philipp's blog

Amazon's Hug is Suffocating

I like Amazon's customer service and I think it is a key part in Amazon's success - at least in Germany. In the late 90s, the phrase "Servicewüste Deutschland" was used to describe the fact that customer service, at least in Germany, was abysmal: Back then, everyone could tell you one or more anecdotes about how badly they have been treated.

For example, I remember buying a simple wall clock, only to find out that it went too fast: when 10 minutes pass, the clock showed that 20 minutes have gone by. Back in the store less than 3 hours after having bought the thing, the salesperson first pretended to not know me, then pretended that nothing was wrong with the clock, then had me demonstrate the issue and sit around for 30 minutes until he was satisfied that the clock was really broken (a 5 minute test would have sufficed), and then he refused to pay me back my money and instead handed me a different wall clock with a different design instead, all the while giving me the feeling that I should be grateful that he deigned to graciously deal with the issue.

Amazon's customer service is radically different. First of all, they apologize. They acknowledge the issue and they actually make me feel heard. Second of all, they usually resolve the issues quickly and to my satisfaction, swiftly allowing me to return my stuff, replace or refund it - whichever works best for me. "Our goal: to offer the best possible customer experience" is written below every email I receive from them.

Recently, though, this warm fuzzy hug is starting to suffocate me, and I start suspecting that "offering the best possible customer experience" is not only misaligned with "resolving customer issues efficiently", but sometimes also creates incentives to not really resolve the issue at all - as long as the customer is happy. Amazon's customer service wants me to love them, no matter the cost.

At some point, Amazon stopped asking me to actually return items all the time. Sometimes they told me: Hey, we're refunding your money and you can keep the stuff, how awesome is that? At first, I liked it, it sounded like a clear win-win: They save on the return shipping costs, I get my money and have something for free that I can gift someone or sell myself.

It turned out, though, that I ended up throwing the stuff away anyways (after all, if I needed this, why would I return it?), so all Amazon did was to shift the burden of recycling stuff to me. Also - how dare they! - they destroyed my illusion that all the stuff I return is eventually and not thrown away instead (They really should not do that in my opinion - most of my returns are actually sealed and usable, no reason to throw them away).

(In case this sounds like I am frequently buying stuff I don't need and then return it: That is not the case, but it does happen every now and then that I do not need the stuff that is delivered to me - e.g. because the wrong item is shipped. At one point, for instance, Amazon kept shipping blenders to me instead of the food processor I actually ordered, and I ended up with 5 blenders before they were able to send the correct item to me. It happens.)

Then, Amazon stepped up its game: When I had an issue with its brand new Fire TV Cube, Amazon replaced it immediately with a new piece without proof of the issue happening at all, and without checking if it's an actual hardware issue first. The message was clear: We just love you so much that we'd replace the whole thing just in case rather than having you suffer through troubleshooting efforts.

Amazon pushed this even further when I had an issue that started to affect two of my devices. All signs pointed to this being a software issue (unless both devices broke down at the same time in exactly the same way), but the Customer Service would have none of it: They would replace it immediately. I started to voice concerns about them randomly replacing my devices instead of troubleshooting them first, but the Customer Service misunderstood my point and reassured me: They would replace these items in a way that I would not have to suffer through a phase where I would have no device available and only swap the second device after the replacement for the first device had arrived.

I declined and managed to troubleshoot and fix the issue on my own.

I do understand why Amazon does this: I assume that the vast majority of things will go away with fresh hardware, and I can also see why people would be positively overwhelmed by that level of dedication to the customer. For me, alas, all this reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where a waiter frets over a dirty fork, and fires the whole kitchen staff - just in case.