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At Amazon, the Scariest Email Workers Receive Contains Just One Character

Emails containing just a question mark, and a forwarded customer complaint, almost always originate from CEO Jeff Bezos, and they mean that the recipient will shortly have to explain himself or herself to the big boss.

question mark 

(Photo Credit: BAMCorp/Flickr)

"When Amazon employees get a Bezos question mark e-mail, they react as though they've discovered a ticking bomb," writes Brad Stone at BloombergBusinessweek. "They've typically got a few hours to solve whatever issue the CEO has flagged and prepare a thorough explanation for how it occurred, a response that will be reviewed by a succession of managers before the answer is presented to Bezos himself. Such escalations, as these e-mails are known, are Bezos's way of ensuring that the customer's voice is constantly heard inside the company."

Considering that Amazon is slated to make $75 billion this year, and has gone from an online purveyor of books to an "everything store" used by millions for household items ranging from vitamins to apparel, it looks like the method is succeeding. Which is not to say that employees of Amazon necessarily enjoy getting this one-character missives.

At least, they're probably not surprised. Bezos is famous among his colleagues for being, shall we say, abrupt. Stone collected some of his more direct reactions to perceived employee failings, including:

"Are you lazy or just incompetent?"

"If I hear that idea again, I'm gonna have to kill myself."

"Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I'm CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?"

The problem, of course, is that even the best CEOs need challenging from time to time. In fact, the bulk of the BloombergBusinessweek article is devoted to an incident, a few years ago, when Bezos tried to shut down the email marketing program completely, due to customer complaints. (A customer had received recommendations, based on previous purchases, for items that are typically shipped in a brown-paper wrapping.)

The ultimate solution -- shut down email marketing for health and personal care, so as not to embarrass customers with recommendations they'd rather not see in their inbox -- came about because the marketing team argued passionately and persuasively to keep sending emails.

It's hard to imagine Amazon without email marketing of any kind. Certainly, it's hard to believe they'd be the multimillion-dollar business they are today without it. Whether that's a triumph of a confrontational corporate culture or a sign that it can be dangerous to steamroll over all objections is difficult to say.

Tell Us What You Think

What's the worst email you've ever received from your boss? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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