Caught on tape: Amazon's tech support not exactly ready to help users of its Unbox service

Summary:Relying on Microsoft's digital rights management technology (DRM), which was recently hacked, may not be the only challenge Amazon ends up facing now that it has launched its Unbox video download service.  Another one could be technical support since the service involves the installation of Amazon-specific software on customer's systems (not to mention the fact that DRM technologies have proven fallible in the past).

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Relying on Microsoft's digital rights management technology (DRM), which was recently hacked, may not be the only challenge Amazon ends up facing now that it has launched its Unbox video download service.  Another one could be technical support since the service involves the installation of Amazon-specific software on customer's systems (not to mention the fact that DRM technologies have proven fallible in the past).

As I perused the Unbox area of Amazon.com, I noticed how there were quite a few technical requirements for it to work. Unbox is only guaranteed to run on certain systems with certain software and a handful of mobile devices. I can't help but wonder if Amazon is biting off more than it can chew. Being in the e-commerce business is one thing. But tackling software support? History has proven to the industry that technical support is not only really hard, but it snowballs into a far bigger cost center than anyone ever anticipates. Amazon no doubt has had to support its site for some time now. But locally installable software support en masse? It's a totally different beast.  

As such, I figured I poke around to see what exactly was available in the form of support from Amazon. A more graphical form of this can be found in an image gallery with captions and annotations that I've put together here on ZDNet (though it's not as detailed as this post).

As can be seen from the partial screenshot (right) of Amazon's Unbox help page (and in a bit of "don't call us, we'll call you"), there are only two ways to reach Amazon for technical support: (1) via e-mail and (2) via request for Amazon to call you.  Bear in mind that time could be of the essence when attempting to get help on something like a rental that expires in 24 hours. Or, what if you're about to get on a plane? In time senstive situations like these, e-mail is less than optimal. But, judging by the text in the "Contact Us" box which says "Talk to Customer Service by phone. Provide your phone number and we'll call you right away," there's a way to get more timely support.

Right away?  So, just to see how it worked, I gave it a try. I clicked the "Buy Phone" button and it led me to a Web page, a partial screen shot of which appears below:

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Clicking the "Call Me" button results in a browser pop-up window in which I was prompted for my phone number and the time frame in which I wanted to receive my support call (choices were "Right now" or in 5, 10, or 15 minutes).  I picked "Right Now" and pressed the submit button, but not before queuing up my podcast recording gear to capture a recording of the call. The podcast can be downloaded, played back using the streaming player at the top of this blog, or, if you're subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, it'll be downloaded to your system or MP3 player automatically (see ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in). 

The phone rang nearly instaneously (it actually caught me by surprise) and as I picked it up, I thought to myself that it would be unbelievable if there was actually a human on the other end already.  As you might suspect by now, there wasn't.

In fact, as you can hear from the recording, I was passed through two recordings. The first of these said:

Hello, we'll be connecting your call momentarily, we look forward to speaking with you.

Then, I was switched over to another recording that went something like this:

Thank you for calling Amazon.com customer service. We are currently not available to take your call. Our regular hours are 6AM-8PM Monday through Friday and 6AM-5PM Saturday and Sunday Pacific Standard Time. Please try your call again later.

It was 6:15 AM Pacific Time. I always get Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time confused.  But maybe that accounts for why no one was there.  Daylight Savings Time or "summer time" is what makes it seem as though we have daylight until 9PM in the middle of the summer.  Normally (Standard Time), that would be 8PM.  In other words, 6:15 Standard Time ends up as 7:15 Daylight Savings Time which in turn means that 6:15 Daylight Savings Time is really 5:15 Standard Time (45 minutes early compared to Amazon's declared hours for Tech support).  Actually, this discussion is ridiculous.  It shouldn't matter.  It appears as though Amazon is trying to open its support center in time for start of business on the East Coast of the US (6AM Pacific Time is the same as 9AM East Coast Time) and it shouldn't matter what time of year it is.

When Amazon automatically hangs up the phone, the browser pop-up window transitions to a good-bye message.  I think my caption on that screen shot says it all. 

One footnote to this: The customer callback feature is only available to people in the US and Canada while nothing seems to prevent people outside those two countries from acquiring video downloads through Unbox. Given the complexities of DRM and the technical difficulties that could ensue and given the way customers can't their money back, there needs to be some verbiage on Amazon's site that this is really only for customers based in the US and Canada and that if you're not in one of those two countries, that timely technical support for the service is not available.

Topics: Amazon

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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