Friday, 29 May 2015

Amazon Can't Communicate

I interrupt my series on Manchester Music because I want to write about a language issue that is infuriating me: corporate speak. So you'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out the contents of the next Manchester Music post (cryptic clue: "a band and song title that, combined, make you think of email").

Ah, corporate speak. I recently asked my County Council some questions, and every answer was preceded by "I would confirm that..." It was bizarre, all using the formula:
"I would confirm that" + [restate the question, badly] + "would be" + [answer].
Who talks like that? Answer: robots. Robots with no emotions or empathy, the kind that will destroy us in the name of efficiency and profit. Councils, quangos, MPs, the Government, they all seem to be adopting communication formats which are totally at odds to how people actually speak. And they obfuscate rather than clarify the communication process. Which is no doubt the purpose of it.

Anyway, on to the rantathon: who drew my ire today? I would confirm that the organisation that today is drawing the ire would be Amazon.

As an author I sell books on various platforms. A frequent task is to visit each site and make sure the items and metadata are correct. This is necessary: only the other day I found partial records with incorrect data about my books that had come through from an automated data-sharing process between a third party seller and Amazon. I was able to report the errors and get the records merged with the correct ones. Tidy. So it is no surprise that I browse Amazon sites.

Last time I was there a large box told me to take advantage of a special offer subscription to Amazon Prime. I could watch films and get free postage. It sounded interesting, so I signed up.

The first problem was when I tried to buy and send a book to a friend.

That was strange. It wanted to charge me £5.07 for postage; yet another part of the screen told me that the shipping would be free once "processed". I took them at their word, and clicked on order (there was no other option). Then when I examined the order:

So Amazon didn't give free shipping after all, despite promising it in order to get me to order the item (and it being one of the features of Amazon Prime). I cancelled the order.

I decided to try and watch a film, to calm myself. Something with robots in, and lasers, and civil servants. I looked on my Kindle but, despite signing up to Amazon Prime, it told me I would have to pay to watch the films, even those with "Prime" next to them. So I tried watching one through my PC's browser instead.

Great. I was really impressed by Amazon Prime by this point. (Add irony and boil to appropriate temperature).

I decided not to give up. I contacted Amazon through their chat gadget. Typed in the problems I was having. Was put through to the Indian call centre. "Ah, you need to speak to another team. I will transfer you now." I waited. Someone else appeared. Asked me to wait while I read everything. "Oh, you need to speak to the Prime team. I will transfer you now." I waited. The third person read it. And over a long and frustrating conversation it transpired that signing up to Amazon Prime on one Amazon site has no connection whatsoever with other Amazon sites.
"They are separate companies," I was told.
"No they're not," I replied. "They all use the same login and password, they all use my same account - separate companies would not be allowed to do that."
No response. I would have pasted in the conversation except, after a lot of wasted time, and it getting late, and it being obvious there was no way to resolve it, I said goodbye and left the conversation, ticking the box to be emailed a transcript which would be useful later.

The transcript was never emailed.

This is all about communication. What is even more bizarre is that Amazon can obviously tell where a visitor is situated - as evidenced by them refusing to show the film, no doubt based on regional IP address - yet they conveniently refrain from doing that when they want you to sign up for a service, even though you can't access it. A service that isn't available to you because of the country you're in; and Amazon know what country you're in; yet when you log in it still tells you that you are entitled to these things!

Is it just me, or is there a multiple personality disorder at play here?
Amazon: (Slapping me on the shoulder, eyes twinkling, cardboard box held out). "Hey, Karl! We like you! Here, use these services!"
Karl: "Okay. I'll give it a go."
Amazon: "No way, buddy! I wouldn't let you touch this with your dirty region-different hands!" (Box snatched back with a look of contempt.)
Karl: (Quietly). "Oh. I did wash them. Never mind."
Amazon: (Smiling again). "Hey, before I go, why aren't you using the things in this box? They're cool, and you're welcome to them if you want..."

And you try to point this discrepancy out to Amazon staff and they just don't seem to comprehend how confusing it is to site visitors. Or, more realistically, they have no power to do anything about it, being call-centre staff in distant countries paid a pittance and struggling to sound native English for fear of losing their jobs.

So Amazon offers deals which you aren't entitled to use because of agreements Amazon makes. Surely they should just not prompt you to sign up for Amazon Prime on sites outside of your region? Or just have a big note on the page saying "does not apply if you are not in the US", and on the sign-up form. Or, if you sign up on one site, just transfer the Amazon Prime subscription to the region the person is in? Simple enough, surely?

I unsubscribed, and saw yet another poor example of communication - statements which are complete opposites on the same screen.

Right. So I will be charged AND I won't be charged. That's clear. Thanks. Oh, and thanks for once more pointing out the two services I can't use anyway.

I decided to point out how frustrating this was. Since the transcript had never arrived I had to summarise the problems all over again. I found that Amazon's "email" option was actually an online form, not an email address; further, there was no option to attach screenshots illustrating the things I was talking about, and how misleading the messages on their sites were. Communication.

I tried to explain how confusing their sites were, in terms of encouraging sign-up to services they won't let you use.

The Amazon responses use the variant formula:
"I understand" + [restate the question, based on picking out a keyword but not the context in which it is used, as often happens with non-native speakers of a language] + [answer].

Bear in mind that the problem was that I'd been encouraged to sign up to Amazon Prime on, when Amazon then won't let me use the services. The reply from Amazon told me:
As an Amazon Prime member, you can stream thousands of movies and TV shows at no additional cost. Prime TV shows and movies are available on more than 300 compatible devices ( For a complete list of our current Prime eligible titles, go to: For more information about Prime Instant Video, please go to: 
Here's a summary of Amazon Prime benefits: -- FREE Two-Day Shipping and upgrades to One-Day Shipping at reduced rates to addresses in the contiguous U.S. on millions of items fulfilled by -- Prime Instant Videos: Unlimited access to thousands of streaming movies and TV shows through Amazon Instant Video. 
To become a member of Amazon Prime, go to our Sign-up page: 
More information about Amazon Prime is also available on our Help pages: 
That's right. Still encouraging me to sign up for a service they won't let me use. Surely that is a form of dishonesty.

The next reply from Amazon at least acknowledged that, because I was in the UK, they would not let me watch the videos they had told me to sign up for. And then the email ends with ... (drumroll) ... guidance on watching US Amazon Prime videos. Which they have just told me I can't do. Infuriating. You just know they'll never fix it, and their sites will remain this regional mishmash of promises given and promises witheld, that their communication is not based on understanding or comprehension. All the time wasted (they didn't even offer the same service on the UK site as an apology). Oh, I replied and said I was frustrated. Result:

Communication. Passing on information; the receiver able to decode your words and comprehend them. Maybe see it from your perspective. Maybe realise that you're trying to help them to fix a problem. Not just use robotic formula responses without making the effort to understand what is being said.

Sorry for the rant, I just wanted to get that off my chest: I feel better now! It shows why you are always better shopping at your local independent where possible, rather than using companies like Amazon. I do have sympathy for the polite staff you're put through to, but they just don't have the power to change anything at the macro level. That's the problem with multinational profit-merchants.


  1. This is gold. You should submit this to something like The Verge. I feel for you mate but you had me laughing pretty hard also.

  2. Thanks, your comment made me smile too!
    I have Verginated the URL now.