By Jan Vermeulen for MyBroadband
Amazon announced in June that it was hiring 3 000 new customer service agents in South Africa. The company was looking for skills ranging from basic computer literacy to technical experts.
These new employees are required to work from home and provide support to Amazon customers in North America and Europe.
This means you needed access to a high-speed ADSL or entry-level fibre connection to your home, and to be willing to work shifts the coincide with North American business hours. Some job listings explicitly state a 10Mbps minimum line speed and that LTE connections are not suitable.
According to Amazon, the addition of these 3,000 permanent and seasonal full-time positions will bring the company’s total permanent workforce in South Africa to 7,000.
MyBroadband recently had the opportunity to interview a successful applicant for one of Amazon’s customer service roles, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. The interview was conducted in person and we were able to verify the authenticity of the claims made.
Impressive, efficient systems
The first thing our jobseeker noted was that every stage during his application and training process was like clockwork.
Amazon communicated what was required at every step and everything was streamlined for efficiency.
After the application through the Amazon jobs website, there was about a week’s wait before the applicant heard that he had made it through the initial screening stages.
Amazon asked whether he was still interested in the position. If he was still interested, he was informed that he needed to complete an aptitude test.
This extensive aptitude test is conducted online and took about two hours to complete.
Amazon tested for fluency in English, and reading and listening comprehension.
It then placed the applicant under pressure by having them listen to a scenario where a customer was complaining about something. The recording may be paused at any moment and they were required to answer questions such as “When was this item meant to arrive?”
As he was listening to the customer complaint, Amazon would also pop up perception questions like “Is this customer happy?”
Another week after the aptitude test, Amazon responded with a job offer. It contained the conditions of employment, salary, and details on company perks like a medical aid, provident fund, and Internet allowance.
Our customer service associate-in-training said that they were given an allowance of R1 200 which had to be put towards their Internet connection.
His total pay package was around R12 000 per month.
The corporate medical aid was provided through Discovery and the provident fund through Momentum.
After accepting the offer, he received a call from an Amazon manager who congratulated him on his appointment.
Two weeks later, he received an email on a Thursday stating that he would receive everything he needed the following day and that his training would begin that Monday. The email also contained instructions on how to set up his equipment.
On Friday morning, a courier arrived with a Lenovo all-in-one computer, an uninterruptible power supply, and a set of hardware security keys. The computer was configured so it could only be used for Amazon.
On Monday morning at 08:00, our trainee was online with a group of 30 other people, a training officer, and his assistant.
They spent eight hours a day in a rigorous and strict training programme.
“Amazon expects a very high level of self-discipline,” he said. “During training, being absent is just not an option.”
If someone was not online at precisely 08:00 in the morning when training was scheduled to start, it was no small issue. The training officer was immediately on the phone to the absent trainee to find out what was going on.
Long hours, strict self-discipline
Trainees were told that after they completed the programme, their working schedules would be quite rigid.
To serve the North American market, your shift in South Africa would begin between 16:00 and 19:00 in the evening and run for eleven hours until the following morning.
This includes an unpaid lunch hour and two paid 15-minute tea breaks.
When you step away from your workstation to take a break, you must set your status as being on a break. If you couldn’t take your break at the scheduled time because you were finishing up a call, you must note that in the system.
Trainees were also informed that they should prepare for the fact that during the first six months of work they will not be able to swap shifts with other customer service associates.
Once you graduate from training and you begin working, Amazon monitors your performance.
However, this is not a fixed number applied to all customer support agents. Amazon makes provision for new recruits to go through a period of improving as they become more familiar with the job.
“Everything is measurable,” the interviewee said. “You set a baseline performance level in that first week.”
As long as you are always improving, Amazon is happy. The company also works hard to try and retain staff, he said.
The person we interviewed did not end up becoming an Amazon staff member. They bowed out during training for personal reasons, and because they felt they would not be able to multitask at the pace needed to excel at the job.
He explained that during training, he learned that they would be required to look up information related to a customer’s query in the Amazon knowledge base for support agents while on a call, and then proceed based on the guidelines provided.
“It’s extreme multitasking,” he said.
When he informed Amazon that he did not wish to continue, there was genuine concern. They wanted to know if they had done something wrong and whether they could be clearer in explaining what the job entailed so applicants would know exactly what to expect.
He was also caught off-guard when Amazon said they would pay him for the time he spent in training.
“It was truly impressive,” he said. “It would be great if South African companies could operate at this level of efficiency.”