A few days ago, Ars Technica had an article on a fellow from Ireland who got in a dispute with Amazon over a textbook he ordered that was the wrong edition. After he left an uncomplimentary customer-satisfaction survey, the next time he opened Amazon, he found a toy of an adult nature sitting in his shopping cart.

I would not advise following that link if you’re at work. Ironically, the customer was at work when he checked his shopping cart, and got some odd looks from co-workers who could see his screen! (Pardon the circumlocution, but we’re not as immune to search engine effects as a major blog like Ars Technica.)

I’m sure we’ve all heard plenty of business/customer relation horror stories—sites like “Not Always Right” and “Not Always Working” exist for that purpose. This story wouldn’t really be all that newsworthy except that it’s Amazon in the spotlight, and you hardly ever hear a horror story involving it—or at least, not one where one of its employees was actively malicious instead of just unhelpful.

It’s also interesting for the featured comments below the article, which are worth checking out (when you’re at home, or on your mobile device). One of them, from the customer himself, expands on the circumstances of his order and his discovery of the item. The other, from a former Amazon customer service employee, sheds light on how and why that adult toy could have wound up in the customer’s cart.

The ex-Amazon employee’s is especially interesting, as it explains that customer service representatives get bonuses based on their feedback, so negative feedback could cost them money—and representatives are able to see exactly who dinged them with negative comments. This is supposed to allow the representative to understand what they did wrong and see how to fix it next time, but it could also give the rep a handy target for a little petty revenge. Also, Amazon representatives are allowed to log in as customers’ accounts, for the sake of being able to help customers who are having a hard time finding their way around the Amazon site—it’s not intended to be used for juvenile pranks.

The ex-employee highly doubts the customer service rep was with Amazon for very much longer after that happened.

While I don’t know the specifics of this situation, I’d be willing to bet money that the employee was fired. Any violation of their security protocols is a firable offense and I’ve seen people fired for less. Customer trust isn’t something they gamble with. They’ll never go on the record about something like that though because of various employment laws and company policy. In the U.S. where Amazon originates, you can sue a former employer for discussing your termination.

Which makes sense. It’s also why it’s so hard to get any kind of a reference out of ex-employers anymore when you’re job-hunting beyond, “Yes, they did work for us at one point.”

I could imagine people using this as another example of why one shouldn’t do business with Amazon, but for me it tends more toward the opposite. It’s such a complete exception to everything else I’ve ever heard about Amazon that it serves more to show what kind of customer service you usually don’t get from the company.

Also, I wonder for how many more years getting the wrong edition of a paper textbook will be a thing? If more schools move toward digital textbooks, it won’t be as much of an issue—though you won’t be able to buy and sell them used, either.


  1. Chris, you’re too nice. Amazon does run the high-tech equivalent of a sweatshop. To better understand that, research something called Taylorism and how Henry Ford and others used metrics such as assembly line speed to drive employees to be more productive. It’s why there’s still ill-will today between auto unions and the old Big Three automakers. A century-old hate lingers on.

    Office work has been harder to regiment. Amazon is one of the pioneers of developing metrics for white-collar employees. As a NY Times article pointed out, those in administration get rated by how quickly they respond to email, which often means checking email long after you get home. That’s a classic sweatshop.

    Behind this incident lies a similar principle applied to customer support. Some is no doubt good. No one who calls for help wants to not get it. I recently talked to one (not at Amazon) who mumbled so badly, I regret I didn’t warn him. He’s probably getting a lot of negative ratings when all he really needs to do was talk more slowly. And maybe he was talking fast because of a poor slowness ranking. Poor guy. He actually answer the questions I needed answered fine.

    Employees who know they’re about to be sacked when these number are bad, often take revenge, so that’s probably what happened here. But keep in mind that Amazon is far more likely than most to put employees in those situations. Its rating and ranking them in all sorts of ways and, if that NY Times article is any indication, doesn’t much care about other circumstances in their life.


    I don’t worry much that Amazon’s behavior will come back and bite it, perhaps with some super-bad bit of employee sabotage. It is, after all a mere retailer. If Amazon gets in trouble, we can just shop elsewhere. I do worry when I see that same use of metrics in other areas. For instance, IBM and Apple are working together on a metrics tracking system for nurses that, while it no doubt meets with the approval of nursing administrators, will be a disaster for the nurses themselves.


    The IBM system makes a lot of assumptions that, having worked in nursing I know are bogus. To do lists with priority ranking are fine for forgetful administrators. They don’t work with nursing care. Even in the middle of the night, I never had problems with remembering tasks or ranking them in ways far more complex than low, medium and hight, nor did those I worked with. You get very good at that very quickly.

    The problems lie in the built-in and uncorrected inefficiencies of nursing care. If a patient asked me a question that required an answer from another member of staff, then before I could proceed, I had to go, find that person, get an answer, and then return to the patient. Ten seconds of work takes two or three minutes. The work is filled with that.

    For instance, if a patient who’d been confined to bed wanted to get up, I didn’t have any problem remembering that as a to-do because the answer was needed then. The problem lay in checking with the nurse or maybe the resident, to see if conditions had changed enough the patient could get up. That sort of thing. The right technology would let me do that in a few seconds. The wrong technology makes it a clumsy to-do item.

    I suspect that Amazon has similar issues. One thing that comes through clearly both in the news articles and in my own contacts with Amazon employees when I lived in Seattle is that it is a company that does not care about the great bulk of its workers.

    That was, in fact, the first thing I learned about the company. In my north Seattle neighborhood I stopped in for a garage sale. The woman hosting it was one of Amazon’s first few hundred employees. She was so bitter about how she’d been treated, she was moving to California to get away. In those early years, like a lot of others, she’d worked long hours over the Christmas holidays filling orders and assuming that Bezos et al would reward her and her colleagues when the company went public. She’d be rich like Microsoft’s early employees.

    Instead, Amazon laid off her and many others off just before that public offering so they would not have to give them stock. That let the upper management further enrich itself. When the revolution comes, as they used to say, and people like that are being taken to the wall, I won’t be hiding them.

    That’s why no horror tale about Amazon’s treatment of its workers surprises me. Treating them badly, treating them as discardable, is deeply embedded it the company’s DNA. My hunch is that it will never change. Recall what I said about the century-old bad blood between the big automakers and the UAW. Taylorism, with its core value that workers are mere tools, always creates bad blood.

    Someday that policy will come back and bite Amazon very hard. Some disgruntled employee will be in a position to do the company far more harm that this silly incident. He or she may even be able to cover their tracks well enough to never be caught.

  2. There are more ways the adult object could have gotten in the cart. For example, one day my mother in law pick up my wife’s iPad and “accidentally” ordered items. One touch ordering (or whatever it’s called) was turned on and my mother in law is rather elderly and easy to confuse with new technology, so it isn’t hard to believe she caused the accident. Amazon makes it very easy to order things and who knows if someone one else in the guy’s family had access to his account. It could be the guy himself who ordered the item, got caught, and played the swear to God it wasn’t me defense.

    Or it really could have been Amazon.

  3. Most customer service reps are living lives of desperation.

    A call center I once worked for changed the metrics regularly. As soon as most employees were meeting the metrics. If we were meeting the metrics and we’re making better money, the metrics changed, often without any prior notice.

    ACS/XEROX even started firing people if 3 people complained. It did not matter if the employee had followed all the rules and did their job well…they were out.

    I think CUSTOMERS need to get a bloody grip!

    People these days are rude, illiterate mumbling poopy heads who often just want to ruin someone else’s day because they themselves did something stupid and as usual will not take any responsibility for themselves.

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