One of the most interesting things I’ve read this year came from customer service and customer experience pioneer Frank Eliason. If you’ve heard that name before you probably know it for being one of the first customer service leaders to integrate social media in with traditional support processes during his time at Comcast. For example, Frank proved the driving force behind @ComcastCares. He led the same initiatives during his time at Citibank. He continued as an industry thought leader influencer, author and expert advisor up until the current day. But what Frank wrote about really has little to do with all of that.
As an independent consultant, you experience inconsistency and gaps in the flow of work. Still you find no inconsistencies in the monthly bills. For example, Frank and his family still paid $3000 a month for medical insurance. As a result, Frank saw an ad for open opportunities at the local Amazon fulfillment center. And he decided to check it out.
Working at An Amazon Fulfillment Center
It surprised him how fast he was able to get the job. And his new job still allowed him to do his primary work as a consultant. But it also allowed him to cut his medical insurance costs to $500 a month. And it brought him better coverage. But working in an Amazon fulfillment center was something he had some concerns about, as at the same time he was starting work a pretty scathing article in The Atlantic came out that caused him to think if this was really what he wanted to do.
But he took the job and has worked for three months. And while he’s been there even more spotlight has been put on Amazon fulfillment centers and the safety of employees who work in them, including a letter sent to Amazon earlier this month from a group of US senators.
Fighting Against a One Sided Account
So Frank worked a few months in an Amazon Fulfillment Center. And he heard what he felt was a one-sided account of what goes on, As a result, Frank felt compelled to share his personal experiences working at the fulfillment center. With Frank being recognized by LinkedIn as one of their influences (with over 200K followers), he wrote a piece called An Amazonian’s Perspective on Safety. Which, as I said earlier, is the most interesting thing I’ve read all year. Especially in light of the recent PBS documentary called Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos.
Being someone I’ve known and admired for over a decade, I was glad that Frank was able to join me for a conversation to share some of his experiences and opinions on working at Amazon in a fulfillment center, provide an insider’s view of what goes on there, and to also get his take on the PBS documentary – and what they got wrong in it.
Interview with an Amazon Fulfillment Center Employee
Check out an edited transcript of our conversation. We covered so much ground. You just must watch the video or listen to the embedded SoundCloud player. Listen to the entire conversation. We only shared a portion of the entire convo. Believe me, you will find it well worth it. Do you want to get a look behind the curtain of what goes on? See things from the standpoint of someone with Frank’s unique position. He serves as a true thought leader who is now a real practitioner in a fulfillment center. The center handles up to one million pieces of merchandise in one day. And please feel free to check out the special Watching Amazon ep. I created it with my co-host John Lawson sharing our thoughts on the PBS documentary.
What Happens in an Amazon Fulfillment Center?
Small Business Trends: There’s a lot of discussion about things that happen in Amazon fulfillment centers. Did you hear people discussing safety issues or hard trying to keep up with the work because it’s kind of a breakneck pace. You have metrics you have to make sure you hit or you get written up and things like that. There was an article that came out from the Atlantic that was a pretty extensive thing. They talked a lot of a lot of folks on that one.
Frank Eliason: Yeah. That came out in November 20 and literally that’s the same week that I applied. I actually did know it at the time and you know, it caused me to have some concerns. You sit there going, “Oh, do I really want to do this? Is this real?” And so I definitely had some concerns and that is something that is, you know, to know about. I mean, you read it, any job you get, you sit there going, is this what I should I be doing? And that’s exactly what happened.
And so that’s the start of my Amazon experience.
Proud to be an Amazonian
Small Business Trends: Now, fast forward to little earlier this month and there is a Senate letter that was sent to Amazon and Jeff Bezos that sort of piggybacked off of that article and started raising questions and concerns about things that are going on in the fulfillment centers. And that seemed to spark something in you because by that time you’ve had a chance to actually work for a month, month and a half, and gain your own personal experiences. And that led you to write this really, I thought, very interesting, very informative post. It gives your perspective from your unique perspective, all the experiences you’ve had, to talk about it.
And at the end of the article, you said, I’m proud to call myself an Amazonian. So I want to talk about the article, but before you actually go into the article, you did something that you usually don’t do when you write something.
Something to Say
Frank Eliason: Remember, my background was obviously Comcast, which PR people really know well about, but also Citibank, you know, and anytime you’re talking banking you’re talking conservative, careful. And so I’m used to that world and, I never really knew what the policies were at Amazon regarding social media. But that article itself and the letter struck a nerve and, I felt the need to say something. So I was driving, listening to CNN, and their [Amazon’s] head of communications was on discussing this letter from the senators. And I basically said, I have something to say on this.
And so I normally don’t write to corporate offices or anything like that, or give any previews of my thoughts, but it was one that I really felt the need to do. So I wrote to them to make sure I won’t get fired over it. Right? I wrote to Jay Carney (Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Affairs at Amazon) who actually was kind enough to forward it [my LinkedIn post] to some people within my business unit at corporate, who wrote back saying “you’re absolutely allowed to. Here’s things to do. Here’s things to avoid”. And some of the things were to basically be clear, and I’ll be clear in this video, that these are my views, these are not Amazon’s views. And other than that, be truthful about it. So that’s what I shared.
Not Looking to Make Waves
Yes, I did something I don’t normally do, but that’s cause I wasn’t looking to make waves. I felt it needed to be said because I think oftentimes, we hear these things in the news or whatever, and the context may not be there.
Small Business Trends: What I thought was interesting was they responded to you as quickly as they did and they didn’t shut you down. They sent you the policies and just said, “we want you to be aware of that, but we’re okay with what your thoughts are as long as you stay away from trade secrets and things like that.
Frank Eliason: Yeah, exactly. It was all normal stuff and nothing that, you know, that I would be concerned about and you know, it was good and I really appreciate them taking the time to do that.
Small Business Trends: And coincidentally this week a FRONTLINE documentary on Amazon aired on PBS.
A Hit Piece on Amazon
Frank Eliason: I did not know the FRONTLINE piece was coming out or anything about it. Obviously timing-wise is quite interesting, so I took the time to watch it last night. I found the whole entire thing to be a hit piece, which I usually expect more things like that from an organization like PBS to be a little bit more balanced.
The areas where they were talking about the fulfillment centers, they were talking to former employees. So I want to provide a little bit of perspective. I’ve mentioned it before. Let’s talk about the hiring practices. I mentioned it briefly in the article. I think it’s probably more important for people to actually understand how hiring happens.
Hiring Experience in the Amazon Fulfillment Center
They hire a lot of people. They do so fast. There is no interviews. I did not meet with people. I literally went in, filled out an application, came back, went through the drug screening, and then had a background check, and I was starting.
Small Business Trends: Wow.
Frank Eliason: Literally that’s how it all worked.
Small Business Trends: They didn’t give you like a physical, endurance test? They didn’t-
Frank Eliason: No, no-
Small Business Trends: … give you strength tests or anything like that?
What Job are You Hiring For?
Frank Eliason: Truthfully you don’t fully know the job you’re applying for. It’s not as fully clear. Maybe to them and maybe to me now that I’ve been there, but without being there you choose something. You don’t really know what you’re choosing. I had no clue I’d be on the ship dock, which if you think about is probably one of the more enduring type roles in that organization.
Small Business Trends: Just so people know what that is, what exactly is ship dock?
Frank Eliason: Ship dock, that’s filling the trucks. That’s the stuff that’s getting … The packages that are sealed come through down conveyor belts. We’re sorting them as to where they’re going. Some are going to be shipped via Amazon delivery service. Others are being shipped by USPS, others by UPS. Some are being air mailed because of some of it goes globally at this warehouse. To give you an idea of the warehouse, up to a million packages a day go through this warehouse. This is not a small warehouse.
Small Business Trends: How many people are there? How many robots, if you can give a ballpark figure?
Amazon Warehouses Today are Vastly Different
Frank Eliason: I have no clue how many robots. We should talk about that. Actually let’s get into this a little bit because when I hear this discussion about the fulfillment centers one of the things is almost all the details center from a 2010 article. This was mentioned in the FRONTLINE piece. A 2010 article out of Allentown, Pennsylvania. At the time warehouses were really new for Amazon. They were expanding dramatically. Did they make mistakes? From my perspective, yes. I think they even admit that. But today their warehouses are also vastly different.
One of the things that used to be the case is they would have these runners that would have to go get the merchandise. They would have to run … Think about it, a million square feet is … 1.2 million square feet is Robbinsville. Imagine running that to go get the merchandise. Now let’s take you to the way it really is today.
You literally stand in a station. I’ve not done this picking piece but I did inventory. For inventory it’s the same thing. You literally stand in the station. What it wants you to do inventory a robot brings it to you. Then the scanner tells you what to inventory or if you were picking it tells you what to pick. It’s not that difficult of a task. There’s no endurance of running all over the place. Literally robots keep bringing stuff to you.
Small Business Trends: Wow.
A Roomba Carrying a Cart
Frank Eliason: If you ever have the chance, Google it. They look like really big Roombas. A Roomba carrying a cart on top of it.
Small Business Trends: Wow.
Frank Eliason: They keep bringing you the different things that you need to do, so you’re … When you look at that older stuff you are looking at people that were runners. That would have been strenuous. Where the robotics has taken that strain away. It hasn’t taken the job away. In fact, what people don’t realize is since bringing in the robotics Amazon has hired a lot more people. These are things that are not mentioned in these things.
Then you have these former employees who are the ones making these statements. Now I want to tell you something. As I said you have a fairly easy hiring process. You have a pulse. You’re getting the job. But the problem is this may not be the job for you.
Small Business Trends: Right.
Frank Eliason: So you’re going to go into this, and I see it each and every night that I work. The people that are off trying to chat with their friends, or flirt over there, or whatever. They’re not doing work. Now for me, and I make the point in my piece, is I never concentrate on my numbers. I don’t even know what’s considered to be a good number or a bad number but I do know is they post them and I do glance at it. I know I’m typically in the top five. That’s with something like 100 people working, a lot of people working.
The More I Do, the Faster the Time Goes By
But I’m not doing that stuff. I’m literally … You ask me to go do this job, I’m doing the job. I’m doing as much as I can because, guess what? The more I do the faster the time goes by and I get through the night. When it’s slow, things aren’t happening as much, the night goes by really, really long. So I’d much rather be active doing work. Meeting these numbers has not been difficult.
I did spend a few weeks in a different area, so not ship dock but inventory control where I was counting things. People came to me there. I know I was there for at least eight nights, probably more than that. I know at least on three of them they came to me and said I was the top performer.
Not That Concerned with Metrics
Small Business Trends: You’re not even worried about metrics because-
Frank Eliason: No.
Small Business Trends: … in that documentary one of the two takeaways I got from the folks that were a part of that, where they said meeting the metrics was hard. Then some said meeting it wasn’t difficult but it was when meeting the metrics while observing and staying in regulation of the safety rules. That caused them issues when they were trying to meet the metrics in a clean fashion. You’re saying that wasn’t your experience?
Their Measurements Aren’t Always the Best
Frank Eliason: Yeah. I will tell you. People do what they’re measured [on]. I make the point in my piece. I think their measurements aren’t always the best. I’ll give you the example, I work on the ship dock, so we were scanning boxes. People want to get the scans in. Well there are other facets to the job that are not necessarily measured by those scans. You do need to do them, such as every three feet you need to wrap the pallet so it doesn’t fall on someone as you’re filling them.
There are other tasks that you need to do. My observation has been, and I have shared this with leadership at Amazon, is people aren’t necessarily doing those. They’re not doing them because they want to hit these numbers. To me, I debunk that because I meet the numbers and I do it.
Hitting the Numbers
It’s not hard to do it. The problem to it is, and the frustration, is when you’re the only one doing it and there’s other people there, and they’re not doing it, then you get a little frustrated that, “I’m the one doing … Everybody should be doing this.”
Small Business Trends: Right.
Frank Eliason: I know why they’re not doing it. Because they want more numbers. That’s on them. I think that there needs to be a different way to measure some of those things. I also think that there’s ways to measure getting things out to customers in a timely fashion. Scanning things properly so they’re actually measured.
I think there’s a number of other measurements that could be put in place. Like in general they don’t assign us to what lane you’re on, so people jump to the lane where they think they can get the most scans in, which becomes a problem because they ignore other ones. I think there’s ways to manage this a little differently, but that being said it’s not hard to do the job, and get the number, and be safe …
Stretching and Safety
Small Business Trends: You mentioned stretching in your piece. Why do they emphasize stretching?
Frank Eliason: They actually have it for pretty much every job; different stretches that actually go with the type of job you have. On the ship dock, we have these huddles and I didn’t say it in the article, we actually have them twice a day; uh, once when you start. And then once after lunch. What you do is they go over these tips. There’s someone like myself who is leading the pack in these exercises. And some are silly. They’re like moving your hands in a certain way. But there’s other stretches that are other parts of your body and they have two different versions of it.
One that’s done at six and one that’s done in the middle of the night. And it’s because these are the muscles that you’re using. It’s actually well thought out. They actually do encourage you to do it throughout your shift. And in some areas, not my department yet, but in some areas they even have it where now the thing that the device used to scan your work is actually telling you, you know what? Stop, take a moment and do this stretch. They’re doing that to change up that monotony, but also for your body. And you know, this is something that’s quite interesting. You know, seeing everybody doing these exercises does give you that gung-ho reminder.
A Busy Shift at Amazon
But they do also encourage you, not only to do them, but if you ever feel like a tightness or anything, you should stop what you’re doing and do it during the shift. And you know what I have and even when we’re busy, especially when you’re busy, is when you tend to feel, cause you’re moving a little faster than you normally do and you’re going, Oh, and so you step back, you do, that loosens things up and you get back to it. And so, they actually do encourage that.
And you never hear these things in any of these things. It’s always these employees that are no longer there. And I’m not saying that Amazon’s perfect. I believe they have some managers I’ve seen that could use some coaching. I’ve seen some managers that are very big on the stick instead of carrot, a few and far between, but they’re there.
Bad Managers at Amazon?
And so I do think that some people may have had bad managers, or even maybe a bad leader of a thing? But I can’t speak to what it was. I can say over the two months that I’ve been there, to me, it’s not been overemphasis on productivity as opposed to safety. And in fact, one of the things that happens is when you get your scanner, and it does this at lunch as well at the start of your shift, it always asks you a question. And the question oftentimes in busy times, is your manager, more focused on productivity or safety?
Brent Leary: Really?
Frank Eliason: Yeah. That’s one example there. There’s, you know, tons of them.
Small Business Trends: But do you get a sense that as employees take these quick survey questions, that they are acting on the feedback that they’re getting?
Frank Eliason: I’ve spoken to the managers and yes, they do. And they get feedback on it. If you think about it, Amazon does have a history of being a very metric driven company. I know people at their corporate office, and they’ve told me this. What I will tell you though, is managers have these metrics based upon these surveys. So yes. Do they act on it? Absolutely.
Robots and Automation
Small Business Trends: What is the perception from the employee’s standpoint in the fulfillment center around the robots?
Frank Eliason: I think you see the same thing you see in the world. You see a mix. You see people that are, “Oh, they’re going to take our jobs.” Then there’s another aspect which is, as Amazon has brought in these robots, they’ve actually hired more people. And that’s statistically something anyone can look into, but their fulfillment centers have grown with these robots over these years. The jobs are just different than they were then.
I personally think some jobs may go away. There’s other jobs that are going to happen in place of them. For me, that’s the case. For people that have been there as more robots came in, they’re more acknowledging that, “Oh you know what, they did hire more people.”
Some Jobs at Amazon May Go Away
Whereas a newer employee might be like, “Oh, see that!” Cause we have some big, huge robots that do cool things. They go, “They’re replacing us with that.”
You see a mixture. But at the same time, most people were like, “You know, let’s just have fun now and do what we need to do.” I don’t see a negative towards the robots. In fact, most of the time, the reaction’s more like, “Cool.” Especially the first time they see it carrying these big yellow things. “Ah, that’s what happens?” Especially people like my area, the ship dock, which is… There is some robotic stuff, and there’s conveyor belts to do different things automated. But then when we go into these other areas, and sometimes it’s the first time. You’re like, “Oh, that’s pretty neat.” You never get to see it otherwise, because you’re always in the loading dock.
What did PBS Get Wrong?
Small Business Trends: You saw the PBS thing. What was the thing that really, you felt, they got wrong the most?
Frank Eliason: I think there’s a lot of things they got wrong the most, because I’m an early adopter. I’ve had the Amazon Echo from the first week it came out. I have the Amazon Echo Auto, and I’ve had that fairly early on. I think that there’s a number of things. I think they tried to overdramatize the fear, especially, “Oh, they’re listening in.” There’s an overemphasis on the former employees. It lost credibility because it wasn’t balanced in its approach.
I think too often what they’re missing, in the fulfillment centers, is the amount Amazon has hired. Over the past 10 years and the [kind of] people that they hired. I work with a wide range of people.
Amazon Hiring Practices
I made this point in the post too, which is, people that are just coming out of homelessness because they’re now making enough money that they can actually afford a place to live.
Small Business Trends: And have benefits too, like health benefits.
Frank Eliason: Exactly. I think that’s tremendous. Then there’s people like myself who are doing it for a totally different reason. But you know what? These are good wages that they’re paying. They mention it, and they only mention it as an “Amazon statement said.” It really shouldn’t be “Amazon statement said.” It should be. We should see more companies paying $15 an hour, at minimal. And sometimes hiring in other places.
How Amazon Led the Way
It shouldn’t be the company statement doing that. They should’ve done that. That should have been emphasized. Because we need more companies paying above minimum wage, and starting to change that dynamic. You know? Amazon led the way with that. I think that there’s a lot of aspects that could be said differently.
As I said, it’s not a perfect company. They’re not perfect managers all over the place. People are going to have negative experiences. I’m sure there’s some people in my warehouse that may feel differently than I do. Ultimately there’s a balance to all this. Most of the people I interact with are perfectly happy. There’s camaraderie working nights. Especially weekend nights. Everybody seems to have very similar schedules. So you see them every week.
There Are Other Stories Out There
I think that’s another piece to it. There are other stories out there. And I think they’re positive stories, positive societal stories. I also think that there’s positive societal stories about technology, and different technologies, such as the Amazon Echo that makes it easier to do things. That is something that I think needs to be emphasized. Do we have to have conversations about things like privacy and all that? Yes. But it should be mixed with, what is the balance of what we’re getting?
The other piece to it is, I know they wanted to try and emphasize that, you know, “The Echo is listening!” When that’s not true. When they have had issues, they fix that. It’s not there all the time.
Playing into the Fear
It’s listening for that keyword. And that’s when it starts. That’s what triggers it. But instead, it plays into the fear that people have. We have to stop playing into people’s fear and start bringing a more positive aspect about society.
No wonder everybody’s fighting with each other over stupid things. We don’t have a positive outlook. There are a lot of positives going on. There’s tons of positives at Amazon. And why aren’t we talking about those? Why aren’t we talking about the health benefits that, truthfully, are cheaper than when I was at Citibank? That to me is amazing. I was paying thousands of dollars a month at Citibank. I’m not paying that at Amazon.
These are the things that I think we’re missing in society. And I think it’s easier to go find that negative and put that negative out there. People seem to get excited about that negative. You know what? Let’s find some positives out there. Bring both sides to that story.
Thoughts on Cameras and Scans in Amazon Fulfillment Centers
Small Business Trends: The part about feeling like they’re being watched, and they have to scan all the time. What’s your personal perspective? Give us the lay of the land over there.
Frank Eliason: First of all, they must think that people have tons of time to be sitting there staring at these cameras all the time. It’s kind of like the same thought I have with people that think the Amazon Echo is listening to them all the time, that people are listening to everything you say. Who has the interest or the time? Yes, they do have cameras all over the place, and the cameras are more useful after the fact, if an accident happened, why did it happen, or if there is theft.
High Security at the Fulfillment Centers
One of the things that will surprise you, now, there’s high security at these facilities. You have to go through metal detectors, and there’s a lot online on that, and truthfully, I found a really cool belt that doesn’t set off a metal detector ever. It’s made with a 3D printer. Anyway, it’s now my favorite belt. I wear it all the time, cause one of my goals is never to set off the metal detector. I’ve had gum set off the metal detector. It’s kind of a nuisance sometimes.
But what you don’t realize is, all that merchandise, including some of the most expensive merchandise, is not sitting locked up somewhere. It’s on these robots and they come up to you. I could have a robot come up to me with tons of clothing, dog food and all kinds of other stuff, but I have one come up that has all the best electronics I’ve ever seen, and that’s how it works. And so, while I originally really didn’t like the metal detectors, they’ve grown on me because I’ve seen how open it is with all that. I think that that’s something.
A Culture of Openness
It’s one of those things in how you talk to employees about why do we have this metal detector, or why do we have the cameras, what do we do with those? I think it’s helping people see there is business needs for these things. Yeah, we don’t have to pay a thousand people to watch the thousand people that are here all the time. It just doesn’t work. I think those are the things to keep in mind.
Do they have cameras? Yes. And they’re in pretty much any place where there is… I shouldn’t say any place. I think there’s probably places like in the ship that are not as clear cut with the cameras. But in a place where you’re picking the open merchandise that’s out? Every one of those, there’s cameras. If they really want to watch me the whole time, go right ahead. It’s really boring.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.