genuine or a trap.

In the free world, it’s generally agreed that opaque entrapment borders on cruel.  However, a closer look must be given to transparent entrapment.

Why not tell federal judges they will be intentionally solicited for bribery several times a year?  That in fact, this is all part of the job description.

Why not tell members of the CIA that they will be intentionally solicited for betrayal several times a month?  And that their friends and family will also be intentionally solicited for use in soliciting them?  Yes, there’s obviously a cost there, but I think it’s easy to argue that it’s worth the cost.

And, for example, why not tell Texas Boll Weevil employees that they will encounter intentionally broken, busted boll weevil traps on the ground near their work sites – just begging to be taken back to the boll weevil laboratory?  Failure to return them is considered failure on the job.

Why shouldn’t our public employees be held to high standards?

The fact that it’s transparent may provide a legal defense of the method, but if not, constitutional-level changes would admittedly need to be made.  I really can’t see how it wouldn’t be justified.

This is perhaps the method for rooting out almost any undesirable trait, in any context.

Poor Processes

Don’t Mess With Texas?

Anyone from Texas, or travelling through Texas, has surely seen the iconic “Don’t Mess With Texas” slogan, often times emblazoned on highway billboards as an admonition against littering.

Once again, by all accounts, Texas is anti-garbage.

But yet even with all this momentum, we still have a classic government agency dysfunction in our midst…

Take a good look at the image below.  What are these things?

Badminton Equipment?
Badminton Equipment?

It looks like plastic, and maybe related to a badminton game?

Well, actually these are part of a boll weevil trap.  State employees place these around farm fields to trap boll weevils as a part of a larger plan to eradicate them.  This is what the entire trap looks like when it’s upright and operational:

And acting as a minor pest in its own right, this collection of state employees will then leave these plastic, non-biodegradable trap pieces behind in the Texas landscape.  Whether the traps are busted or broken, or just not being used anymore, often times their life cycle ends with state employees leaving them as garbage on the ground.

Garbage left behind - just a few feet from a working boll weevil trap.
Garbage left behind – just a few feet from a working boll weevil trap.

Last time I checked, broken, busted boll weevil traps weren’t a part of Texas’s state seal.  Nor are they included in the official state song, or the state pledge of allegiance!  And I’ve never seen a single Texas highway billboard singing the praises of a boll weevil holocaust.

But they’re left behind – by state employees – as if this makes sense and they’re some kind of blessing for the Texas landscape.

Nothing confuses me more than state employees caring less about the state than ordinary citizens, people working for the county caring less about the county than people not working for the county, and federal civil servants caring less about the country than people working in the private sector.

So, to recap, you have entomological employees working for The Lone Star State (AKA The “Don’t Mess With Texas” State), leaving behind their non-biodegradable garbage everywhere, for a job, that by all appearances, isn’t even close to being on par with the state-wide anti-garbage mission.

Commemorative coins:

Yes, there are even pot holders:

In case anyone doubts your fervor.
In case anyone doubts your fervor.

Throwback:

(Can you imagine a boll weevil re-mix?  Neither can I.)

 

 


Epilogue

Great Design

Down Home Country Solutions

We had some knives coming out of the dishwasher with little brown rust stains on them.  I tried a variety of methods to remove them, but nothing seemed to really work.

Recently I found some advice online that called for pure lemon juice.  So, I started searching for the internet’s best lemon juice, but the solution ended up being much more down to earth.  We have some lemon trees, and as it turns out, jabbing a knife into a lemon is a lot easier than applying liquid solvents or filling up cups to the brim with commercial lemon products.

lemons 1

And when you’re done with the blade… yes, you can simply flip it around and clean the handle.

lemons 2

 

The results?  UNBELIEVABLE.  I was truly shocked!  Lemons somehow solve this problem perfectly.  The stains get obliterated.  All of them.  They all come right off.

Miscellany

Reasons You Shouldn’t Kick Inconspicuous Tires That Have Been Dumped

bees-in-tire-1

It’s been said that bees love to find tires to build hives in.  The honeycomb in the picture above was built by extremely aggressive Africanized bees.  The tire had been dumped long ago and was sitting right next to a path used by pedestrians and also horse riders.

Dumped tires like this look like trash to most people, but they must look like mansions to bees searching for a home.  When you see a dumped tire, it’s best to assume the worst.

With full bee gear, we safely moved this tire to a much safer location.  The bees you see in the pictures and in the video below are mostly neighboring bees that came to harvest this killer bee honey after we moved the tire.

As for the killer bees themselves, believe it or not, it took three attempts to completely kill them!  Drowning first, then locally-controlled fumigation, and then finally soapy water.  And each time we figured we “must have got almost all of ’em”.

If you ever see or suspect anything like this, assume the worst and call a professional or the local authority responsible for dealing with something like this.

bees-in-tire-2

bees-in-tire-3

bees-in-tire-4

In the video below, more flying neighbors got into the action after we pulled out some honeycomb and put it on a flat surface.

 

We got 'er. The deadly colony's Ace of Spades.
We got ‘er. The deadly colony’s Ace of Spades.

Great Design

Reuse, Reduce, Recycle?

Mr. Sandman

Victor Mr. Sandman
Was “Mr. Sandman” the nom de guerre of Victor?

Mr. Sandman had a few kills in his day.  So many in fact, that the metal parts became twisted and bent to the point the trap was unusable.

To make matters worse, we now favor more human methods (live traps), and best of all, finding and sealing up old rodent entryways.  But Mr. Sandman has moved on as well.  He’s reinvented himself as a sanding block (after going through the dishwasher several times).  Not a bad move on his part.

Sanding Block

Poor Design

Sliding Standards

I won’t say that “back in my day”, it was simply expected that you graduate from high school, but one got the sense that in generations prior, that’s how it was.  You were supposed to graduate from high school.

Now every school in my area takes out a full-page ad (some take out several pages of ads) trumpeting the unbelievable accomplishment of our high school students graduating from high school.

In fact, if you stripped all the words and context away, these ads almost look like photos of people who just won the lottery!

600 graduates

100 percent passing rate

I strongly disagree with this approach.  I refuse to participate in this cult of the high-school-graduation hysteria.  It looks and feels like sliding standards.  I’m skeptical that the world’s highest-performing countries do this.

And sadly, it will be hard for individual schools to stop doing this, as long as all the other schools continue doing it.  This form of peer pressure will tend to ensure this embarrassing trend continues going strong.

One wonders what’s next.  All-out celebrations for junior high graduates?  Custom theme music getting blared out for students each time they successfully go to the restroom?

To tell you the truth, I feel like the students here are pawns, at least partially, in an academia-led scheme to cult-ify high school graduation.  Very similar to how we used to always hear the mind-boggling sage wisdom about how 18-year-old basketball phenoms should play four years of college basketball.  While making $0 and risking a career-ending, millions-losing injury!  With the only upside being that they get a college education… that they could have actually received later after they secured hundreds of millions of dollars (with tens of those millions being guaranteed in their initial contract, before they even stepped foot on the court).