How I Collected a Debt from an Unscrupulous Merchant

A few years ago, I learned a handy technique for resolving disputes with uncooperative businesses. It’s simple to understand and easy to implement. You don’t need lawyers or a prominent social media presence. All it requires is for you to behave like an organized professional. This technique recently resolved a problem so effectively that I had to share the story.

The conversation began with a merchant telling me in no uncertain terms that they refused to pay the money they owed me:

Two email exchanges later, we landed here:

This post explains the dispute and how The Organized Professional Method solved my problem.

Handling bad behavior with The Organized Professional Method ๐Ÿ”—︎

In 2017, Patrick McKenzie wrote a blog post called “Identity Theft, Credit Reports, and You." It’s ostensibly about disputing information on your credit report, but the article is more generalizable than Patrick perhaps intended. It was an illuminating read for me in demonstrating how much power you can wield by thinking strategically about an organization’s incentives.

In Patrick’s article, he explains that banks reward their customer service agents for getting customers off the phone as quickly as possible. They reward their compliance team for minimizing the bank’s number of regulatory incidents per year. Therefore, Patrick taught his readers how to navigate from a bank’s customer service department to their legal department. From there, the customer presents themselves as knowledgeable enough of their rights that the compliance team should rightly fear a regulatory incident.

This strategy applies to businesses more generally. If a company mistreats you, usually someone at the organization has the power to correct it. The potential problem solver follows self-serving incentives, as anyone does. If you can identify those incentives and demonstrate an ability to affect them, then the person is likely to take your problem seriously.

The biggest takeaway for me was Patrick’s recommendations on the tone to maintain throughout the dispute:

…you want to communicate with the bank in a manner which suggests that you’re an organized professional who is capable of escalating the matter if the bank does not handle it themselves. You do not yell […] You do not bluster […] You instead present as if you’re collecting a paper trail.

Patrick’s recommendation resonated with me because I generally don’t see value in yelling at people, but I also don’t want to take shady business practices lying down.

The dispute I needed to resolve ๐Ÿ”—︎

For the past two years, I’ve run a site called Is It Keto that helps beginners navigate the keto diet.

Screenshot of Beyond Burger page on Is It Keto

Is It Keto is a site I created in 2018 to help beginners learn about the keto diet.

The site has grown steadily over time, to the point where it now has over 100,000 pageviews per month. Those numbers are high enough to attract direct partnerships with other keto companies.

In June, I joined the affiliate program for a company called Kiss My Keto. They sell keto-friendly bread and a few other keto foods. The affiliate deal meant that I’d advertise their products on Is It Keto. If any Is It Keto readers clicked a Kiss My Keto link and made a purchase, Kiss My Keto would give me a 20% commission.

Kiss My Keto’s affiliate program sounded like a good deal, but I would later come to realize it was not what it seemed.

Do my customers just hate spending money? ๐Ÿ”—︎

Eager to see my earnings skyrocket, I checked my affiliate stats the day after I began advertising Kiss My Keto. Seven visitors had clicked links to Kiss My Keto, but I still had zero “conversions,” meaning that none of the visitors I referred had purchased anything. Okay, fine. Maybe prices were higher than they expected, or none of those seven felt like buying anything that day.

After a week, it was the same thing. 26 users had visited, but none of them purchased anything.

Affiliate stats showing 95 referrals and zero sales

Kiss My Keto’s stats claimed that I had sent them 95 visitors, all of whom supposedly left without making a purchase.

By the one month mark, I became suspicious. 95 readers from Is It Keto had visited Kiss My Keto, and the affiliate stats still claimed I had earned zero commissions.

For context, I had a similar affiliate deal with Amazon, and 17% of Is It Keto readers made a purchase after clicking an Amazon link in the same period.

A 20% commission, but only when we feel like it ๐Ÿ”—︎

Baffled by these stats, I reached out to Nini Perez, Kiss My Keto’s affiliate manager.

Note: I’ve edited these emails for brevity, but the unabridged email thread is available for anyone who wants to see the full discussion.

At first, she told me that maybe my customers just click the links out of curiosity:

It does happen. Sometimes, customers are curious and go to the site but leave without purchasing.

She also said something confusing:

Other times, they try to purchase an item not qualified for a discount (subscribe & save, bundles or bread).

Not qualified for a discount? Why should that matter?

After a few back and forths, I finally got a straight answer that explained my missing commissions:

Nini reports that Kiss My Keto pays no commission on sales of bread or during sitewide discounts

Kiss My Keto’s affiliate manager reveals that they exclude certain purchases from commissions.

This was a shocking revelation for a few reasons.

First, Kiss My Keto’s published policies say explicitly that their commissions apply to all products and make no mention of exceptions. Or at least they did at the time. They removed that page sometime in the last month, but I archived a copy.

Kiss My Keto's published guidelines say they pay 20% commission on all products

Kiss My Keto’s published rates claimed a 20% commission on all products with no mention of exceptions.

Secondly, bread is Kiss My Keto’s flagship product. If you visit their website, they showcase bread so prominently that you’d think they’re a bread store. A hidden exception for bread would be like if Zappos advertised a commission on all their products and then later said, “Oh, but we didn’t mean shoes.”

Nini reports that Kiss My Keto pays no commission on sales of bread or during sitewide discounts

Kiss My Keto’s homepage features bread prominently.

And that’s not even getting into the “sale event” part of Nini’s email. Days earlier, Kiss My Keto sent their affiliates an email encouraging them to “boost [their] earnings” by sharing Kiss My Keto’s sitewide 4th of July discount codes.

Kiss My Keto encourages affiliates to share sitewide discount codes

Kiss My Keto encouraged affiliates to share coupon codes but later told me that this disqualified them from earning commissions

According to Nini, Kiss My Keto withheld commissions on any transaction that used that coupon, even if the customer purchased through an affiliate link. Even outside of special sales, when you visit Kiss My Keto, their site bombards you with offers for different discounts:

Screenshot of two separate discount offers on Kiss My Keto's homepage

Within seconds of visiting the site, Kiss My Keto offers new discounts to compete with their own affiliate partners.

Based on what Nini said, these special offers compete against the affiliate’s referral credit. If the customer chooses a new discount, Kiss My Keto pays zilch to the affiliate who brought the customer to the site in the first place.

Confronting the CEO ๐Ÿ”—︎

To me, the discrepancy between Kiss My Keto’s published rates and their actual payouts seemed misleading and maybe even constituted fraud. Nini offered to compensate me instead with Kiss My Keto products, “so [I] can create a new article and let’s see how it goes.” But that was clearly not our agreement. It was time to employ The Organized Professional Method.

I sent the following email to Alex Bird, Kiss My Keto’s CEO and co-founder:

Nini has been professional and courteous in working with me, but she is currently describing a Kiss My Keto policy that is unacceptable, so I’m reaching out to you to address it.

According to Refersion stats, I’ve driven 120 visitors to Kiss My Keto through my referral links. I was surprised to see that after this many visitors, I had not been credited with any conversions.

When I asked Nini about this, she said that Kiss My Keto withholds payments based on exceptions that are not part of the published ambassador agreement. Specifically, Nini reported to me the following unpublished exceptions:

  • Purchases of bundles, subscriptions, and bread products do not qualify for commission
  • Purchases where the customer applies a sitewide discount do not qualify for commission

The Kiss My Keto ambassador page states that the affiliate program pays 20% on sales of all Kiss My Keto products.

These exceptions also directly contradict messaging from Kiss My Keto. […] On July 2nd, Alec Mwali sent out an email encouraging ambassadors to “boost [our] earnings” by sharing Kiss My Keto’s 4th of July discount codes.

Kiss My Keto owes Is It Keto the agreed upon 20% of all customer orders to your site that originated from Is It Keto’s referral link. This money is due to Is It Keto regardless of the product the customer purchased or the discount code that they applied, as the published agreement states a commission of 20% with no exceptions.

I’m doing a few things in the email to adhere to The Organized Professional Method:

  • I make no threats, nor do I express anger.
    • The most heated thing I say is that the policy is “unacceptable.”
  • The email lays out facts that are objective and provably true.
  • I’m firm but polite in what I want.
  • Wherever possible, I used our businesses’ names instead of saying “you” or “me.”
    • This was a cold, emotionless business issue, not a request to validate my feelings.

After two weeks, Alex still hadn’t responded, so I sent him this follow-up:

I have not received a response from you in response to my email dated July 17th, 2020 regarding Kiss My Keto’s failure to pay me its advertised commissions.

If I do not receive a response by Friday, August 7th, 2020, I will assume that Kiss My Keto is not willing to honor the ambassador agreement, and I will seek other means to recover the money owed.

Things to notice:

  • I’m mentioning specific dates, which hints at building a paper trail.
  • The one-week deadline discourages Alex from deferring his response indefinitely.
  • I hint at legal action but don’t explicitly threaten it.
    • If they failed to pay, my plan was to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and reach out to other affiliates suggesting they do the same.

“To put it blatantly, we are not paying you for your conversions” ๐Ÿ”—︎

The next day, I received a response from Michael Herscu, Alex’s co-founder:

Nini, our ambassador manager tells me we have already paid you for the most recent conversions.

Now I’m being told you feel you are still owed for older campaigns that weren’t tracked properly. To put it blatantly, we are not paying you for your conversions.

Here[sic] the thing Michael… We can’t pull an arbitrary number out of a hat based on a number of conversions that you feel you were owed.

Nini spoke to Refersion and they told her 0 conversions out of 95 clicks is not impossible so it seems your traffic simply did not convert.

Is it possible your affiliate link wasn’t working? Sure, anything is possible but Refersion assures us it’s working so I think it’s extremely unlikely this was the case.

Do you have any proof of conversions that weren’t tracked? If you do please share them here with me and we can address them. We will follow up with those customers to get to the bottom of the matter and of course, we will pay you out accordingly.

There are a few things that are confusing about Herscu’s email that I need to unpack.

He says, “we have already paid you.” Unbeknownst to me, Kiss My Keto had spontaneously begun paying me commissions on bread purchases (more on that below). The day before Herscu responded to me, I received a PayPal payment for $26.60 for commissions I earned over the preceding two weeks.

Herscu also seems to misunderstand the real issue. He was acting as though it was a simple matter of distrusting Kiss My Keto’s numbers. Though I was indeed skeptical of their numbers, I didn’t want to fight that battle because I had no evidence to prove any of my readers purchased something. What I could prove was that Kiss My Keto’s advertised pay structure differed from what their affiliate manager described to me privately.

I responded a few hours later:

The issue is not with Refersion’s stats but with Kiss My Keto’s policy.

Kiss My Keto’s published Ambassador documentation states that Kiss My Keto pays “20% starting commission on sales of all Kiss My Keto products.”

On July 16th, Nini Perez stated in an email to me that there are exceptions to these terms. Specifically, Nini said that Kiss My Keto withholds commissions on sales of bread products or purchases made during a Kiss My Keto sitewide sale.

Is the information that Nini reported to me accurate? If so, where is that information published? All official documentation I can find says that the payout is 20% on all sales.

I intentionally steered the conversation away from stats, as I had no way to prove anything about Kiss My Keto’s internal sales numbers, however dubious they might seem. By posing the question of published policies, I forced the conversation to a place where we share access to the same information.

“Please process this payment” ๐Ÿ”—︎

Herscu responded half an hour later, this time in a less hostile tone:

That was a good sign. He asked what he can do to make me stop bothering him, so he appeared amenable to a solution.

I sent this response:

I will consider this matter resolved if Kiss My Keto pays Is It Keto full commission based on the published Ambassador agreement.

Between June 16th and July 16th, Refersion’s statistics show that Is It Keto referred 120 visitors to Kiss My Keto and received credit for 0 conversions. I expect Kiss My Keto to pay the full 20% commission on any conversions that were excluded based on Kiss My Keto’s unpublished exceptions.

If it’s difficult for Kiss My Keto to review the purchase history in that way, I would accept $88 as a fair estimate of my owed commissions. This number is based on the fact that I’ve earned $26.60 on 36 referrals since July 17th, which is $0.73 per referral. Extrapolating that to 120 visitors yields $88.66.

He responded a few days later, agreeing to pay me the $88:

Calculating the debt ๐Ÿ”—︎

You may have noticed a logical inconsistency in my demand to Kiss My Keto. My original issue was that Kiss My Keto’s statistics seemed untrustworthy, so why was I suddenly treating everything after July 16th as reliable?

Something changed on July 16th that was very much in my favor. Suddenly, Kiss My Keto started crediting me for sales of bread, the thing they privately had claimed was ineligible for commission. Interestingly, my first commission occurred less than 24 hours after I emailed their CEO, Alex Bird:

That was great news for me because it gave me hard numbers to extrapolate my missing sales. When I had zero commissions, Kiss My Keto could simply claim that none of the customers who came from my site completed purchases. Without access to their internal receipts, I’d have no evidence to argue. By flipping on commissions for bread, they gave me a view into what my commissions should have looked like the entire time.

Since the email exchange, I’ve collected more data, and now their accounting prior to July 16th seems even more suspect:

Period Days Referrals Credited purchases Commissions
Before emailing the CEO 31 120 0 $0.00
After emailing the CEO 27 64 6 $57.48
Note: Fewer Is It Keto readers clicked these links in the second half because I stopped featuring Kiss My Keto as prominently on my site. I’ve since removed all mention of Kiss My Keto, as I no longer have any interest in helping them earn money, regardless of what they pay me.

Conclusion ๐Ÿ”—︎

Did Kiss My Keto pay me because I convinced them that it was the ethical and just thing to do? Probably not.

To me, it looks like Kiss My Keto was violating their published policies, I had clear evidence of it, and $88 seemed like a cheap price to placate me. After my email to the CEO, they took down their affiliate policy page, and I started receiving commissions when customers I referred purchased bread.

Even if Kiss My Keto thought my assertions were baseless and paid me $88 just to get me to buzz off, that’s still a win. Had I huffed and puffed and told them how mad I was, they would have simply stopped responding. Herscu started at, “to put it blatantly, we’re not paying you.” Two emails later, I brought him to, “$88 seems fair to me.” Even if all I did was convince him that $88 was cheaper than dealing with whatever nuisance I might cause, The Organized Professional Method created that impression.

I use this method frequently. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but I always find it to be the least stressful way of addressing disputes. When a company engages in bad behavior, I think about these questions:

  • Who in the organization can solve this problem?
  • What are their incentives?
  • How can I demonstrate to them that I’m organized and capable of asserting my rights?

Further reading ๐Ÿ”—︎

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