You Can't Automate Everything, as Amazonfail Shows

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Amazon found itself in a firestorm of unwanted publicity after gay and lesbian-themed books suddenly dropped from its sales charts over the weekend. Much of the coverage took a moral angle, with many writers accusing Amazon of censorship and/or homophobia. One of the most interesting (and least shrill) pieces in this vein appeared on TechCrunch and was written by Dabble.com founder Mary Hodder, who says that developers who create algorithms either consciously or subconsciously may build discriminatory assumptions into them.


A few wrote about how it helped illustrate the power of Twitter in disseminating news. (It doesn't seem to matter much whether the news is accurate or not, as this New York Times item points out.)


But the writer who I thought really nailed it was MSNBC's Helen A.S. Popkin, who saw the incident largely as an instance of failed customer service. She wrote:


Yet the fatal flaw in this public relations debacle wasn't its "ham-fisted cataloging error" or even the seemingly-infinite time it took Amazon to publicly announce "our bad." This whole mishagoss could have been easily avoided but for the one thing Amazon (not to mention a whole lot of other online entities) is notoriously remiss - actual human-on-human customer service.


Amen, sister. I've written about this before. Like many of its online compatriots, Amazon wants to automate everything. Sure, it's cheaper and more efficient. It's also simply not possible. Yes, it makes sense for companies to use self-service channels to reduce the considerable costs of customer service. And yes, I realize lthat some people are too lazy to read a FAQ and will pick up the phone and wade through voice prompts to get a living, breathing person to answer a boneheaded question. But sometimes you really need a human to help you. Companies should provide a reasonable escalation process for such instances.


There are intermediate steps between cheap online channels and expensive humans. Two mentioned by eVergance SVP Allen Bonde duirng my August interview with him: online chat and e-mail forms, which help companies provide better answers by more clearly categorizing customer questions. The repercussions of not providing such options are growing as frustrated customers take their beefs to Twitter, Facebook and other online forums.