Did Amazon Just Solve the Two Eternal Problems With Tech Support?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 25 2013 4:53 PM

Did Amazon Just Solve the Two Eternal Problems With Tech Support?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Amazon announced a new tablet today, the Kindle Fire HDX. It comes in two sizes and boasts a largely typical array of upgrades from the previous Kindle Fire, including a faster processor, better speakers, and a spiffed-up screen.

It also comes with one feature you won’t find on any other tablet—or just about any other piece of consumer electronics, for that matter. It’s called Mayday, and it could be the future of tech support. Or it could be a terrible misstep.

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The idea: nearly instant, on-demand tech support via live video chat with a real person, available anytime. Press the Mayday button on the Quick Settings menu, and a human tech-support agent will pop up on your screen, ready to offer whatever assistance you might need. The agents can’t actually see your face, but they can see your tablet screen and have full access to your device, which might unnerve the particularly privacy-conscious. On the plus side, that means Amazon’s agents can do things like draw on your screen to show you what they’re doing—or, in the worst case, go ahead and fix the problem themselves, rather than just attempting to talk you through it.

If so, that would solve the second-biggest problem with tech support today: the frustrating back-and-forth that ensues when either the customer or the agent doesn’t get what the other is talking about.

As for the biggest problem with tech-support—the interminable wait time to get a human on the line—Amazon is aiming to solve that too. In its announcement, the company says its goal is to connect every customer with an agent within 15 seconds or less, no matter the time of day, week, or year.

Our goal is to revolutionize tech support,” Bezos said in a statement. Indeed, plenty of companies now offer virtual, computerized assistants—which tend to be pretty dense—while others offer human tech support by phone or text chat. Some, like Apple, offer free face-to-face support for anyone willing to make the trek to a local store. But at a time when most companies force you to jump through hoops to reach a real person, Amazon is lowering the bar to direct human contact.

It sounds wonderful. But can Amazon really pull it off? In an interview with AllThingsD, CEO Jeff Bezos insists it can. The company has thousands of employees ready, he said, even in case of an initial rush. “Initially, a lot of people will use it just to show it off,” Bezos told Ina Fried. “We want to encourage that. It’s a ‘wow’ feature.”

It’s even more of a “wow” feature when you consider that hiring passably intelligent humans is expensive, and yet Amazon’s tablets are among the cheapest in their category. Once again, the company seems to be banking on a strategy of building market share first and making money later. The Kindle Fire was never supposed to be much of a money-maker itself. Rather, its goal is to seamlessly connect users with Amazon's online offerings, encouraging them to buy Amazon products, stream Amazon movies, and store their data in the Amazon cloud. The company's shareholders have proven remarkably patient so far. I suspect that if Mayday succeeds in drawing new customers to the Kindle Fire—which so far has captured only a fraction of the market share that Apple’s iPad and Samsung devices command—they’ll be willing to bear with Bezos yet again.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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