Layoffs, abusive calls, and AI fears: Inside the front lines of Amazon’s ‘customer obsession’ promise

Longtime employees say Amazon’s cost-focused environment has exacerbated what some consider to be a mental health crisis among the company’s CS agents. — Fortune/Getty Images/Amazon/The New York Times

The bad news blindsided Amazon customer service employees across the globe in mid-May: More layoffs had arrived. This time, it was middle managers.

In one Amazon office in Europe, a senior customer service official informed employees during a group meeting that a restructuring would remove an entire level of middle management, but since he refrained from using words like “layoffs”, it wasn’t initially clear whether impacted employees would be out of a job completely or simply reassigned. As employees exchanged puzzled looks trying to decipher what exactly was transpiring, they finally realised that some in attendance had effectively just been laid off.

“In the end, we only barely understood that my colleague next to me was fired,” one longtime Amazon customer service manager told Fortune. “I’ve never felt that embarrassed.”

Around the same time in other parts of the world, some longtime managers tried to log into their Amazon computer system unsuccessfully. In at least one instance, a manager contacted the company’s IT department for assistance only to learn that they should expect outreach from HR instead. Other managers returned to their computers after being bushwhacked by news of their fate to find that there would be no goodbyes: The company had already locked them out of their systems.

The bare-knuckled job cuts are just one of the many rounds of layoffs made by tech businesses over the past two years, as companies like Alphabet, Meta, Microsoft, and Salesforce retrench from a pandemic-fueled hiring spree. At Amazon, tens of thousands of workers across the company have been let go since the fall of 2022, a business practice that some insiders say has become more common since Andy Jassy replaced Jeff Bezos as CEO.

For Amazon’s customer service ranks – the frontline staff at a nearly US$2 trillion (RM9.44 trillion) business that proudly markets itself as “customer-obsessed” – the layoffs carry a special significance. At a time when remote work and cost-cutting have upended established work patterns, and with the first wave of generative AI threatening to reshape the very nature of many professions, the plight of Amazon’s customer service managers offers what could be a preview of broader changes coming to corporate workforces around the world.

Already, the question of what comes next for this division at Amazon is dominating side conversations and text threads between Amazon employees in call centres and virtual offices from the US to Costa Rica to India. Will Amazon continue to outsource even more customer interactions to third-party firms? Are current employees unknowingly training an AI replacement under the guise of a new software tool that management is forcing them to use? How far off is complete automation of their roles?

Fortune spoke to a dozen Amazon customer service employees and managers, all of whom requested anonymity either because Amazon policies prohibit them from speaking to the press without permission or because they don’t want to risk losing out on severance that the company is offering them. Throughout the conversations, one common theme emerged: The workers believe the future of their work is more tenuous than it was yesterday and more difficult than ever before.

Amazon spokesperson Margaret Callahan told Fortune that business leaders and teams are empowered to make their own staffing and investment decisions, and that leadership has been managing through an unprecedented series of events, including the global pandemic and the resulting unpredictable shifts in consumer demand and the labour market.

When Fortune told Amazon that Amazon employees and managers estimate that anywhere between a couple hundred and 600 roles were recently eliminated, the spokesperson would only confirm that more than 100 positions were cut.

In the US, Amazon provided 60 days of pay and benefits to the customer service managers who were recently laid off, plus severance. Some may be reassigned to another Amazon role if there’s a fit elsewhere in the company, and Amazon said that’s already occurred in some instances. In the case of the European layoffs, Amazon said it was required in some countries to notify staff in a group setting that a restructuring may involve roles being eliminated, but contended that employees wouldn’t have learned there which specific positions were being axed.

In a statement, Callahan said that the opinions and anecdotes of the 12 employees who spoke to Fortune “do not match the data” that Amazon gleans from the thousands of customer service employees it regularly surveys. “Overall, the majority of our frontline customer service employees report having high job satisfaction, and in fact, it is up this year versus last,” she said.

The ‘low-level guys’

Within the vast universe of Amazon workers, which totalled 1.5 million full- and part-time employees at the end of March, customer service representatives inhabit a curious middle zone – not exactly fitting within the ranks of the warehouse workers and delivery drivers, nor entirely within the corporate realm of engineers, salespeople, and other office folks.

The Amazon managers who were laid off are salaried employees who might make somewhere between US$60,000 (RM283,290) and US$80,000 (RM377,720) a year in the US in base pay if they were promoted internally. (Amazon’s spokesperson said that range is below the average, but declined to provide more detail.) They aren’t paid overtime but have job commitments that could at times necessitate working 50 to 60 hours a week, employees told Fortune. They are also eligible to earn some Amazon stock based on their performance, as well as part of their regular compensation package.

At the lower level, Amazon customer service agents, or CSAs, get paid hourly (from just north of US$15 (RM70) to a couple of dollars over US$20 (RM94) in the US) to respond by phone, email, chat, and social to questions and complaints from shoppers and Amazon device users when online self-service tools don’t suffice. While some agents work out of call centres, many work remotely from home. In 2022, Amazon moved more employees from call centres to remote positions, reportedly to save money on real estate costs. Amazon also outsources some customer service work to third-party companies, employees said.

Despite Amazon’s longtime tenet that it “strives to be Earth’s most customer-centric company”, the common feeling among customer service employees, however long they have worked at the company, is not so warm and fuzzy. “We are the low-level guys, the ones who cost something,” said one longtime customer service manager.

“We definitely are seen as a cost to the company and that’s something that they remind us of often,” said a longtime manager laid off recently.

As with most things at Amazon, customer service teams operate in a culture of thrift and efficiency (even at its corporate offices, Amazon’s idea of employee perks leans more toward free bananas than the complimentary gourmet food found at Google). In recent years, however, the push to squeeze costs out of the customer service team has been more pronounced, sources said. All customer service managers and employees who spoke to Fortune said that the already small budgets for rewarding agents with modest gift cards or swag have been slashed or eliminated over the last few years.

“They have cut down all our engagement budgets,” one said: “everything related to improve a team’s morale, relieve stress, make them feel like they belong to the company.”

An Amazon spokesperson disputed that “engagement” budgets have been cut despite claims to the contrary from frontline agents as well as managers with direct knowledge of such budgeting.

Amazon previously told Fortune that the restructuring was intended to help shrink the gap between higher levels of management and customers. But some managers and frontline agents who spoke to Fortune expressed concern about how much the workloads of the remaining managers will increase, and how customer escalations from frontline agents might get lost in the shuffle.

The mental health toll of vitriolic diatribes

The cutbacks have come at the same time that Amazon has made it more difficult for customer service agents to provide concessions to customers as easily as they once did, according to employees, some of whom also say that scammers, and customers who have been the victims of scammers, have grown alongside Amazon’s sales. Customers who abuse Amazon return policies may also be partly to blame.

The upshot for Amazon customer service employees is that accomplishing day-to-day tasks is more challenging, and often accompanied by abuse.

“We’ve become so restrictive and set on frugality that it’s become an uphill climb for even a reasonable customer to get help,” one longtime manager said.

While Amazon helped create the expectation of free returns for the ecommerce industry, the company’s returns process can be at times friction-filled, and employees say it has gotten worse. “It’s just not the customer service that people once knew Amazon for,” one said.

Longtime employees say this cost-focused environment has exacerbated what some consider to be a mental health crisis among Amazon’s CS agents. They say a dramatic shift began during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when customers who were bound by stay-at-home orders began spewing the type of vitriol at phone agents that they’d never consider unleashing face to face.

Customers wishing rape or death on Amazon customer service employees is now not unheard-of. Diatribes laced with profanity have become more of the norm.

“The amount of coworkers who’ve told me something like, ‘I don’t think I’d step in front of a bus but I probably wouldn’t move if one was coming’, is high,” one longtime Amazon employee said.

Managers have taken notice.

“I am very concerned about the mental health of people who report to me and the stress they are under,” one longtime customer service manager told Fortune.

Amazon spokesperson Margaret Callahan said the company cares “deeply about our employee experience and works hard to continually improve it”. She added that Amazon has programmes and resources in place for employees who deal with a “difficult” or abusive interaction, and that CSAs can terminate a customer conversation if a warning doesn’t curb the customer’s behaviour. Amazon may also subsequently suspend or ban these customers.

Amazon also disputed claims from longtime employees and managers that it is harder for them to provide customer concessions than in the past, but noted that the company has worked over the past two years to more consistently apply its concessions policies in different markets around the world.

“We’re not perfect, and when mistakes occur, we’re not only diligent to remediate it with our customer, but we also use the situation as a learning opportunity that fuels continuous improvement to our tools, processes, and policies,” Amazon’s Callahan said.

A new worry: Are you training your chatbot replacement?

While some of these issues have percolated for years, a newer one is causing significant strife throughout Amazon’s customer service operation – and AI fears are partly to blame. Recently, Amazon leaders have mandated that customer service agents exclusively use a new internal software tool to resolve customer issues. The software program, known as AC3, has been in development for years, but only recently has access to the previous tool been cut off.

The first issue with the program, according to frontline employees and managers alike, is that the tool is slow and full of bugs, with some agents telling Fortune that it can extend customer interactions by two to three times the previous average. Whereas the old tool used to easily allow an agent to browse a customer’s Amazon history, the tool now mainly prompts employees to follow a Q&A process.

In a role where efficiency goals are stressed, the software hiccups are anxiety-inducing for frontline reps. Consistently missing these goals can affect job security and promotion eligibility, employees told Fortune. Even one manager who believes the tool holds great promise admits it was rolled out before it was ready for prime time.

“It is defective,” the manager said.

The tool has also severely limited the amount of customer information and purchase history that Amazon customer service agents can access, employees told Fortune. While several managers said limiting access could be a win for customer privacy, they also admitted it often makes resolving issues much more complicated and could actually end up benefiting customers with a history of abusing Amazon’s return policies because representatives are effectively blind to useful, historical context. Several employees described their work as attempting to help customers with a hand tied behind their back.

An Amazon spokesperson said the company continues to invest in tools to improve both the customer and employee experience, and uses feedback to improve.

To make matters worse, some employees also fear that the software tool is designed in such a way that they are essentially helping train their AI replacement. A new structured Q&A flow that agents are now required to follow has struck some workers as an odd, and largely unnecessary, process for their routine interactions with customers. Another possible clue, according to one employee: After an agent resolves a refund issue for a customer using AC3, the final messaging on the screen is written as if a customer is viewing it, not an agent.

“It was employee-facing before and now it’s customer-facing,” one customer service employee said. “It was almost like the customer could do this themselves.”

Another current longtime customer service manager claimed to Fortune that their superior has confirmed as much.

“It learns,” the longtime manager said of the software. “We are training AI. It’s not speculation.”

The Amazon spokesperson did not offer a comment on the idea that employees are training AI through the tool.

Considering the AI hype cycle currently dominating the business world, no one should blame customer service agents for thinking the worst. The company’s Amazon Web Services division, after all, is currently marketing its own AI chatbot service specifically to call centres. These fears are not materialising out of thin air.

From the most recent layoffs, to the stress and verbal abuse they encounter regularly, to their dissatisfaction with the new work tool, Amazon customer service employees are wondering whether company executives are even aware of their plight – and whether they should still be able to boast of customer obsession with a straight face.

“I was excited to join the company years ago,” one longtime manager told Fortune. “I thought we were revolutionary at the time.”

“Now,” they added, “we are exactly the same as anyone else.” – New York Times

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