The Amazon Effect Is Making Customer Service Reps’ Lives Hell

The pandemic has exposed a major rift in the retail industry

Angela Lashbrook
Published in
7 min readJul 1, 2020
Photo: picture alliance/Getty Images

“Julie answer your DAMN phone!” wrote a user on the J.Crew Instagram account. “Your online department is impossible to log into or reset a password… YOUR SYSTEM CRASHES WHEN A PROMO CODE IS ENTERED OR I TRY TO CHECKOUT. Fix this.”

“We’ve sent you a DM to help!” responds the beleaguered J.Crew Instagram account in response.

“NO REPLY TO EMAILS TERRIBLE CUSTOMER SERVICE AN ORDER WAS PLACED OVER 2 weeks ago and no status on shipping i want my money back asap NOONE IS CONTACTING ME BACK FROM CUSTOMER SERVICE,” wrote another.

I began to notice a surge of these types of comments on brands’ Instagram accounts in early April, as warehouses shut down or decreased capacity, companies began to lay off staff, and shipping services became overwhelmed with a flood of orders. But as angry and even rude customers were willing to appear in public social media comments, behind the scenes — via email and chat, primarily — they were even meaner, as recent reports about overwhelmed bookstores working hard to get people’s books to them in a timely manner have made clear. Even one of my favorite dog rescues is struggling under the weight of pissed-off would-be rescuers.

These customers, many of whom are likely wrestling with their own diminished mental health amid a global pandemic, are taking out their problems on the online support staff of the world. This heightened stress and irritability (which in-person customer service folks are grappling with as well), paired with looser behavioral standards around online interactions than real-life ones, are resulting in a very toxic combination that customer service agents shouldn’t have to swallow.

According to Devon Powers, an associate professor of advertising at Temple University whose research focuses on consumer culture, a major issue is that people expect Amazon-speed fulfillment from smaller retailers, which are working with already limited resources in the middle of a pandemic.

“There was a turning point around mid-April, though, where you could tell…



Angela Lashbrook

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.