from an worker

Christine Peterson quintanus at
Thu Nov 25 09:58:08 PST 1999

>Service Workers Without a Smile at
>By Mark Leibovich
>Washington Post Staff Writer
>Monday , November 22, 1999 ; A1
>SEATTLE - This was Richard Howard's last indignity as an
>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, 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
>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
> - 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 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
>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 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, 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 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
>"How revolutionary is that? The only difference is that a lot of the
>supervisors had pierced ears and wore leather."

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