A Facebook friend posted, "Just purchased items today from Amazon before reading about how it treats its employees. This will be my last order from Amazon."
The post succinctly captures the challenge Amazon and other businesses with questionable workplace standards will face as consumers act on their "relationships" with these companies. It is the downside, if you will, of customer relationship management.
You can spend a lot of time and energy currying relationships with customers, only to see it flash away with a "crisis of confidence" in the relationship. Amazon offers great customer service and value, but it it comes at a price of running the equivalent of a huge sweat shop, then no thanks.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has mounted a vigorous defense of his company and its culture, which the Times' story headline called a "bruising workplace." In a communication to Amazon staff members following the New York Times exposé that relied on interviews of 100 former company employees, Bezos said he wouldn't want to work for a company with the traits described in the article. But he also said that isn't the company he knows as Amazon.
While wise to engage quickly and unreservedly about the issue, Amazon will have to do more than talk about the true nature of its culture. To win back some disenchanted customers, it will need to demonstrate that isn't the company's culture – or won't be any longer.
The distasteful picture of a day in the life of an Amazon worker was magnified by a contemporaneous Netflix announcement that it would grant up to a year's leave for new fathers and mothers. This employee decision was designed in large part to retain and recruit top-flight young talent. But it also showed a positive face externally to Netflix customers. The decision aided customer bonding.
Even by Bezos description over the years of what makes Amazon tick, it is clear the company places innovation and customer service above all else. It may not quite as simplistic as Donald Trump's "I'm a winner and you're a loser" mantra, but it isn't warm and fuzzy either.
Perhaps you can't become the world's largest retailer by being warm and fuzzy, but by the same token you may not keep all your customers by telling a woman who suffered a miscarriage to go on a work trip the next day.
Amazon is extraordinarily true to its brand promise. But as Wal-Mart has discovered, what it takes to achieve your brand promise can get in the way of customer relationships.