Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Story from the 'Zon

[Editor's note: Every now and then I get this urge to catch up with old friends from the 'Zon. Tonight, for instance, I randomly Googled a phrase and found this guy, whom I never knew and who occupied a completely different Amazon universe than I. It's funny, though – it sounds like some Amazon qualities/experiences kind of transcended departments.]

In the spring of 1998 I was packing books at Amazon.com's only (at that time) warehouse, in south Seattle's industrial district. The people were great but the job mostly sucked, especially for someone who felt like his 4.7 GPA at the friggin' University of friggin' Illinois deserved a little friggin' respect from the labor market.

So sometime that spring I applied, interviewed, and was accepted into the 'Zon's customer service department. At that point, "CS" was comprised of remarkably diverse and intelligent people – mostly liberal arts graduates, mostly good if not great writers, all with interesting lives even before we wound up at the 'Zon. We were movers and shakers, man, in our mid-twenties, and very cool in that Seattle hipster kind of way.

After a few months answering email and taking routine phone calls I was promoted to a "Tier 2" position, meaning that I'd handle the truly nasty stuff. Amazon CS horror stories are legendary – a "switcherooed" package results in a kid opening his birthday present from grandma only to find the Kama Sutra, a professor orders a hard-to-find book for a conference and it gets lost in shipping, etc. – but before all of that occurred, I was still a trainee with a headset splitter when I heard one of the strangest and infuriating calls of my career.

My buddy Kevin was already a Tier 2 and pretty much a CS master. I sat next to him one day during Tier 2 training, listening in on a phone splitter and watching him work crazy magic on orders. The phone beeped. Kevin answered it – it was usually a Tier 1 rep introducing the call to the Tier 2 rep before transferring it, but you never knew. Sometimes there would not be a Tier 1 rep on the other end but rather a very pissed off customer.

"This is Kevin, how can I help you?"

"Uh, Kevin? This is Eric. I have a lady on the phone who has a question about our benefits package."

"Our benefits package?"

"Yeah. Can I transfer now?" He sounded eager to get rid of the call, even more so than Tier 1 reps usually were.

"Sure, go ahead." We heard the phone click over and Kevin introduced himself again.

"Hello, Kevin," said a very sweet grandmotherly type with a soft drawl. "My husband and I absolutely love Amazon.com," she cooed. We actually got this kind of thing a lot in those days – people just thrilled with the site and service, as if we really were doing something completely revolutionary. And frankly, in several ways, we were.

"Well thank you, ma'am," Kevin said.

"Now, Kevin, I have a question for you about the benefits Amazon.com offers."

"Okay, how can I help?" I think both of us were anticipating a question about future employment, or maybe something really strange like an insurance sales cold call.

"Do you offer benefits to homosexuals?"

There was an odd silence as Kevin and I exchanged a puzzled look.

"I'm sorry?" Kevin said, cocking his head as if he hadn't heard correctly.

"Does Amazon.com provide partnership benefits to homosexuals living together?" she asked. Judging by her tone you would've thought she was asking if we offered gift wrap services.

"You know, I don't . . ." Kevin started. He looked at me; I shrugged. "I'm not... "

"The reason I ask, Kevin," grandma interrupted, "is that my husband and I love your site, like I said, but we just can't in good faith support a business that encourages sin."

There was another odd silence.

"Ma'am, I'm not sure one way or the other, to be honest," said Kevin. "Can I put you on hold for a moment while I find out?"

"Well of course, Kevin, that would be fine."

He tapped the "hold" button and slowly shook his head.

We walked over to our supervisor's cubicle. She would become my life support at the 'Zon for pretty much my entire career, even well after I left CS. Kayleen said she was pretty sure we did offer benefits to domestic partners but that she'd call corporate HR to find out for sure. After a quick chat on the phone she ended it with, "that's what I thought."

At this point Kevin had two options: he could revert to the old Tier 2 trick of getting the customer off the phone and then crafting the kind of email that would make the White House Press Secretary proud – sly, oily, and just passive-aggressive enough to make him feel better about the world, or he could just deliver the bad news to grandma while he still had her on the phone. Either approach meant losing a customer for good, and as corny as it sounds we took that seriously.

Back at his desk, Kevin tapped the "hold" button again. "Ma'am? Unfortunately, we do in fact offer benefits to domestic partners."

A third odd silence.

"Oh, darn," grandma sighed. She sounded genuinely if not profoundly disappointed; like someone whose favorite new shopping experience, maybe even the best thing to happen to her since air conditioning, had just been snatched away. In the awkward silence I waited for her to say something about the queers ruining the soil.*

Happy Belated Gay Pride Week, folks.

****

* The first reader to correctly identify this oh-so-clever pop-culture reference wins a pony.

7 Comments:

At 9:07 PM, Anonymous mary ann said...

The boyfriend worked tech support for GoDaddy for awhile before we met. He got one of those calls. The man immediately asked him if was a homosexual and ranted and raved about how he didn't want tech support from any gay people.

People are so fucked up.

 
At 9:33 PM, Blogger Kathryn said...

Jumpin' Jesus on a pogo stick! I had no idea...I just don't get people sometimes.

I'd answer your pop-culture trivia question, but I think I have an unfair advantage.

 
At 7:00 AM, Blogger Greg Linden said...

Whew, what a story! Thanks for sharing it.

 
At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Zach said...

That's funny, I like that. Wish I'd have been there to see it happen!

 
At 7:17 AM, Blogger Softball Slut said...

What's the 'Zon? New to your blog, sorry. I did cs for Sears.Com and people are the strangest things.

 
At 9:48 AM, Blogger Trout said...

softball slut, "the 'Zon" is how a few employees used to refer to Amazon.com; we felt the Amazon employee experience needed its own name. These days, though, I use it to refer to any part of the Amazon Zeitgeist.

 
At 8:42 AM, Blogger Softball Slut said...

Ahhhh gotcha. I just called Sears Hellhole and I am boycotting it for life. But whatever. :0)

 

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