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Service Workers Without a Smile At Amazon.com

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 1999; Page A01

SEATTLE—This was Richard Howard's last indignity as an Amazon.com customer service representative. A man on the phone was seeking Civil War era fiction from the Internet bookseller and Howard, who has a master's in literature, suggested Gore Vidal's "Lincoln." Their conversation lasted three or four minutes.

A few days later, Howard was admonished by his supervisor, who had listened in on the call. The gist: Watch the schmoozing. "People want intimacy in their book-shopping experience, so that's what I was giving them," said Howard, who left Amazon shortly after the conversation early last year. "But my bosses saw this like it was a fast-food buying experience, in and out."

Amazon officials say they don't discourage friendly book advice from their customer service representatives. Still, like the Internet commerce movement it helped forge, Amazon.com Inc. is a notion built on speed. It is the sexiest embodiment of instant browsing and push-button satisfaction, the conveniences that have made the online realm so seductive to customers, retailers and investors. The company has been hailed in trade publications for its generally quick attention to customer needs. And if homey tips from service representatives get lost in the process, that's a compromise digital shoppers seem willing to make.

Employees and managers here talk frequently about "working at Amazon time." "If it's hard for you to go fast, it can be hard for you here," said Jane Slade, until recently Amazon's customer service director. "If you like things comfortable, it can be a difficult place to be."

While Amazon might be a trailblazer, its customer service centers are home to time-worn industrial tensions: between gung-ho managers and disaffected employees; speedy machines and mortal paces; even union and anti-union interests, a high-tech industry rarity. Add to that some classic contemporary animosities--between stock option millionaires and low-wage co-workers--and Amazon's customer call centers offer a rich anthropology for the New Economy workplace.

Computing innovations such as the Internet have been credited with raising levels of productivity, to a point where previous notions of how fast the U.S. economy can grow are being discarded. The innovations also have inspired an ethic known as "uptime," a term borrowed from the early days of computers that has come to mean a working tempo with minimal interruption and maximum efficiency.

But a nagging reality underpins the late-century giddiness: This promise of speed still rests heavily with rote-work employees--the men and women who spend their days and nights boxing books at Amazon's distribution centers, and those who answer e-mail when a customer forgets a password.

On-the-Job Realities

While technology has helped eliminate the tedium in many fields, most of the jobs created in the New Economy are low paying, low skilled and monotonous. "The attention paid to 28-year-old tech tycoons has created the illusion that they're ubiquitous," said David Smith, the director of policy for the AFL-CIO.

In fact, he said, while big premiums have been paid to very high-skilled workers, they make up for a small part of the overall labor demand. A much larger chunk is composed of front-line "service" positions, such as cashiers and call center employees, one of the fastest-growing job categories in the country. Service jobs in technology industries jumped 47 percent during the last five years, according to the congressional Joint Economic Committee, more than double the growth in total service sector jobs.

Amazon will not say precisely how many employees it has--"over 5,000," spokesman Bill Curry said. Of that number, "over 500" are in the customer service division, most as what the company calls "customer care" representatives. An estimated 2,000 people work in the Seattle-based company's seven distribution centers in seven states.

Most customer service workers are in their twenties, unmarried and unmortgaged. An unknown proportion have been at the company long enough to receive significant equity compensation to supplement their wages, nearly all of which are $10 to $13 a hour. The majority are college graduates, but even so, most of their jobs exist solidly in the bottom part of what some economists have dubbed the "hourglass-shaped" New Economy.

The top of the hourglass comprises the celebrated Internet magnates, splashed weekly on magazine covers, and typified by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns more than $4 billion in Amazon stock. The middle level, meanwhile, has thinned steadily in the last two decades. The lower level includes the group that a front-line Amazonian calls "us digital peons," the troubleshooters who answer e-mail from customers.

Few, if any, retailers have attracted as many customers as fast as Amazon.com--more that 13 million since the company was started in 1995. It makes for a blizzard of service queries, usually by e-mail. So it's out of necessity--or desperation--that Amazon's customer service managers push their employees hard.

Customer service representatives are expected to maintain a high rate of productivity, and output is watched closely, several employees said. A stellar Amazon representative can respond to 12 e-mails in an hour; lagging productivity--fewer than 7.5 e-mails an hour for an extended period--can result in probation or termination.

"They basically measured my self-worth in how many e-mails I could answer," said Manuel Miranda, 26, a former Amazon customer service representative. Miranda was let go in August, he said, in part because he didn't answer enough customer e-mail. Company spokesman Curry said Amazon would not comment on personnel matters.

Customer service employees work in a patchwork of cubicles scattered over three downtown Seattle buildings. The quarters have an old industrial feel, with gritty exteriors that belie the company's sleek online identity. Not many outsiders get a glimpse of the world in here, and Amazon is strenuously secretive about all company information, often citing "competitive concerns."

Three-Tier Wage System

New customer service representatives are hired mostly through a temporary employment agency. Beginning representatives (Tier 1) start at $10 an hour, which becomes $11 if they make it through a four-week training period, employees said. Amazon would not confirm the pay figures, but the customer service vice president, Bill Price, said about 20 percent don't make it through the four-week training program. The company would not disclose its annual turnover rate, though some call centers typically lose 50 percent to 70 percent of their employees a year.

Amazon's experienced representatives (Tier 2 and Tier 3) earn $12 and $13 an hour, with raises of up to $1 every year. The wages include medical and dental benefits. In addition, a group of 400 to 800 "full-time seasonal employees" are hired to work the holiday season, earning $10 an hour with no benefits or options to buy stock.

When hired for permanent full-time positions, representatives also receive options to buy up to 250 shares of Amazon.com stock, employees said. Employees can cash out, or "vest," 20 percent of these shares for each of their first two years at the company, and sell the rest over the next three years. After two years, employees become eligible for additional stock options, though many employees say these awards are quite rare. The eligibility requirement will drop to one year in early 2000, Price said.

In June, a small window was opened to a secretive Amazon world. A group of Amazon employees posted a questionnaire about working conditions in customer service on a World Wide Web site sponsored by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), a grass-roots group affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. While a good portion of the 90 employees who answered the survey said they enjoyed working at Amazon, 54 percent of Tier 2 employees said the number of overtime hours they have been required to work affects "their health and well-being in a negative way."

Fifty-eight percent said their skills and talents were "underutilized," and 62 percent said they "do not feel that their hourly wage, without overtime, is suitable for their position."

Veteran representatives and supervisors tend to be most evangelical about Amazon, in no small part because they have accumulated more stock than newer hires, with several stock splits in the past two years. But they say compensation is just a small part of why they like working here. In interviews with longer-serving Amazon customer service employees, this enthusiasm sounds driven by genuine belief in the company ideal, albeit genuine belief monitored by Curry.

"I've woken up in the middle of the night thinking, 'Oh my God, I just solved that customer's problem,' " said representative Kelly Shinn, 25, who has been at Amazon for 16 months. She has 13 piercings and earrings in her left ear and answers 300 e-mails a week. On one September day, Shinn was interviewing for a promotion to become a "lead" customer service representative. "I wasn't given a position before because my productivity was low," said Shinn, who eventually got the promotion.

E-Mail: Quality Vs. Volume

Supervisors push "productivity" and "efficiency" in meetings, memos and evaluations. Their common enemy is the "queues," or backlogs of unopened e-mail and waiting telephone calls.

The company is far more concerned with quality than volume, Price said, adding that individual representatives are not held to specific quotas of output. "They take however long they need to take to satisfy the customer," he said. Representatives are evaluated foremost on "quality monitoring," how helpful they are judged to be in customer interactions. Productivity is low down on the list of how representatives are assessed, he said.

But several present and former Amazon representatives dispute this. "It was all output," Miranda said. "They talked some about quality, but the number of e-mail you could answer was a lot more important."

"We're supposed to care deeply about customers, provided we can care deeply about them at an incredible rate of speed," said a customer representative for 18 months, who requested anonymity.

Customer service managers push the staff to answer every e-mail in the queues within 12 hours to 24 hours. That goal has been a major problem in recent months, especially since the company launched auctions and other high-volume retail features, which have brought more customers, more confusion and more service calls.

On Labor Day weekend, for example, the queue swelled to 11,000 outstanding e-mail messages. "Our work flow is in a severe state requiring swift and immediate action," customer service manager Rob Gannon wrote in a Sept. 7 e-mail memo to representatives.

Gannon imposed "push day" guidelines for Wednesday and Thursday of that week. That meant the company would "sacrifice service level on the phones" and redirect troops to the e-mail. "Goal: to have all queues below 100 messages by Friday at 5:00 p.m," Gannon wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. "You own this goal. I own this goal. We all will share in the consequences of failing to meet this goal."

While this approach should hearten Amazon customers who are awaiting return e-mail, the management methods can grate on staff. "It's like Communist China under Mao," a service representative said. "You're constantly being pushed to help the collective. If you fail to do this, you're going against your family. But if this is a family, then it belongs on Jerry Springer."

The service representative, in his mid-twenties, was discussing life at Amazon with three fellow workers in a Seattle restaurant on a September night. They agreed to be interviewed on the condition they not be identified, fearing reprisals from the company. Before the meeting, they scoured the restaurant for Amazon officials.

'Golden Handcuffs'

Why do they still work at Amazon if they're so unhappy? Two words: stock options. They are holding out for another few months to vest another 20 percent. "Options are like golden handcuffs," one of the three said. Still, he buys his books at Barnes and Noble in a quiet protest, he said, of "my sweatshop work conditions."

This infuriates him most: the tendency of his bosses to e-mail workers "great news" memos, which ultimately translate into more work. Last holiday season, for example, Amazon's customer service managers announced in a memo that they were instituting a holiday bonus program so "everyone will feel energized to work as efficiently as possible."

Representatives who achieved a particularly high level of productivity could choose between a $50 taxable cash bonus or four paid hours of time off. The incentive levels varied by level of experience. The more experienced Tier 2 employees, for example, would receive a bonus if they worked at least 50 hours in a given week while answering an average of 10 e-mails an hour and "maintaining a consistently high level of quality."

But after the holiday season, the memo said, workers were expected to maintain higher levels of productivity than before to be eligible for overtime. "Whereas the bonuses are limited to the holiday season," the memo said, "these productivity expectations will continue into next year." In other words, employees would receive small bonuses for working exceedingly hard during the holidays, and then were expected to keep working at that level without any additional compensation afterward.

Price said that approach was a mistake. "I wouldn't do that again, and I wouldn't do it it now," he said. Price, who joined the company in June, said the customer service center will be better prepared to handle this year's holiday rush. For example, he said, the company recently introduced a new feature that will allow customers to look up their passwords online, sparing the representatives.

Either way, Price has a difficult job, which one employee compares to being the principal of a high-school. There are cliques of cheerleaders and high achievers, with productivity the currency of social standing. (Until recently, Amazon even asked job candidates to provide SAT scores.)

Then there are the slackers, well represented in Seattle, home to the cynical grunge culture. They are not easily inspired "This is clearly a tough group and we try not to overdue the cheerleading stuff," said Slade, who was one of the company's first customer service representatives.

But management directives can have distinctly camp counselor-like tones. They declare "fun" productivity races between representatives in competing buildings. In a Sept. 3 memo from supervisor Mark Schaler (Subject: "YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU'RE DEAD"), representatives were invited to a "midnight madness lock-a-thon," in which they would come in late at night and see who could answer the most e-mail. The winner got $100. Last month the company offered $150 to any Tier 2 representative who could answer 275 e-mails in a designated 48-hour period--an extraordinary rate of output, even for experienced representatives.

When the staff met its "service level goals" for May, a "Hi Team!" memo declared a "build you own sundae" celebration. During last years' holiday season, the office held a "Pajama Day."

And last week, a memo to all service staff read: "Your company needs you. . . . Have a look at the current mailcount here. It ain't pretty." Supervisors then called a "Queue Bashing Extravaganza" for tomorrow night. The event will include "obscene amounts of smoothies, trail mix, pretzels, carrot sticks, award winning coffee and other yummy things."

By the way, the memo noted later, "This counts as part of your mandatory OT for this week and for next week."

Mario Sanchez, a 27-year-old customer service representative, divides his fellow employees into two groups--those who believe in Amazon's higher mission and those who don't. Sanchez, who has been at Amazon for 2 1/2 years, is in the former group. Sanchez sees "advancing the firm to the next level" as a crusade. "I see it as my duty to work hard to convey efficiency to my team," he said. "This is my livelihood."

Sanchez won't say how much stock he has amassed here, only that he is "comfortable" and not working "simply to pay bills." He won't apologize for prosperity. "Hey, I took a big risk by taking a job here before the IPO," said Sanchez, who had been working in the accounts receivable department at a hotel in Anchorage. "No one knew who Amazon was?"

Union-Organizing Effort

For much of the past year, Amazon.com has endured a rare struggle in the high-tech sector: a union-organizing campaign. The campaign is being led by a cluster of Amazon employees in conjunction with WashTech. Last December, WashTech published "Holiday in Amazonia," a damning report that detailed bleak working conditions at Amazon's customer service centers. Employees complained of overcrowding, with up to four people sharing cubicles. They also complained about low wages, which made regular overtime necessary, and "a top-down management style."

"The rocketing growth at Amazon.com has left some employees . . . looking for the pod bay door," the report concluded.

Then came the working conditions survey six months later. It included an e-mail address for people seeking information about organizing efforts at Amazon. This brought several queries of interest along with several intimidating and profane responses from within Amazon.

"I was near tears when I saw some of these things," said Gretchen Wilson, 24, a WashTech official who has met with a dozen customer service employees on several occasions this year. "They would say stuff like 'We're going to find you and get you and stop you.' This was a classic, by the book anti-union campaign right out of the 1930s."

WashTech was undeterred and organizing efforts at Amazon will proceed, Wilson said. She said her aim is not to incite major changes at the company; she simply wants Amazon's front-line employees to have a greater say in setting policies. She emphasizes that WashTech is working in a support role, and most of the organizing efforts are taking place from within Amazon.

"I'm concerned about WashTech," said Slade, now the director of strategic initiatives at Amazon's customer service department. "I think it would kill the culture here." Slade, who refers to herself as "Amazon born and raised," describes this culture as a "true meritocracy," where people who work hard are rewarded. "Productivity is part of our culture," she said. A union presence, she fears, would render Amazon's customer service atmosphere slow and plodding. "We're a very fast-paced, turn-on-a-dime place for self-motivated people," she said.

Richard Howard, for one, was not wired for Amazon time. He said his tenure at the company left him disillusioned by "the false dream of the high-tech economy." Howard, 43, was asked to leave after his four-week training period for "performance issues." He then wrote about his experience in a first-person article, "How I Escaped From Amazon.Cult.," for the alternative Seattle Weekly.

People often speak of the Internet's influence in revolutionizing how business is transacted, Howard said.

"But we basically did drone work and had people breathing down our necks all the time," Howard said. "How revolutionary is that? The only difference is that a lot of the supervisors had pierced ears and wore leather."

Howard now works for Microsoft Corp., where he edits technical documents as a contract worker.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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