The lessons of Amazonfail

April 13, 2009 · Print this post

This past weekend, experienced the new power of social media to create a PR firestorm. You can find dry summaries of the situation at online news sources; but the real story is the way that people all over the world used social media technology — blogs and Twitter — to spread not just the facts, but their own sense of outrage at the perceived injustice. As of this writing — less than 36 hours after the word began to spread through the internet — there have been hundreds of scathing blog posts. Nearly 16,000 people have signed an online petition. There have been tens of thousands of individual tweets (Twitter messages) under the topic #amazonfail, and those tweets will have been seen by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people. That’s an enormous PR punch in the gut for any company.

Amazon has handled this communications crisis in the worst possible way, which is to ignore the outrage and throw corporate-speak at the issue. I was aware of the controversy early Sunday morning: there was no response from Amazon until late afternoon, and the company spoke through a press release to the Associated Press. Amazon is an online business, suffering an online publicity massacre, and they offered no online response of substance. No blog post of their own. No direct dialogue attempts on Twitter. Imagine that you’re on an arena stage in front of tens of thousands of angry people, and instead of speaking into the microphone, you get on your cell phone and call someone to take a memo to send those folks. That’s essentially how Amazon handled it.

It gets more interesting when you examine the actual message sent, which was “This was a glitch in our sales system.” The thing is, you need only do the most cursory research to discover that no, in fact, their own customer service force told people at the start of all this that the situation was the result of deliberate implementation of company policy. If that is not true, then the customer service people (and my heart goes out to them, what a terrible job to have right now) are very poorly trained. If it is true, then the Amazon corporate spokeswoman lied to the press, and by extension to that virtual arena of angry people.

Either way – not good. And because the company has chosen not to comment any further on the customer service response, or how such a “glitch” could have happened, the general perception is that the company lied. The response on Twitter has been to create a companion thread to #amazonfail, called #glitchmyass. Really not good.

And here now is the lesson: what is happening to Amazon is only the super-size-me extension of what will happen in your company, whatever its size, if you treat your team or your customers the way Amazon is treating theirs right now. The internet is simply a giant watercooler, and the conversation there is louder, but I guarantee that if you’re treating people this way in your little corner of the world, they know it and are talking about it in ways that will hurt your business.

AmazonFail = ManagementFail. Don’t let it happen to you.

Don’t ignore the potential emotional impact of a policy decision. People don’t respond only to data — they also respond to how it makes them feel. In particular, take the time up front to think through decisions that take away some benefit from your team or your customers, or that will discriminate against certain stakeholders. Remember that discrimination and “taking away benefit” is in the eye of the done-to, not the do-er: if you are not sure whether a stakeholder will perceive a loss of benefit, ask them up front. You’ll save yourself a great deal of grief by dealing with potential bad feelings early and directly. You might even find that getting input helps you get to a better solution.

Don’t just have a policy — have a clear implementation plan. One of the key complaints against Amazon is that their de-ranking policy has been unfairly administered. Amazon’s been remarkably dumb in this regard; either the policy is deliberately unfair, or the implementation has been so poorly executed that the result is all this chaos.

If your decision backfires, get out in front of the anger right away. It’s much better to stand on that arena stage when there are only a thousand angry people as opposed to a hundred thousand.

Don’t stonewall, don’t patronize, and don’t assume you have automatic credibility. Amazon is perceived right now as everything from deeply clueless to desperately stonewalling to deliberately deceptive. And of all the errors you can make as a manager, this is the worst — to communicate in a way that distances people even further. Amazon will never fully regain credibility with many of its customers, and they have no one to blame but themselves. They gave a generic “Daddy’s working on it” answer to a deeply divisive situation; they communicated “at” stakeholders instead of directly to them, on their own online turf; and they have so far refused to engage with the notion that people aren’t just curious or concerned, they are offended.

Amazon’s not alone. Hundreds of millions of employees are disengaged from their jobs because their manager, or their company, treats them like children or like rented brains (no feelings need apply). That’s the old world of management. But the new world is dawning, brothers and sisters, and in the new world we will engage with each other as humans, or we will find that the world has disengaged from us.


Edited at 4:30 PDT to add: Amazon has released more information about the error with some details about the impact and what they’re doing to fix it. I’m glad to see it, and I hope they follow through with more.

24 Responses to “The lessons of Amazonfail”

  1. More thoughts on Amazonfail : on April 13th, 2009 2:17 pm

    […] posted The lessons of Amazonfail at Humans At […]

  2. Jennifer McKenzie on April 13th, 2009 3:06 pm

    Even a “We don’t know how this happened but can see how this is offensive to you” response of some kind would have been better.
    Corporate speak will piss off any group of angry people.

  3. Beckyzoole on April 13th, 2009 3:17 pm

    This is not something new, it’s something every business should know. The essence of good PR is ‘Fess Up and Fix It.

    Even if it’s not your fault. Even if it’s a glitch. Even if you don’t know what the heck happened yet. Get out there and say you’re sorry. Then work like mad to figure out what went wrong and reverse it.

  4. Anne Harris on April 13th, 2009 3:33 pm

    Great post, Kelly. After being away from the interweb yesterday I’ve been totally distracted by this issue and following it all day. I’m baffled at the way Amazon is handling this. Their latest public statement ( isn’t much better than any of the others. I can’t believe there’s no place for us to speak with Amazon representatives directly. They have a blog, for heavens sake! Why don’t they use it?

  5. Jennifer on April 13th, 2009 3:40 pm

    Well said.

    Maybe if they hired you as a consultant they could get their act together.

  6. Mel Green on April 13th, 2009 3:45 pm

    Great post.

    And absolutely correct. Publicly apologize.

  7. rosechimera on April 13th, 2009 3:48 pm

    Thank you for this!

  8. Bart on April 13th, 2009 3:49 pm

    People are being overly reactionary about that email from a *customer service representative*. I’m sure they have a canned company policy response about adult books, which may even be a new policy. So one of their people in India or where ever saw a gay romance novel, thought that was the reason his book’s rank was gone, and sent him that canned response.

    This does *not* imply that Amazon as a whole is purposefully applying that corporate policy about adult books onto all those books that have been removed (that don’t even involve any romance). The person who sent that canned response did not remove those books himself! And until Amazon decides to give us a better response than the awful (and short) “it was a glitch” one, and the second response which was still light on details, *nobody* knows what really happened.

    But what’s really obvious is that Amazon would not suddenly start removing books from Virginia Wolf, E.M. Forester, Gore Vidal, books for rape victims, etc. willy-nilly and ON PURPOSE as a corporate policy that travels all the way to the top. There is *no* evidence of such a thing. They are not an evil company, yet. They’re just taking WAY too long to respond (both to fix the problem and also to communicate what it is).

  9. PBCliberal on April 13th, 2009 4:10 pm

    Amazon has jumped the shark with this one. They used an old-style media spokesman (Director of Communications Drew Hardener — former Supersonics PR manager), to send a terse non-specific apology to old-line media that looks like they’re just not paying attention.

    This might work even for Barnes & Noble, public expectation from brick&mortar trying to keep up are lower than for an alleged leading edge company. If Lady Gaga does “I left my heart in San Francisco,” I expect she won’t sound like Tony Bennett.

  10. vanderleun on April 13th, 2009 4:11 pm

    Ah yes, the “customer mending” should have started on Easter Sunday.

    I note how easy it is for others to tell others what to do when they don’t have to do the doing.

    And how dreadfully little most know about exactly what goes into running a sight with millions and millions of skews.

  11. Elizabeth Burton on April 13th, 2009 4:53 pm

    Having dealt with Amazon in one form or another as a supplier rather than a customer, I can say without reservation that they have no idea how to communicate. Or, I have come to believe, that they have any need to.

    I don’t think it’s arrogance. It’s cluelessness, and a corporate policy that the less said the better. As I noted elsewhere, the big deal with Jeff Bezos’s recent “tour” to hawk the Kindle wasn’t what he said but that he actually got out and talked at all.

    They truly don’t have any idea how they sound–I’d bet good money on it. They think they’re being informative, and I suspect they get confused when all that alleged information they think they’re providing doesn’t satisfy.

    Honestly? I don’t think they know the extent of this problem, and I posit that they are afraid to admit they don’t know because that would make them look ineffective. People are already asking how they could have let this happen. Imagine the shock and awe if they confessed they not only let it happen but don’t know how they did.

    Amazon, I fear, is afraid to appear human. Somehow, they’ve absorbed the mythos that they have to appear bigger and better and smarter and faster than anybody else all the time. And when they can’t, they hide behind a stone wall of corp-speak and legalese. They also seem to believe that if they explain their reasons for something, they’ll be revealing deep dark secrets. So, they don’t–and thus you have the debacle last year when they required POD-using publishers and authors to sign with Booksurge in order to take full advantage of their system.

    There were perfectly valid business reasons for it. Had they explained that, and offered support for the decision, there might have been far less outcry and resistance. They didn’t, and now they’re being sued.

    This kind of poor PR is standard for Amazon. One can only hope they’ll learn from it. Won’t hold my breath, though.

  12. Fran on April 13th, 2009 5:03 pm

    Bart, look at this analysis of the meta-data concerning the method by which Amazon decided which titles to sequester.

    It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a glitch. It may not have been deliberate from an upper managment point of view (although by now it most certainly has to be), but it was deliberately done by someone in Amazon’s hierarchy.

    And Kelley’s analysis is brilliant.

  13. Sara Ryan » Off the grid, under the radar on April 13th, 2009 5:03 pm

    […] Amazon calls mistake ‘embarrassing and ham-fisted’ (Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog), the lessons of Amazonfail (Kelley Eskridge for Humans At […]

  14. Bart on April 13th, 2009 6:01 pm

    Fran, I’m not denying that the categories in Kelley’s analysis were the ones that got ticked off to unrank the posts. I’m just saying that we don’t know why or how it happened and the customer service email that Probst got was probably something sent by someone that doesn’t know what they’re doing and it doesn’t imply that ALL of the thousands of unranked books were unranked because they fit this new policy. I’ve emailed Amazon customer service before and half the time the replies didn’t even really apply to what I originally said.

    But… It’s still pretty hard to understand why after all that time, after an entire work day, searching for “homosexuality” on their site brings up that awful book.

  15. david on April 13th, 2009 10:17 pm

    Great post, i think the witch hunt will continue and amazon will be burnt far worse than they first thought over the issue.

    Best of luck to the next casulty to repeat their mistake.

  16. Donna George Storey on April 14th, 2009 7:44 am

    Yes, great post! Especially since the issue has raised so many strong feelings, it’s helpful to see such a well-organized analysis. You are so right that this has touched people emotionally, even if it is some machine-driven glitch or whatever. I write erotica and am very sensitive to censorship and prejudice, especially since I crossed over to the “bad girl” side from academia. Many of my colleagues write gay and lesbian fiction and Amazon used to be one place where we could safely sell our work without apparent judgment (because many small bookstores simply won’t carry our work). Whether or not there was any intention, when suddenly a search for “homosexuality” gets you “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality” the strong feeling is that Amazon has gone right wing, and even when things are “mended,” that feeling still lingers that they COULD go right wing at any time. I was looking for an explanation and reassurance that they will continue to provide an open marketplace for books without censorship, but no such sign.

  17. Kelley Eskridge on April 14th, 2009 8:19 am

    Thanks all for your comments.

    I think Bart (#9) and others are right — we don’t yet know what really happened, and I hope my post doesn’t sound as though I’m accusing Amazon of anything specific beyond possible bad process and definite bad communication. Elizabeth (#12), your analysis of the reasons behind the silence sound spot on to me.

    In the absence of direct evidence, I don’t think the corporation is acting in deliberately homophobic way. I don’t think they’ve been trolled or Bantowned. I tend to assume, based on my own corporate experience, that a process got broken and ran out of control. That can happen so many ways, especially when multiple teams are working on something without clear handoffs or much exchange of information.

    And I do recognize that the customer service message was probably a default scripted message. What an unfortunate time to use it…

    vanderleun (#11), yes, people will pile in on stuff without knowing the backstory. They do it predictably, loudly, and often with messy results. That’s exactly why it’s so important for companies to get out in front of the story as quickly as possible.

  18. Shelli Stevens on April 14th, 2009 8:22 am

    What a fantastic post!

  19. Eleanor's Trousers on April 14th, 2009 8:38 am

    I’m afraid the PR disaster will be way worse for Amazon than the initial coding “glitch,” whether it was indeed a glitch or not. Personally, I’m not ready to make nice and they can enjoy watching the hundreds of dollars I spend on their site go somewhere else.

  20. Amazon Fails to Understand Convergence « Digital Observations on April 14th, 2009 9:18 am

    […] Humans At Work A blog about project and people mangement, discussing how the management of Amazon mishandled the situation: “Amazon has handled this communications crisis in the worst possible way, which is to ignore the outrage and throw corporate-speak at the issue.” […]

  21. Amazon Fail- or Why I’m Still Pissed Off « ELEANOR’S TROUSERS on April 14th, 2009 9:33 am

    […] you can find great insights on what happened, and didn’t happen quickly enough here, here, here, here, here, and here, new definitions of Amazon Rank, and calls to arms here, here, here, and […]

  22. Insert Copy Here » A technical fix is easier to than a PR fix. on April 14th, 2009 1:26 pm

    […] Read about Amazon’s glitch, or #amazonfail if your twitterspeaking, at Humans at work. […]

  23. Official Blog » Blog Archive » Update on AmazonFail on April 14th, 2009 6:49 pm

    […] an apology. I feel pretty much the way that are pretty much summed up in Kelley Eskridge’s take on Amazonfail from a managerial perspective: Amazon is perceived right now as everything from deeply clueless to […]

  24. Hal O'Brien on April 15th, 2009 2:12 pm

    Amazonfail may well have long-lasting repercussions among Amazon’s core constituencies — both readers and writers.

    Certainly one suspects Wall Street thinks so. In the three days since Amazonfail broke, AMZN stock is down $5.06/share, underperforming the Dow, the S&P 500, and the NASDAQ. Jeff Bezos is personally down $491 million. Amazon’s market cap is down $2.2 billion. The stock got downgraded today.

    It’ll be interesting to see what’s happened to their cash flow.