The lessons of Amazonfail
April 13, 2009 · Print this post
This past weekend, Amazon.com 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.