Empathy for Amazon (but not that much)

When the #amazonfail kerfuffle hit over Easter weekend, I wanted to give Amazon the benefit of the doubt, at least a little bit. It was clearly outrageous that books about gay and lesbian themes were classified as “adult”, and removed from main search results, including kids books like “Heather has Two Mommies”. But the tweets and posts assuming organized homophobia on Amazon’s part were premature. The braindead customer service response simply citing policy didn’t convince me that malice was behind it either. Customer service people are trained to use existing documentation to respond to questions, which is often correct and sometimes lacking in common sense.

If you’ve worked at an organization, you know that things go wrong, sometimes badly. When this happens, people need to figure out what went wrong, and coordinate a response. When the rain of wrathful posts was falling on #amazonfail, I was imagining Amazon folk being pulled from family dinners around the world to investigate what happened and figure out how to respond, including fixing the problem and communicating to people affected. Socialtext is much smaller than Amazon but this process is painfully familiar.

Amazon’s response fell short of what it could be. Their first public response was that it was a “glitch.” This may be technically true, but it doesn’t consider the genuine and valid outrage that a powerful service like Amazon was marginalizing a group of people that faces real discrimination. Even if was a technical accident, the right response was “I’m sorry that this glitch has the affect of suppressing books by GLBT authors, we have no intent of discriminating, we support gay rights, and we will fix this as soon as humanly possible.” Their next response was posting a form letter to the comments section of a few blogs. What they should have done instead was to have spokespeople talking like human beings. It’s hard to do. It’s easier to post a form letter. It’s much harder to be human and nondefensive in the face of customer outrage. Amazon missed an opportunity to respond in a human way, and earn back the respect of angry customers with interest.

Watching the GetSatisfaction crew handle the complaints about their policy about non-company sponsored pages, and improving their service with the criticism, and watching Rashmi at Slideshare handle customer anger at a misunderstood April Fool’s prank provided inspiring examples of companies really engaging in a professional and human manner with angry customers.

2 thoughts on “Empathy for Amazon (but not that much)”

  1. I think Amazon’s explanation is plausible – they had an underlying category for works with LGBT themes and someone mistakenly included that category in the Adult category of works that don’t show up in primary searches. To the best of my understanding they’ve fixed the search suppression. But I agree with you, Amazon has too much market power, which means that they *could* suppress LGBT works, or any other theme they wanted, and cause major change in the availability of ideas and the livelihood of writers. Amazon’s market power is a problem with the Kindle model of device-specific content and the Book Search settlement which threatens to give Amazon monopoly power over orphan works.

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