There’s a classic tech industry joke. A jet is lost in dense fog and low on fuel. The pilot, desperate to get his bearings, winds up circling an IBM skyscraper. “Where am I?” he shouts to the white-shirted nerds inside. They grab calculators, computers and furiously get to work, finally providing what they consider the critical answer to the anxious aviator: “You’re in an airplane!”
Totally responsive, totally accurate – yet totally useless. And a neat summation of almost all of my recent pre-holiday customer service experience with Amazon. But the key word here is “almost.”
It started innocently enough. I needed a case for a new Kindle Fire HDX. I really liked one of them, especially since the product description stated, “We also include a screen protector so that your Fire HDX 7″ 7.0 Inch Tablet will be completely protected.”
When the case arrived two days later from a third-party seller fulfilled by Amazon, there was no screen protector. I used the Contact Us email option for the order, pointed out there was no screen protector in the shipment, and so either the description was wrong and needed to be fixed or I should be sent a screen protector.
“I’m sorry the screen protector was not included in the package. This usually does not happen,” Puneeth responded. “I request you to order any one of the following screen protectors using Two-Day shipping and write back to us with the order number so that we can make sure the order total is zero.” Two very specific product links were included.
Cool, I thought, what great service. And I ordered from one of those links, emailing back the order number.
“I’m sorry,” came Ranjith’s reply. “We can not waive off item cost on seller items that are fulfilled by Amazon.” Instead, he said he’d upgraded me to one-day shipping, offered a full refund once the protector arrived, and, “for the inconvenience this has caused, I’ve issued a $10.00 promotional certificate to your Amazon.com account.”
That seemed more than fair, I thought, though I was puzzled why the first customer service rep would specifically direct me to order products Amazon itself couldn’t zero total. I asked, and instead of getting a direct answer was told by Sujana, very politely, to “please be patient” and let them know as soon as the order arrives.
One day. Two days. Three days. Uh oh.
“I’m sorry this package never arrived,” wrote Logesh. “I’ve requested a full refund … to your original payment method. We can’t replace items … that are fulfilled by Amazon.”
Aargh, I mouthed silently. Maybe, just maybe, it was merely hung up in transit. Perhaps I just needed to initiate Real-Time Synchronous Vocal Interaction. Or, as my ancestors called it, Talking To Someone.
Click, click, click went the mousie as I explored the Amazon site, eventually settling upon the obvious path of Your Account: Your Orders: Help: Contact Us: Log In: Choose a Different Order: Tell Us More About Your Issue: Phone/Call Us: Enter Your Number: Call Me Now.
Twenty seconds later, Kristine phoned and had me repeat the order number. I asked about the missing package. She quickly told me it was “still in transit.” I re-described the situation and she promptly offered me a refund. When I gently mentioned I had already been given a refund – as had been noted on the order she’d just looked up – she said, after another VoIP delay, that she had no more information. And clearly, though politely, needed to be efficient and wrap up the conversation.
I appeared out of options. Yet one remained that was wonderfully, circularly appropriate.
I picked up my new Kindle Fire HDX and, even though it’s described as for “tech support,” I pressed the Mayday button, taking advantage of a new feature in Amazon’s latest Kindle Fire tablets.
Josh appeared within 20 seconds in a small video window in the bottom right of my HDX’s screen. “Amazon Tech Advisor,” it read. In my meekest I-spent-my-childhood-coloring-inside-the-lines voice, I began, “I know this is probably something you can’t help me with, because it’s not a technical issue …”
But he surprised me. He said he could probably help me, and really tried. He listened carefully to everything I’d done, the rapid one-off responses I’d received, and the fact that none of the actions other customer service reps had taken had actually solved the problem. He checked into a number of possibilities and attempted to ascertain directly with the shipping firm where the product was. He shared a couple of working hypotheses which led to the conclusion, “I think it might have gotten misplaced or something.”
At the end of ten minutes, feeling a bit guilty for wasting his time and not asking for anything else (I did get the $10 promo credit earlier, which I thought fair compensation for the missing screen protector), I signed off.
Had the many other responses by phone and email been prompt? Yes. Had they done everything to minimize the dollar downside? Yes.
But had they actually listened and tried to resolve the issue? Not until Josh answered my Mayday.
In the days after, the Amazon-fulfilled seller removed any reference in the product description to a screen protector. And I still don’t have one for my HDX.
Yet thanks to Josh and the Mayday button, at least I feel pretty good about my answer. And also now know to advise others who want to get the best Amazon customer service: Buy a Kindle Fire HDX and press “Mayday.”
Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is a strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. See the column archive. Yes, he knows there’s more to the pilot joke. And yes, he knows there are many variations, including some that mention Microsoft. So don’t write in.