Thoughts, opinions, help and advice for affiliate marketers and mobile users in the UK.
As an affiliate program grows it becomes more and more likely that you will come across transaction queries. While the features and tools are well documented, there isn’t much guidance on how to approach and manage TQs as part of a healthy affiliate program.
This guide started as a section in the Beginners guide to Awin Access, but I moved it into a new article because it affects all merchants, not just Awin Access clients, and affiliates have an interest in this too.
What is a TQ?
Sometimes affiliates may believe a merchant made an incorrect decision – usually to cancel a commission, or perhaps a commission didn’t track at all. There are lots or reasons why a sale might not track, so all networks provide a tool to raise these claims.
Transaction Querys (TQs) are used to query three things:
- The amount of commission being paid.
- Request commission for a sale which didn’t track at all.
- Ask for a second opinion when a transaction was declined.
What is the TQ tool?
The TQ tool is an automated way for affiliates to query transaction decisions, and for merchants to respond.
It uses structured data files (.csv or xml format), and Awin processes the results automatically. The structured data is very important – this is a tool for very specific cases, and when you have specific supporting information, like order numbers.
When should I use it?
Transaction queries use structured data files and they need structured thinking behind them. They perform a specific job; providing clear information that the merchant can use to reverse or uphold a decision.
“Structure” is key to the process running smoothly. If you can’t provide the information that the system requires (especially a valid order ID) then perhaps raising a TQ isn’t the right thing to do yet.
Sometimes what you really need is a bit of detective work to figure out what on earth happened to a specific order. The best way to secure that is to speak to the account manager or the network direct so you can explain it properly.
If you can’t get a response from the merchant or network then you could submit a TQ anyway. If the merchant doesn’t respond to contacts then there is a strong chance they don’t service their TQs either – so it will auto validate after 90 days. Use this tactic sparingly though – you don’t want to be labelled as dodgy.
Where is it?
Awin affiliate interface > Support > Transaction queries
Awin merchant interface > Commission > Validate Transaction Queries
How does it work?
The tool works in a similar way for affiliates and merchants.
To submit or approve transaction queries you have to complete a csv template to some very specific criteria and upload it to Awin. The system then processes it automatically.
Merchants do get a point and click interface to approve queries as well. It’s quite useful if you only have a small amount of queries.
The documentation for publishers is here: https://wiki.awin.com/index.php/Publisher_Transaction_Queries
There isn’t a wiki article for merchants – the interface points to one here, but the content is the same as the publisher documentation.
Does it favour cashback sites?
To be honest, yes it does, but only because they need it the most. Cashback sites are in close contact with their members, who are incentivised to raise the alarm when something looks wrong.
Almost all TQs for untracked sales are from cashback and incentive services. If you don’t offer cashback then it can be harder to find out about sales which didn’t track.
Pay attention to clickrefs
A clickref is simply an extra piece of information that is appended to a click. When a sale is made that clickref is remembered, so the affiliate can see it alongside their sales.
Cashback and incentive affiliates use the clickref to store their “member ID”. This ID helps the cashback site to match a sale back to a specific member so they know who to pay.
It is important to retain this clickref. If you do all your work inside the TQ tool then don’t worry. As long as the affiliate provided the ref in the TQ then it will be remembered.
If it is a complex TQ case and you have to create a new transaction to complete the payment, make sure you add the appropriate clickref yourself.
Order ID and clickref are the most important fields
The importance of clickrefs also highlights the necessity of requesting the correct order ID. Cashback members will only be paid if the TQ contains the correct combination of valid clickref and Order IDs.
When a customer says “this sale didn’t track” what they really mean is “I didn’t get my cashback”. The sale might have tracked, but without a clickref. The first thing to do is check for any sale using that order ID. If you find one then the affiliate probably already has the commission but doesn’t know who to give it to.
When that happens I usually decline the TQ and email the affiliate with the appropriate details so they can resolve it in their own system. I rarely (never) get a reply or acknowledgement, but I assume they sort it out.
Merchants can see publishers clickrefs
There is a note further down about Order IDs, which for years were visible to affiliates when they shouldn’t be. The same applies to merchants and clickrefs, but the hole hasn’t been closed.
Merchants can see the clickref associated with any sale using their merchant login. Just download the “transactions” report as a .csv and look in column “w”, or “click_ref”.
Strictly speaking this shouldn’t be allowed because affiliates often use it to record sensitive info like PPC keywords. In fact that’s why they are called “click refs” – they were in use by some networks long before cashback co-opted the feature.
Fair or not, this is very handy when you are investigating TQs or chasing down fraud so I’m not in any hurry to see it removed.
If you’re an affiliate and you don’t want merchants to see your PPC keywords in your clickrefs, then, erm, don’t put them in!
Access programs shouldn’t get many TQs
Awin Access is an entry level program and you aren’t really encouraged to use advanced deduplication and attribution. That should keep tracking errors to a minimum.
However, external factors like security plugins, ad blockers and browser features can still block affiliate tracking so you still need to be aware of the basics. just in case.
Isn’t this open to abuse?
Yes, TQ systems do get abused. It is important to note that the biggest reason for a declined TQ is not fraud or dishonesty – it is usually just an incorrect understanding of the rules, but it does happen.
Dave needs a new fridge. He finds a huge one online for a really great price and is as pleased as punch. So Dave shows off about it down the local pub (post lockdown of course). His mates are well impressed until that berk Stuart says “didn’t you get cashback? You could have saved another 50 quid”.
Dave didn’t get cashback. Dave completely forgot and now he feels stupid. But he would have if he had remembered. That cashback is his.
Dave doesn’t have a leg to stand on but he kicks up an almighty stink. Dave goes nuclear. He complains to the cashback site and the merchant loudly and rudely. He rings up every day calling people names and leaves terrible reviews on Trustpilot because that cashback was his and it was STOLEN.
Sadly this often works; A lot of affiliate managers, me included, will probably approve the cashback as a “goodwill gesture” just to make Dave bog off. Stuart gets off Scot free.
Luckily it doesn’t happen to every merchant so you may not be affected. I get it quite a bit in the Mobile phone industry, which has high ticket items and large commissions
Most of these are led by the customer, not the affiliate. Here are the usual suspects for spurious TQs:
- Claiming cashback when they didn’t actually use the cashback service.
- Raising the same TQ with more than one cashback site to get paid twice.
- Submitting TQs for commissions that have already been paid.
- Raising TQs for order numbers simply found online (often on TrustPilot).
- Creating TQs for incredibly old sales.
- Repeatedly raising TQs that have already been rejected.
- Manipulating the Order ID by adding apostrophes or dashes so they look new.
- Claiming the wrong commission for an order – for example claiming a “phone contract @ £40 commission” when the order was “SIM free phone @ £2.50 commission”.
- Raising fake TQs for merchants who are known to ignore them (they auto-validate eventually).
Who polices TQs?
I am sure that the network would get involved in some circumstances, but I have never been able to get them to engage when certain affiliates started taking the mick. They are in an awkward position – affiliates who generate lots of TQs are probably quite profitable so they can’t really rock the boat. For practical purposes it is up to the merchants and affiliates to make it work.
Some affiliate sites have systems in place to prevent spurious TQ claims. They can do this by tracking outbound clicks and only allowing a TQ then there was an eligible click for the merchant. If a member didn’t click a cashback link to visit the merchant they won’t allow a TQ case to be raised. Not every cashback site does this – some just pass everything on without checking them first.
Basically, if you’re an affiliate and one of your visitors claims they were diddled then of course you have to believe them, but please do whatever due diligence you can first.
Merchants have to be rigid with the rules.
I am really sorry about this – I appreciate it may seem pedantic but you should see how many TQ’s large merchants receive, and the state of the information that accompanies them. Every TQ needs to be treated with respect and investigated, but that takes a lot of time.
You will often see merchants specifying conditions like “we will only process TQs within x weeks of the original order, with a full, valid order number”. These rules are the only way we stop everything falling apart.
If a TQ is rejected for incomplete info there is nothing to stop you re-submitting when you have found the correct details.
If you can’t provide a valid order ID then perhaps raising a TQ isn’t the right thing to do (yet). When what you really need is a bit of detective work to figure out what on earth happened then consider contacting the account manager or the network direct. The TQ system isn’t meant for that.
But big cashback sites get even more TQs than you!
That is true. A large cashback site must get many, many more TQs than any single merchant – even a big one. I can only sympathise, but at the end of the day that’s the game they are in and they get paid for all successful TQs.
Sites who are being overwhelmed by TQs can take the edge off by changing their policies and improving their documentation. Heck, just a thought, but they could even hire me to help sort it out!
Merchants might not use all the info you provide
The information that I would receive – especially from the very largest of the cashback sites, was often pretty poor. At a large mobile retailer most of my TQ investigations were based on only piece of information – the Order ID.
Using the order ID I could revisit all the aspects of the order – the click history, attribution, commission, order status etc and determine what should have happened. If that was different to what actually happened, I would approve the TQ.
But affiliates can’t see Order IDs
You’ll see me mention Order IDs a lot – they are really integral to settling a TQ case. Affiliates can’t see the order ID for a sale, but they can see the unique Awin ID for the sale which is just as good. That ID can be easily matched to an order ID by the merchant or the network. You might need to explain it though – not every merchant or network account manager is comfortable with technical side of things.
As an aside, for a good decade AWin affiliates could see order IDs if they used the API to retrieve sale information. They can’t any more though.
“Good will” and the benefit of the doubt
You will come under pressure to pay any TQs you can, or even to pay when you know you shouldn’t – so called “good will” to keep the customer happy.
This is up to the individual account manager. If an order doesn’t have much of a history that I can investigate and isn’t attributed to another channel then I tend to take their claims at face value.
Perhaps a browser plugin zapped the attribution info or blocked the affiliate tracking. In this case you haven’t paid the commission to anyone else so I think it is only fair to pay out. If nothing else, you are claiming another sale for the affiliate channel.
As for ‘orrible rotters like Dave, that’s up to you.
Transaction queries auto-approve after a certain amount of time. I believe Awin can change it for certain merchants, but it is usually 90 days.
For merchants this means you have to monitor and service your TQs, or you will be forced to pay for them. Affiliates and cashback users have been known to submit fake claims just in case they auto validate, so keep an eye out.
For affiliates it means you can’t be ignored forever. If you submit a TQ and the merchant doesn’t act on it then auto validation will mean you are paid eventually.
Declining sales for existing customers
Ooh, controversial. Some merchants don’t pay commission for existing or returning customers, which obviously has a direct impact on TQs. There are lots of reasons – different industries have different commercial constraints.
Cashback sites hate it of course, though they helped cause the issue by driving commissions up. As a result they tend to be pretty unsympathetic when it comes to submitting TQs for existing customers.
I’ll dig into a bit, but first a disclaimer – My industry is usually mobile phones and every company I worked for had this policy in place (and still does). The decision was made long before I arrived and changing it was well above my pay grade. To be fair to those retailers it was never as simple as just trying to save money for selfish reasons.
In mobile the justification is usually that the commission for “new customers” exceeds the profit margin. If a retailer also has to pay commission when the customer renews their contract they will never make any money, but if they lower commissions to make the numbers safe they will attract less customers. It’s catch 22.
If you don’t have a choice…
The best I can say is that if you must dedupe existing orders then you need to make it clear. You don’t need to shout it from the rooftops, but it should be clearly stated in your profile and you have to be honest if anyone asks about it.
If a cashback site knows about this rule then they might not be very pleased, but at least they can inform their members to avoid disappointment.
In mobile this is definitely not the case. More than one retailer declines sales from existing customer without publishing it in the terms and conditions. At my last phone retailer the director of largest cashback site in the UK rang up complaining “but you’re the only ones doing it”. That simply wasn’t true – I was just the only one being honest about it.
If you do have a choice
If you aren’t being forced to then you should really consider paying commission for existing customers.
You don’t have to pay the same rate as existing customers. It just needs to be fair and respectful to the affiliate and the customer.
If you want to work with a lot of cashback sites it will certainly work in your favour.
I’ll be honest, I have met CMO’s who quite happily said “well I can afford it but why should I pay if I don’t have to”. That’s pretty short sighted and it will only cause problems in the long run.
So we’re stuck with it?
Recent initiatives like the Awin Gold Standard specifically address existing customers and try to secure commission for every sale. This could be great, but I have only ever read blogs about it. No one from Awin has ever approached me about it and it isn’t in any of the new merchant documentation I receive from them. Until the network proactively signs its clients up to it then it isn’t really relevant.
Some industries will continue to resist crediting existing customers so it is going to be hard to get rid of completely, but over time the issue is likely to shrink not grow.
Update: As soon as I published this blog I logged in as a merchant and there is now a little message about the Gold Standard in the merchant interface with a link to apply. I’ll take a look and get back to you.
What if a product is only available to existing customers?
That’s a good point. It’s not very fair to expect affiliates to promote products if the deck is stacked against them.
The obvious example is mobile phone upgrades, which are only available to a customer after they have completed a 24 month contract. If the original seller provided a decent service then you would expect a decent percentage of customers to come back for their upgrade, perhaps using cashback to sweeten the deal.
It’s up to you how you manage this risk. You can either
- Pay commission on these orders even if they came from an existing customer
- Exclude the sales from the affiliate program altogether. Not ideal, but at least you aren’t asking the affiliate to push something they might not get paid on.
- Ignore the issue and just deal with the TQs as they arrive.
I always choose option one – the fairest option. I implement it by adding exemptions to my validation process. It’s just an Excel formula so it is easy to modify if I need to. As long as you are comfortable with Excel you should be able to make it so commission is paid on certain products even if they come from an existing customer.
Some merchants don’t accept TQs at all
Some merchants don’t allow TQs at all, declining any they receive. There are a bunch of possible reasons for this:
- Technical limitations
- Lack of time
- Advice of third parties
The most common reason is technical limitations. Some merchants say their system simply doesn’t have the capability to identify an order and look at it in detail.
This is just about believable for some types of product (free SIMs perhaps). It usually happens when the Order ID which is recorded by the affiliate network is just a timestamp or other value that doesn’t match anything in the merchants own system.
Or the program may be managed by an agency who doesn’t have clearance to look at customer records.
Sometimes there are mitigating circumstances. For example a merchant might not allow TQs, but they may also approve 100% of normal sales to make up for it. It’s not ideal because the individual cashback user who raised the TQ will still miss out, but as a whole they aren’t being dishonest.
If you’re thinking about adopting a policy like this then please don’t. You should only do it if you absolutely have no choice. TQs are an important safety valve for an affiliate program – they give affiliates and customers a way to be heard, and help account managers understand and fix the shortcomings of their processes.
Reducing TQs starts with your validation process
Your validation process is the point at which decisions are made, so it is also where you can affect the amount of TQs you receive.
There are three reasons an affiliate raises a TQ:
- Something didn’t track at all.
- They disagree with a decision you made.
- You have been slow to validate sales.
I can’t speak for reason 1 – you probably need to speak to your programmer to sort that, but reason 2 is definitely within your remit.
As you probably know by now, I love making validation processes. I can quite happily spend days crafting exquisite Excel sheets to decide if something should track or not.
It doesn’t matter how complicated your own process is. If you spot the same issue often (and you end up approving the TQs), then consider changing the validation so they don’t get declined in the first place.
Awin Access could make this a bit trickier
The entry level Awin Access scheme restricts merchants to one “commission group” – the code which identifies the type of product in an order. It’s a shame because extra granularity makes it easier to implement exemptions and explain them to affiliates.
The commission group restriction is only justifiable if it only affects the merchant. You need to make sure it doesn’t spill over to affect your affiliates (by causing more TQs).
How does an affiliate get access to this magic tool?
You should probably only request access if you have a use for it, like a specific enquiry that needs a TQ. I hope this article doesn’t inspire hundreds of people to apply “just in case”.
Make sure you include your affiliate ID even if you are sending a message from within the Awin interface – it isn’t automatically added to your request.
Two technical things to be aware of
- The field for “issue description” has a character limit
This is a text field with a character limit (200). That means anything after 200 letters is lost forever. If you submit a long description the system will accept it but it will get cut off. It’s usually an issue when an affiliate just passes on whatever the customer wrote without checking it first.
A description like this is common and not very useful: “I am very angry and deeply upset with how I have been treated. There is no way I will use your company again unless you resolve this issue immediately. I placed my order last Wednesday and the probl…”.
- The optional field for “customer_reference” is fussy.
This applies for merchants and affiliates.
A customer reference can easily be a number, but this column has to explicitly be a text string.
If you try to provide an order reference that happens to be a pure number like 674657465 then it will break.
I generally fix this in my excel sheet by using a shortform CONCAT to make sure the field starts always with some text like “orderID:”. There is also a 20 character limit on this field so make sure your addition doesn’t make it too long.
Strictly speaking it isn’t broken (though it is lazy programming) and the documentation is correct, but it catches a lot of people out.
Not at all. Most UK networks have something similar, but as Awin is the largest network in the UK and the one I log into most often that is the one I am concentrating on.
Who has the worst TQ provision?
Most networks have a TQ process. They all work slightly different and some are easier to live with than others.
So far the worst I have come across is Linkshare/Rakuten. The method of processing /raising TQs is quite straight forward, but there is no way to see the outcome. That’s right, once you have approved a TQ you can’t see how much commission it cost you. TQs don’t appear in the online reports, downloadable reports, or even the invoices.