Amazon’s “customer obsession” promises: Layoffs and abusive calls are just a few of the fears that customers have.

In mid-May, the bad news was blindsided by Amazon Customer Service employees around the world: more layoffs were coming. This time it was middle management.

A senior customer service representative in an Amazon office in Europe told employees at a group meeting during which a restructuring was to be implemented that would result in the removal of an entire middle management level. However, because he did not use words such as “layoffs”, initially it wasn’t clear if impacted employees were going to lose their jobs or simply reassigned. Employees were left confused as they tried to figure out what was happening. They finally realized that some of the employees in attendance had been effectively laid off.

A long-time Amazon customer service manager revealed to Fortune that they only just understood the fact that their colleague was terminated. “I’ve felt embarrassed before.”

In other parts of world, long-time managers also tried unsuccessfully to log in to their Amazon computer system around the same time. At least in one case, a manager asked for help from the IT department of the company only to be told that HR would contact them instead. After being slapped with the news of their fate, other managers returned to their computer to discover that they would not be saying goodbye: the company had already locked out their systems.

These bare-knuckled layoffs are only one of many rounds of job cuts made by tech companies over the last two years as they retrench after a hiring spree fueled by the pandemic. Amazon has let go tens and thousands of employees since the fall 2022. This is a practice that insiders claim has become more prevalent since Andy Jassy took over as CEO.

The layoffs are of particular significance for Amazon’s frontline customer service staff, who work at a business worth nearly US$2 trillion. (RM9.44 trillion), which prides itself on being “customer-obsessed”. Amazon’s customer-service managers are facing a difficult time at a time of rapid change in the workplace. Remote work and cost cutting have disrupted traditional work patterns. The first wave of AI is also threatening to alter the nature of many occupations.

Amazon employees are already asking each other in text messages and side conversations what the future holds for this division. This is happening from call centres to virtual offices, and even across the globe. Will Amazon continue to subcontract even more customer service to third-party companies? Under the guise a new software that management forces them to use, are current employees training an AI substitute unknowingly? How far away is the automation of their role?

Fortune talked to a dozen Amazon Customer Service employees and Managers. All of them requested anonymity, either because Amazon policy prohibits them from speaking with the press without permission, or because they didn’t want the risk of losing out on the monetary remuneration that the company offers them. One common theme was evident in all the conversations: the workers felt that the future of their jobs is more uncertain than yesterday, and even more difficult.

Margaret Callahan, spokesperson for Amazon, told Fortune, that leaders and teams have the power to make their staffing and investing decisions. Leadership has also managed through an unprecedented set of events including the pandemic, which caused unpredictable shifts in the consumer demand, as well as the labour market.

When Fortune informed Amazon that Amazon managers and employees estimate that between two hundred and six hundred roles have been eliminated recently, the spokesperson only confirmed that more than one hundred positions had been cut.

Amazon offered 60 days’ pay, benefits, and severance to customer service managers recently laid off in the US. Amazon has said in some cases that they have already reassigned people to other Amazon roles if the fit is there. Amazon claimed that it was required to inform staff of a possible restructuring in Europe in a group setting, but that the employees would not have known which positions were being cut.

Callahan stated that the opinions of the twelve employees who spoke with Fortune did not “match the data” collected by Amazon from its thousands of customer service staff. She said that the majority of frontline customer service staff reported high job satisfaction. In fact, this year’s results were higher than last year.


The “low-level guys”

Customer service representatives are a strange middle ground among the 1.5 million Amazon employees who were full-time and part-time at the end March. They don’t quite fit in with the ranks of warehouse workers and drivers nor do they belong to the corporate world of engineers, salespeople and other office folk.

Amazon’s managers laid off were salaried workers who could earn between US$60,000 and US$80,000 in base pay in the US if they were internally promoted. Amazon’s spokesperson stated that the range was below average but refused to give more details. Employees told Fortune that they are not paid overtime, but their job obligations could sometimes require them to work 50-60 hours per week. As part of their compensation package, they are also entitled to receive Amazon stock depending on their performance.

Amazon Customer Service Agents (CSAs) are paid an hourly rate (in the US, from just over US$15 to a few dollars more than US$20) for answering questions and complaints by Amazon users and shoppers via phone, email, social media, chat and other means when the online self-service tools do not suffice. Some agents work in call centres while others work from home. Amazon will reportedly move more employees to remote jobs in 2022 to reduce real estate costs. Employees said that Amazon outsources certain customer service tasks to third-party firms.

Amazon has long claimed that they “strive to be Earth’s customer-centric company”. However, the feeling of customer service staff, no matter how long they’ve worked for the company, are not as warm and fuzzy. One long-time customer service manager said, “We’re the low-level guys. We cost something.”

A long-time manager who was recently laid off said, “We are definitely seen as a burden to the company. They remind us often of that.”

Like most other departments at Amazon, the customer service team operates in a culture that emphasizes efficiency and thrift. (Even at Amazon’s corporate offices, Amazon offers more employee benefits like complimentary gourmet foods at Google than free fruit at Amazon). Sources said that in recent years the effort to reduce costs has become more intense. The customer service managers and staff who spoke with Fortune said that budgets to reward agents, even modestly, have been cut or eliminated in the past few years.

One employee said, “They’ve cut all our engagement budgets.” “Everything that is related to improving a team’s morale, relieving stress, and making them feel like they are part of the company.”

Amazon’s spokesperson denied that budgets for “engagement” had been reduced, despite the claims of frontline agents and managers who have direct knowledge about such budgeting.

Fortunehad previously reported that Amazon’s restructuring was designed to reduce the gap between management and the customer. Some managers and frontline agent who spoke with Fortune were concerned about the increased workload of the remaining managers, and the fact that customer complaints from frontline agents may get lost.


The Mental Health Cost of Violent Diatribes

Employees say that Amazon’s sales have increased along with the number of scammers and victims. Some employees believe that customers who abuse Amazon’s return policy are also partly responsible.

Amazon’s customer service staff face a more difficult day to day and are often subjected to abuse.

One long-time manager stated, “We have become so strict and set on frugal that it has become an uphill battle for any reasonable customer to receive help.”

Amazon’s return process is sometimes a hassle, but employees claim it has become worse. One employee said, “It isn’t the Amazon customer service people used to know and love.”

This cost-focused culture has exacerbated a mental crisis that some Amazon CS agents are experiencing, according to longtime employees. The employees say that a dramatic change began in the early days of Covid-19, when customers bound to stay at home orders started hurling vitriol towards phone agents. They would never do this face-to-face.

It is not uncommon for customers to wish rape or murder on Amazon’s customer service staff. More and more, people are using profanity in their diatribes.

One long-time Amazon employee stated, “The number of coworkers that have told me things like, “I don’t believe I’d walk in front of a car but I wouldn’t probably move if it was coming” is high.

The managers have taken note.

“I’m very worried about the mental health and stress of the people who report to my customer service department,” a long-time manager of customer service told Fortune.

Margaret Callahan, spokesperson for Amazon, said that the company is “deeply concerned about our employee experience” and strives to improve it. She said that Amazon offers programmes and resources for employees dealing with “difficult”, or abusive interactions. CSAs are also able to terminate a conversation if a warning does not work. Amazon could also ban or suspend these customers.

Amazon has also denied claims made by long-time employees and managers who claim that it’s harder to offer concessions to customers than before, but stated that they have worked hard over the last two years to apply their concessions policies more consistently in different markets throughout the world.

Amazon’s Callahan stated that “we’re imperfect, and when mistakes happen, we are not only diligent in rectifying it with our customers, but we use the situation to fuel continuous improvement to our policies, tools, and processes.”


Are you training the replacement chatbot?

Amazon’s customer support operation is experiencing significant strain over a recent issue. AI fears are to blame. Amazon has recently mandated that all customer service agents use an internal software tool exclusively to resolve customer complaints. Since years, the software, called AC3, has undergone development. However, it was only recently that access to its predecessor tool was revoked.

The tool, which is a slow, bug-filled program, has been criticized by both frontline employees as well as managers. Some agents have told Fortune it could extend customer interactions up to three times more than the average. The old tool allowed agents to quickly browse through a customer’s Amazon History, but the new tool mainly asks them to answer questions.

Frontline representatives who are responsible for achieving efficiency goals can be anxious about software glitches. Employees told Fortune that consistently missing these goals could affect job security or promotion eligibility. Even a manager who thinks the tool is a great one admits that it was launched before it was ready.

The manager stated, “It’s defective.”

Employees told Fortune that the tool also severely limits how much information about customers and their purchase history Amazon customer service agents have access to. Although some managers claimed that limiting access to customer information could be beneficial for privacy, they admitted it can make resolving problems more difficult. They also said this could benefit customers who have abused Amazon’s return policy in the past. Many employees said they were trying to help customers while having their hands tied behind their back.

Amazon’s spokesperson stated that the company uses feedback and continues to invest in tools for improving the experience of both customers and employees.

Some employees are also concerned that the AI tool has been designed so that they will be essentially training their AI replacement. Some workers have found the new structured Q&A process that agents must now follow to interact with customers, a strange and unnecessary process. One employee believes that another clue is the fact that after an agent has resolved a refund issue with a client using AC3, the final message on the screen appears as if it were being viewed by a customer, and not the agent.

One customer service employee stated, “It used to be employee-facing and now it is customer-facing.” It was almost as if the customer could have done this themselves.

Fortune was told by a long-time customer service manager that their superior had confirmed the claim.

The long-time manager of the software said, “It’s learning.” “We are training AI. “It’s not a speculation.”

Amazon’s spokesperson declined to comment on the notion that AI is being trained by employees using the tool.

No one can blame customer service agents if they think the worst, given the AI hype that is currently sweeping the business world. Amazon Web Services, the company’s division, currently markets its AI chatbot specifically for call centres. These fears did not just appear out of nowhere.

Amazon’s customer service staff are frustrated with their new tool. They are also stressed out by the verbal abuse and stress they receive on a regular basis.

Fortune quoted a long-time manager as saying, “I was thrilled to join the company many years ago.” “I thought that we were revolutionaries at the time.”

They added that “now, we are exactly the same” as everyone else. – Fortune.com/The New York Times

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