Although the primary form of suspension that sellers are worried about is account suspension, there are other forms of suspension that, although they are less severe, can seriously disrupt a seller’s business. Worse, sellers can get hit by these suspensions even if their statistics are doing great.
Recently, sellers have been dealing with FBA suspensions on their products, which mean: “you’re still allowed to sell this product, but only through FBM; FBA is no longer available to you for this product.”
This seems to be due to Amazon’s system of “andon cord warnings.” This system allows any Amazon Support agent to issue a warning after receiving a few complaints, which can quickly result in the product getting pulled from FBA. Amazon has been using this andon cord system for quite some time now, but its usage seems to have ramped up in these past months.
Naturally, sellers are scared that a single support agent (as it often is) can have this much power over the fate of your entire stock and shipment plan, especially if you’ve committed fully to FBA and don’t have the resources to do merchant-fulfilled shipping. Let’s go into the details of the andon cord warning.
The concept of the andon cord comes from Japanese assembly lines, specifically Toyota’s. Andon (アンドン in Japanese, from 行灯, a type of paper lantern) is a system which allows workers to notify management of a quality problem on the assembly line, so that the problem (and its source) can be resolved before the finished product is assembled. Andon was usually implemented in the form of a button or a cord that workers could pull, hence the name “andon cord.”
The idea was, rather than focus on quantity and rush out as many finished products as possible (many of which didn’t work due to quality defects, and were scrapped), they take a slower, more careful approach to quality assurance. The andon cord, when pulled, would stop the whole assembly line, so production was slowed down significantly, but the problems would always be fixed before it was too late, ensuring that the final product was basically free of manufacturing defects.
Additionally, the idea was that each worker at each section of the assembly line understood exactly what a defective part looked like (since they’ve seen so many good parts). Therefore, they would have the best judgment on when to pull the cord, rather than a quality control inspector looking only at the finished product.
Today, andon and andon cords are used as part of the greater management philosophy known as lean management. Inspired by the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, or continuous improvement, lean management incorporates andon cords, among other things, to improve efficiency and quality through small, incremental changes in the process.
Amazon has been using lean management for years now, but recently, their use of andon cords to trigger FBA suspensions has a lot of sellers worried.
Amazon customer service agents are empowered to send out andon cord warnings whenever they perceive an excess of customer service calls regarding defects with a certain product. The owner of that product gets notified that unless they address the defects with their product, they risk being suspended from FBA, meaning they can only continue to sell the product if they switch to FBM (Fulfilled by Merchant).
Usually, the andon cord warning is, as it indicates, a warning, but it usually signals that an FBA suspension is not far off — especially after the andon cord has been pulled more than once for that product.
Amazon has relied on both statistics and the andon cord philosophy when it comes to seller suspensions.
Statistics are self-explanatory: they can look at a seller’s overall performance, and if they see some unacceptable metric (high return rate, consistently low seller feedback ratings, high rate of A-to-Z claims), they can threaten a seller or ASIN with suspension.
Andon cords, however, mean that perceived problems are addressed much more quickly. A statistical method might get a seller or ASIN suspended after weeks of unacceptable behavior, but an andon cord can be pulled as early as a customer service agent deems necessary — regardless of what the statistics say. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective.
Amazon’s implementation of andon cords is understandable — their number one priority is the customer experience, so if a certain product is receiving complaints, they want to address that as quickly as possible, without relying on software to pick up the underperformance.
However, there’s a key difference between Amazon’s use of andon cords and their original intent in the Toyota factories. In Toyota factories, each worker knew exactly what the parts at their station should look like, and so could be trusted to make accurate judgments about their defectiveness.
Support agents, on the other hand, can’t possibly be experts on the hundreds of thousands of FBA products that they receive complaints about. As such, they become prone to mistakes, and many likely overestimate the severity of the complaints they receive.
Support agents being too trigger-happy can be disastrous for sellers, especially if a top-selling product gets suspended from FBA.
We’ve seen cases where an andon cord warning gets sent out after just two vague pieces of customer feedback: “product does not work” and “product does not turn on.” The product was put at risk of FBA suspension, despite being a top seller with a very high average star rating and extremely low negative feedback rate, simply because of these two feedbacks. The product in question was an electronics item, and it’s very possible that one or both of these feedbacks were simply due to the buyer not plugging the product in correctly. The support agent couldn’t have known this, and yet they pulled the andon cord anyway.
To put a top-selling product at risk of FBA suspension just because of two toothless pieces of feedback seems absurd — especially if, as is the case with this product — the seller simply doesn’t have the resources or capacity to fulfill the order volume by themselves, and relies on FBA for shipping.
Andon cord warnings are tough to deal with for any sellers, no matter how big or small. No matter what, the most important thing to do is to reply quickly. Generally, the expected response time for complying with Amazon’s request is 24 hours.
Sometimes, they will ask you to provide quality assurance instructions to check the inventory they have in the warehouse; other times, they might ask you to verify that your own inventory is defect-free; other times, they might be very vague and ask you to “do everything in your power to resolve the problem,” which is harder to comply with in a timely manner. If you are able, and you feel that there actually was a problem with your inventory, you should do your best to comply.
On the other hand, if you feel that the andon cord was a false alarm, then you should provide a copy of your product instructions, any other relevant documentation, and documentation of your standard quality control procedures so that the staff at the fulfillment center can check their inventory for defects.
Unfortunately, this may not be enough to forestall the FBA suspension. In that case, you would have to take it up with Amazon Support. They’ll likely request a plan of action, and you’ll have to fill that out… Dealing with suspensions is a topic for a whole new blog post.
This seems to be another case of Amazon favoring customers at the expense of sellers. One product getting suspended from FBA is a drop in the ocean for Amazon, but it could make a world of difference to a seller who relies on that product for most of their revenue.
It appears that Amazon is taking a ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ approach with these andon cord warnings, but as sellers, we’re concerned that this system grants too much power to arbitrary support agents. There’s a case to be made for an andon cord system to be implemented alongside statistical methods, but it should be done with more oversight, and a product’s suspension shouldn’t hinge upon the subjective opinion of a single support agent.
Have you had any experience with these andon cord warnings? How have you dealt with them, if you were able? Leave your responses in the comments!