To deal with what Jeff Bezos has referred to as “defects,” hundreds of workers at Amazon’s Kennewick customer-service center answer phone calls, reply to tweets and chat via video.
KENNEWICK — Ketul Poshia stiffens his posture in his chair. He flashes a smile that seems to come far too easily to him. And then Poshia, a customer-service representative with Amazon’s Mayday video tech support, clicks his PC mouse to let an Amazon customer’s frustration in.
A woman’s voice comes over Poshia’s headset, a bit confused about why she isn’t able to get email on her Fire tablet.
“I might have pressed something, but I haven’t gotten emails since yesterday,” the woman tells Poshia.
If you have a complaint …
Amazon customers with complaints can call 888-280-4331. The company, though, prefers that customers contact it through the order page on the retailer’s website. From there, customers can send an email, start a chat session or get a call back from Amazon within one minute. Starting from Amazon’s site allows the company to verify that the customer placed the specific order.
While the customer can see Poshia, in a compact cubicle with an Amazon-branded backdrop behind him, Poshia can see only the screen of her Fire tablet. It’s clearly not the first time Poshia, who’s been working at the customer-service center since 2013, has dealt with missing emails, and his diagnosis is quick.
The caller recently changed her password for her email provider but hadn’t updated it on her tablet. Poshia walks her through the process and, within a few minutes, her old emails flow onto her Fire.
Amazon.com founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos has said that customer contact with Amazon, such as the one over missing email, usually represents a “defect” in the online retail giant’s operations. But those contacts are inevitable. That’s why Amazon has a team of more than 500 here answering calls, replying to tweets and chatting via video to salve customers’ anger and resolve their problems. And the company has added hundreds more temporary reps for the holiday season.
There’s no shortage of problems. The center, one of six Amazon has in the United States, responds to thousands of customer calls a day, according to the company. Often, customers want tech support for Amazon’s various devices. Sometimes, they need help clarifying bills. And plenty of times, customers want to know why their packages are late, and when they can expect delivery.
And yet, with so many “defects,” Amazon consistently ranks among the top retailers when it comes to customer satisfaction, from organizations such as customer research group Temkin, Zogby Analytics, and the Institute of Customer Service in the United Kingdom.
Satisfaction, not speed
To Amazon’s many critics, that might seem anomalous. Independent booksellers, whose businesses Amazon has helped undermine, often cite their personal touch with recommendations. Bike shops, electronics stores and clothing boutiques often hire specialists who can guide shoppers to the right product, personalization that’s hard to come by at Amazon, where recommendations are algorithmic.
But Amazon’s customer- service contacts generally come after a sale. At that point, customers aren’t seeking personalized help to make a shopping decision. An often-cited report in the Harvard Business Review in 2010, “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” found that most callers simply want their problems resolved. The researchers suggested giving more priority to resolving the problem than to making costly concessions such as store credits or free shipping.
That study led many companies to press for greater efficiency in their customer- service operations.
“What most call centers are judged by is call efficiency,” said Forrester Research analyst Kate Leggett. “It drives the behavior of trying to get the customer off the phone quickly.”
Amazon’s customer service centers
Kennewick, Wash., center: Employs more than 500 workers, with “hundreds” of seasonal staff added. Handles “thousands” of calls a day.
Other U.S. centers: Grand Forks, N.D.; Huntington, W.Va.; two in Winchester, Ky.; and a virtual contact center, where “thousands” of reps respond to customer queries from their homes.
Overseas centers: Costa Rica, South Africa, India, Australia, China, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Morocco and the United Kingdom.
Amazon, though, doesn’t measure its reps by the speed with which they dispatch calls. The metric it uses is “negative response rate” or NRR. At the end of each call, reps ask if they’ve resolved the problem. Each “no” counts as a negative response.
Darrin Scharffenorth, the senior site leader of the Kennewick center, said calls generally get negative responses 5 percent to 7 percent of the time, though the numbers can run higher for new products and during periods of poor weather, when deliveries are delayed.
“You’ll never see anything about average handle time,” Scharffenorth said. “It may take 20 minutes. We’ve had calls that take an hour.”
When Courtney Morris took a call last week, she spent 17 minutes helping a Canadian man figure out how to get a digital book, a product manual, that he had acquired for his Kindle onto a computer he keeps in his garage. Morris, the current holder of a homemade trophy that adorns her desk and reads “NRR Master,” walked the caller through downloading an app for his computer, then helped him find the specific book.
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“Oh,” the caller said near the end of the conversation. “I’ve got some other books in there, too.”
“That’s why I’m the master,” Morris said when she got off the call.
Amazon’s customer-service center here is tucked away in the side of a shopping center, near Hobby Lobby and the Wok King International Buffet. Most of the office is a collection of cubicles, where the company’s universally cheery customer-service representatives take call after call from frustrated consumers.
The site celebrated its 10th anniversary last week. It employs more than 500 workers, and is open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. When the office closes, calls are picked up by one of the other U.S. sites, or one in Costa Rica, South Africa, India, Australia, China, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Morocco or the United Kingdom.
Employees go through about a week’s worth of training before they ever get on a phone with customers. The training doesn’t just cover etiquette. Workers also learn about Amazon’s history and get a crash course in the products that Amazon sells.
Listening in to a half-dozen or so calls, it seems many customers struggle to figure out how to get something done. One wanted charges to be removed for a returned purchase. Another couldn’t find some digital coins she purchased for a slot-machine app.
When rage emerges, it often arrives via digital forums, Twitter and Facebook, where social pleasantries go to die.
“I wish Amazon.com, Amazon Student would stop lying about guaranteeing Prime items will be delivered in 2 days,” one customer wrote on Amazon’s Facebook page. The customer went on to vent about deliveries that took longer than the two days that subscribers to Amazon’s $99-a-year Prime service expect.
Melanni Jones, a customer-service representative on the social-media team, worked with a colleague to craft a reply that mixed explanation with empathy. Turns out, two days refers to shipping times. Sometimes, processing an order can add to that. The customer wasn’t buying it, saying the problem has been persistent. That left Amazon to simply apologize and forward the complaint to “the appropriate team.”
One of the other challenges with social media is sarcasm, which Jones notes isn’t always obvious.
“You can’t tell tone with text,” Jones said. “Someone might write, ‘I love Amazon. They’re the best.’ And you say, ‘Thanks!’ ” Jones said. “And then they say, ‘I’m kidding. Amazon sucks. My package is late.’ ”
Sometimes just weird
Occasionally, customers goof around with service reps too. Poshia, the Mayday rep, wears Seattle Seahawks jerseys every Friday before a game, drawing playful razzing from fans of opposing teams. He’s had customers show him prospects from dating sites, seeking his opinion. And every once in a while, he’ll open a Mayday call and see a porn site on a customer’s screen.
“They’re just pranking you, and they hang up right away,” Poshia said.
He rolls with it all, recognizing it’s part of the job.
“It definitely helps if you are outgoing. And you have to be able to make fun of yourself,” Poshia said. “And you need patience. Definitely patience.”