The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos

Seventeen years ago, I had a uniquely, memorably bad customer service experience with Barnes & Noble. I received a gift card, purchased in a physical store, as a present, and I tried to use it at This was impossible – I understand now because of how they had set up the website as a separate business unit – but no one I spoke to on the phone or in a store could understand why or what to do about it. At one point they suggested I postal-mail the gift card to their office in Secaucus, New Jersey, to the attention of “Lynn,” and their accounting department would find a way to reissue it properly. They couldn’t seem to understand why I was unsatisfied with this “solution” to their self-created problem.

The experience soured me, permanently, on It wasn’t just that I couldn’t get my books (eventually, I did). It was that their bureaucracy and IT were so fundamentally disorganized, and their customer support team so disempowered, that I knew I couldn’t trust Barnes and Noble as an organization to come through when it mattered. This was not a company I wanted to trust with my money, or to deliver an item when I really, seriously needed it. Instead, I took my book business (and, over time, many other kinds of online business) far more to Amazon. The experience wasn’t perfect, I knew I could trust Amazon’s systems when it mattered.

I had another bad customer service experience this weekend, one that reminded me of my old run-in with Barnes & Noble. Only this time, it was Amazon that dug itself into a hole and couldn’t stop digging.

Wednesday : Our dishwasher is broken. We need a new thermal fuse. I found one on Amazon, ships from and sold by Amazon, available on Prime for two-day delivery. So I put it in my cart and hit “order.” Delivery was scheduled for Friday.

Friday : It went out for delivery, but was never actually delivered. I called Amazon customer service, and the person I spoke to apologized and promised to have it redelivered on Saturday.

Saturday : It wasn’t delivered. I called Amazon customer service again, and this time I got passed off to someone in Amazon Logistics. He told me two disheartening things. First, the first person I’d spoken to had marked the order as a “reschedule,” which he shouldn’t have done because it that changes would irrevocably foul up the delivery in some way that could not now be undone. Second, although he’d ask the designated liaison at the local delivery office to get in touch with me, h couldn’t call this person up, and neither could I. It had to be done via a form. But I’d be contacted by this person either Saturday night or first thing Sunday.

Sunday : Around noon, the local delivery liaison called me to say that the package had been located and it would go out for delivery later in the day. Again, it wasn’t delivered.

Monday : Early in the morning, I received an automated email from Amazon customer service saying that the package had been returned as undeliverable because it was “damaged or contains a hazardous item.” The order has been cancelled.

Obviously, there is a great deal wrong with this story, including the repeated broken promises of delivery the next day, the alleged incompetence of the first person I spoke to, the inability to realize before today that the problem was that the package was damaged (if indeed it is), and simply cancelling the order rather than asking me whether I wanted it cancelled or repeated.

At this point, it isn’t about the fuse. I’ll get one somewhere else. If I’d know what would happen, I’d have ordered it somewhere else in the first place. And I am done with Amazon for parts.

No, I’m writing because Amazon has a systemic problem, and it’s the same sort of a systemic problem I observed inside of Barnes & Noble when their poor customer service drove me to Amazon back in the day. The Amazon shipping operation is stovepiped in a way that prevented anyone inside the company from taking responsibility for the package. Amazon’s systems couldn’t keep track of the package, where it was, and what was actually wrong with it. And even once I had specific promises to fix things, with detailed claims about what would happen next, from multiple people, every single one of those promises turned out to be mistaken.

This is, needless to say, not what I expected from Amazon, whose entire play as a company is getting the back-end logistics and systems right so that the customer experience is simple and painless. Instead, it’s exactly the kind of Balkanized chaos I associate with older pre-Internet companies that never really got e-commerce and have to go lie down in a corner when things get too stressful.

Congratulations, Amazon. Take a good look in the mirror. You’re turning into your parents.