In early May, as mentioned in a previous post on community, I was invited to attend the ShopSmart Summit at Consumer Reports headquarters in Yonkers. One of the highlights of the Summit was a keynote given by Jeff Bezos, CEO and Founder of Amazon. I was lucky enough to be seated front and center for the keynote and after his closing comments, I had a chance to introduce myself and have a brief chat with Mr. Bezos.
Before I dive into the detail from my brief encounter with an industry icon, it’s worth mentioning two things about Bezos that struck me immediately. First, he presents himself as very down-to-earth and approachable, in fact, he’s downright affable with an easy laugh and inviting demeanor. Second, he thinks differently than many other eCommerce execs that I’ve had the opportunity to speak with. Combine these two and you might come to the same conclusion drawn by a book publisher early in the Amazon years: That Bezos “didn’t understand his business.” Although he didn’t divulge the name of the publisher, I think it’s pretty clear the publisher’s conclusion was, um, published prematurely. Bezos had some interesting things to say that afternoon regarding trust, service, focus and innovation. They revolved around one central theme: Obsessing about the customer.
Bezos has always seen the goal for Amazon as building trust over the long-term. The aforementioned publisher saw Amazon’s value as selling product. Bezos, then as now, sees the value as helping customers with their purchase decisions. The effect of that long-term trust building was made evident when an audience member commented that their first Amazon purchase was a Hemingway novel and their most recent was a 50 lb. bag of cat litter.
So once he has the customer’s trust, then what? When it comes to customer service, Bezos has a unique view:
“The best customer service is when the customer doesn’t need to call you… if the focus is customer service, you already missed the customer experience.”
To illustrate his point, he mentioned that the number one reason that customers contact Amazon is to ask, “Where’s my stuff?” They cut down on this type of customer inquiry by focusing on logistics and, frankly, delivering their customer’s stuff. It seems obvious, but there are companies that still view the online sale as the ultimate event and look at logistics and delivery as a secondary process.
When thinking about his company, Bezos is not a fan of military metaphors such as “competitor killer” and “targeting customers”. These terms emerge naturally in a competitor-focused environment, which isn’t how he sees Amazon.
“Amazon is not competitor-obsessed. We are customer-obsessed.” — Jeff Bezos
Can you be competitor-obsessed and customer-obsessed? Bezos doesn’t think so. A company will naturally be led by (and follow) their focus. If following the competition is one’s strategy, it takes a company out of a true position of leadership. What makes this customer-obsessed company so innovative is that the focus is on the revenue stream and not the things trying to erode it. To be effective with a customer focus, Bezos went on to mention, a company has to have the willingness to invent, to take chances, to be misunderstood and to accept failure. In Bezos’ words, “It’s unreasonable to expect that every idea will work.” All of this isn’t to say that Bezos ignores competitors, it just isn’t Amazon’s raison d’être. Amazon, he mentioned, celebrates the discovery of competitors that do things better. They see such discoveries as proof that someone else can do something, and that means Amazon can, too.
On the innovation front, Bezos sees the most interesting trend being the proliferation of mobile. In fact, he acknowledged that the rate of change in technology is greater now than it was 10 years ago and is still accelerating. A by-product of this acceleration is that consumers will gravitate toward brand experiences that offer the most modern and reliable experience. This positions mobile and social commerce at the forefront of what companies should be considering in relation to their brands. Taking time to explore these opportunities from a brand perspective, not just a technological perspective, is critical to the longevity of any success in this area.
If you happen to be one of the naysayers out there that thinks that what your site does is good enough and won’t need re-thinking and updating for your customers, consider a quote that Bezos is not likely to endorse given its military context:
“One of the first casualties of a prolonged peace is the harsh reality of war.” – S.L.A. Marshall, World War I
This could be restated in an eCommerce context as, “One of the first casualties of a successful online brand experience is organizational commitment to continued customer-focused research.” In other words, don’t rest on your laurels. If Bezos had done so, Amazon wouldn’t be the powerhouse it is today.
Lastly, I had the opportunity to thank Jeff in person for Amazon Prime, to which he responded with a smile, a laugh and his trademark customer focus by saying, “I’m glad you like it and thanks for being a long-time customer!” It’s obvious the long-tail of Amazon is still led by the clear and focused thinking of those at the headwaters.