Picture this: Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com “glides” into a vigorous pace around the circumference of an executive boardroom table on the top floor of the Seattle-based Amazon Headquarters. It’s a little gloomy outside but on the top floor it doesn’t matter because the view, displayed in clear glass completely encompassing the room, is always remarkable.
Bezos’s head is down, eyes closed, and the bridge of his nose rests between his thumb and index finger. He’s rubbing them together just a little bit trying to work something out in that brilliant head of his.
Meanwhile, three or four men are sitting around the table, arms on the rests, their hands clasped together so their thumbs can twiddle. They’re spreading their glances between following Bezos with their eyes, questioning their colleagues, and searching the room for somewhere comfortable. In the thirty seconds since Bezos enters the room and says hello, the air is thick with tension and those glances from his executives.
“So, Steve Shure is sending out emails about lubricants,” Bezos finally says. (Shure is currently Amazon’s Vice President of Worldwide Consumer Marketing)
Much of the conversation around customer experience has to do with what you do, whether it’s to develop a strategy, say “thank you”, or send customers bobble heads of their favorite NFL player or Broadway actor/actress (no idea where that one came from!). However, little is talked about what NOT to do to preserve a customer experience.
In the instance illustrated above, it was to stop sending customers who were shopping Amazon for their most intimate of needs prying, sales-y emails.
In The Everything Store, a book about Bezos and the rise of Amazon, author Brad Stone wrote:
“Bezos didn’t sit down. He locked eyes with Shure. He was clearly fuming. ‘I want you to shut down the channel,’ he said. ‘We can build a one-hundred-billion-dollar company without sending out a single [freak’n] email.’”
Usually, Amazon will track when customers are looking at certain product categories. If they end up not buying anything there, the customer will get an email encouraging them to buy or prying into why they didn’t. According to Stone, these decisions were made by metrics and data and not human processing. As a result, Amazon was sending emails to customers who were looking at sexual lubricants and other products in that arena, encouraging them to buy.
“There was animated argument,” writes Stone. And I love the last little bit of this part of the paragraph:
“Amazon’s culture is notoriously confrontational, and it begins with Bezos, who believes that truth springs forward when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other, sometimes violently.”
Some of the executives argued that these sorts of products aren’t so private, that people could go and buy them in a neighborhood grocery store. They even made a strong case that the email campaigns were successful in generating great profits.
But it didn’t matter to Bezos, because there was still a problem. As successful and grandiose as he and Amazon have become, to Bezos, every customer experience matters. And if something is off about one customer experience, even with just one customer, it represents a larger problem that requires investigation.
Time and again Bezos has proven that he’s willing to take a cut in revenue in exchange for maintaining customer service, which more often than not comes in the form of lower prices. Not only does he want to provide the most competitive prices on the market, but also the best customer experience (there are countless instances of Amazon taking a loss, just to undercut competitors and get prices low).
Again, Bezos wasn’t concerned about losing revenue by canceling the email campaigns for that section. Stone continues:
“Bezos didn’t care; no amount of revenue was worth jeopardizing customer trust. It was a revealing—and confirming—moment. He was willing to slay a profitable aspect of his business rather than test Amazon’s bond with its customers.”
He then asked the executives to shut down the email program. Soon after, they looked at other categories that they thought may cause customers to be uncomfortable about getting reminder emails to purchase something. So, for categories like health and beauty, they shut down the email campaigns.
“Long past the era of using editorial judgement of employees to drive changes to the website, the company relies on metrics to make almost every important decision such as what features to introduce or kill. Yet random customer anecdotes, the opposite of cold, hard data, also carry a tremendous weight and can change Amazon policy. If one customer has a bad experience, Bezos often assumes it reflects a larger problem and escalates the resolution of the matter inside his company with a question mark.”
Stone goes on to explain that if any Amazon employee gets an email with a single question mark, they are to drop everything they’re doing and address whatever the issue is. Apparently, it was said in Amazon to just wait five minutes and Bezos’s enraged mood would change. But that was not the case with “issues of bungled customer service,” writes Stone.
So, when one employee questioned the system of why everyone must drop their work for a question mark from Bezos, one if his top employees, Jeff Wilke, responded with this:
“‘Every anecdote from a customer matters. We research each of them because they tell us something about our metrics and processes. It’s an audit that is done for us by our customers. We treat them as a precious source of information.’”
If this is Amazon’s thinking of a company that accounts for half of every dollar spent online, 500 million products sold, with distribution centers across the world, and fingers in nearly every industry imaginable, then what’s the excuse of the little or medium-sized business not listening to their customers?