Thought leadership


When an incredibly successful, Fortune 100 company says customer relationships matter more than short-term profits, it should inspire us says Michael Hinshaw MD of customer experience innovation company M.Corp Consulting.

One business insider article said the letter should inspire every company in America. But Amazon’s letter has more to offer than feel-good ideology says Hinshaw, it’s really a blueprint for customer experience improvement. Simply put, it boils down to two directives: to proactively deliver great customer experiences, and to put your customer’s bottom-line ahead of your own.

Jeff Bezos delivered example after example of how Amazon exhibits customer centricity by building and using “sense-and-respond” capabilities to monitor customer experiences and proactively correct problems.

These technology-enabled capabilities are among the most important investments a company can make in customer experience improvement. Why? Because you gain an incredible advantage when you can recognize–in these examples–that an individual customer interaction has gone awry (sense), then offer a resolution to the customer and correct the source of the problem (respond).  Of course, the benefits of sense-and-respond capabilities aren’t limited to the ability to spot the small, unreported dissatisfiers in customer experience that can erode loyalty and retention—though that’s an area Amazon has quite successfully leveraged them. Just a few of the ways they’re delivering customer delight through sense-and-respond techniques include:

  • Monitoring performance on Amazon Video On-Demand and automatically issuing refunds for poor streaming quality;

  • Creating an automated preorder price matching system, so customers don’t have to periodically check for price changes; and

  • Building a “Trusted Advisor” tool for Amazon Web Services (AWS), its cloud-computing platform that watches customer configurations and makes recommendations that could improve cost, performance, or security.

Caring About Your Customers’ Bottom Line–And Yours

The fact is, most customers wouldn’t expect Amazon to pay attention to issues at this micro level. But credit Amazon for seeing an opportunity to strengthen customer relationships by surpassing expectations–and successfully using technology to do so. In Bezos’ own words, “Doing [these things] proactively is more expensive for us, but it also surprises, delights, and earns trust.”

At a time when most big companies are trying to get more and more money from each customer on any given service, Amazon is basically saying, “No, you keep it. Really. We insist.” And it goes far beyond automated refunds. The idea of aligning the company’s financial interests with its customers’ is baked into its services and products.

Simply put, Amazon is offering more and more services, and doing so better and more cost effectively than many of its competitors. Using AWS initiatives such as Trusted Advisor as an example, the kind of experiences Amazon is delivering–and the higher level of expectations it is creating–will afford it a strong, differentiated position even when the red-hot Web services market is totally commoditized.

Other examples abound–from its philosophy for Kindle (“Sell premium hardware at roughly breakeven prices” and “make money when people use [their] devices–not when people buy [them]”) to Amazon Prime Instant Video, which keeps getting better and better–and doing so at a fraction of the cost of (once again) market darling Netflix.

That’s because Bezos and Amazon really understand the long-term benefits of customer experience. As a result, it wouldn’t be difficult to write a series of articles based on this shareholder letter. Read all of them, even, starting from 1997. From sense-and-respond capabilities in action to other innovative customer experience ideas, there aren’t many better examples of how far you can get with proactive, principled, and uncompromising customer centricity.

Here’S is that Bezos letter in full – read and learn

To our shareowners:

As regular readers of this letter will know, our energy at Amazon comes from the desire to impress customers rather than the zeal to best competitors. We don’t take a view on which of these approaches is more likely to maximize business success. There are pros and cons to both and many examples of highly successful competitor-focused companies. We do work to pay attention to competitors and be inspired by them, but it is a fact that the customer-centric way is at this point a defining element of our culture.

One advantage – perhaps a somewhat subtle one – of a customer-driven focus is that it aids a certain type of proactivity. When we’re at our best, we don’t wait for external pressures. We are internally driven to improve our services, adding benefits and features, before we have to. We lower prices and increase value for customers before we have to. We invent before we have to. These investments are motivated by customer focus rather than by reaction to competition. We think this approach earns more trust with customers and drives rapid improvements in customer experience – importantly – even in those areas where we are already the leader.

“Thank you. Every time I see that white paper on the front page of Amazon, I know that I’m about to get more for my money than I thought I would. I signed up for Prime for the shipping, yet now I get movies, and TV and books. You keep adding more, but not charging more. So thanks again for the additions.” We now have more than 15 million items in Prime, up 15x since we launched in 2005. Prime Instant Video selection tripled in just over a year to more than 38,000 movies and TV episodes. The Kindle Owners’ Lending Library has also more than tripled to over 300,000 books, including an investment of millions of dollars to make the entire Harry Potter series available as part of that selection. We didn’t “have to” make these improvements in Prime. We did so proactively. A related investment – a major, multi-year one – is Fulfillment by Amazon. FBA gives third-party sellers the option of warehousing their inventory alongside ours in our fulfillment center network. It has been a game changer for our seller customers because their items become eligible for Prime benefits, which drives their sales, while at the same time benefitting consumers with additional Prime selection.

We build automated systems that look for occasions when we’ve provided a customer experience that isn’t up to our standards, and those systems then proactively refund customers. One industry observer recently received an automated email from us that said, “We noticed that you experienced poor video playback while watching the following rental on Amazon Video On Demand: Casablanca. We’re sorry for the inconvenience and have issued you a refund for the following amount: $2.99. We hope to see you again soon.” Surprised by the proactive refund, he ended up writing about the experience: “Amazon ‘noticed that I experienced poor video playback…’ And they decided to give me a refund because of that? Wow…Talk about putting customers first.” [Here's the original article.]

When you pre-order something from Amazon, we guarantee you the lowest price offered by us between your order time and the end of the day of the release date . “I just received notice of a $5 refund to my credit card for pre-order price protection. . . What a great way to do business! Thank you very much for your fair and honest dealings.” Most customers are too busy themselves to monitor the price of an item after they pre-order it, and our policy could be to require the customer to contact us and ask for the refund. Doing it proactively is more expensive for us, but it also surprises, delights, and earns trust.

We also have authors as customers. Amazon Publishing has just announced it will start paying authors their royalties monthly, sixty days in arrears. The industry standard is twice a year, and that has been the standard for a long time. Yet when we interview authors as customers, infrequent payment is a major dissatisfier. Imagine how you’d like it if you were paid twice a year. There isn’t competitive pressure to pay authors more than once every six months, but we’re proactively doing so. By the way – though the research was taxing, I struggled through and am happy to report that I recently saw many Kindles in use at a Florida beach. There are five generations of Kindle, and I believe I saw every generation in use except for the first. Our business approach is to sell premium hardware at roughly breakeven prices. We want to make money when people use our devices – not when people buy our devices. We think this aligns us better with customers. For example, we don’t need our customers to be on the upgrade treadmill. We can be very happy to see people still using four-year-old Kindles!

I can keep going – Kindle Fire’s FreeTime, our customer service Andon Cord, Amazon MP3’s AutoRip – but will finish up with a very clear example of internally driven motivation: Amazon Web Services. In 2012, AWS announced 159 new features and services. We’ve reduced AWS prices 27 times since launching 7 years ago, added enterprise service support enhancements, and created innovative tools to help customers be more efficient. AWS Trusted Advisor monitors customer configurations, compares them to known best practices, and then notifies customers where opportunities exist to improve performance, enhance security, or save money. Yes, we are actively telling customers they’re paying us more than they need to. In the last 90 days, customers have saved millions of dollars through Trusted Advisor, and the service is only getting started. All of this progress comes in the context of AWS being the widely recognized leader in its area – a situation where you might worry that external motivation could fail. On the other hand, internal motivation – the drive to get the customer to say “Wow” – keeps the pace of innovation fast.

Our heavy investments in Prime, AWS, Kindle, digital media, and customer experience in general strike some as too generous, shareholder indifferent, or even at odds with being a for-profit company. “Amazon, as far as I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers,” writes one outside observer. But I don’t think so. To me, trying to dole out improvements in a just-in-time fashion would be too clever by half. It would be risky in a world as fast-moving as the one we all live in. More fundamentally, I think long-term thinking squares the circle. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.

As I write this, our recent stock performance has been positive, but we constantly remind ourselves of an important point – as I frequently quote famed investor Benjamin Graham in our employee all-hands meetings – “In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.” We don’t celebrate a 10% increase in the stock price like we celebrate excellent customer experience. We aren’t 10% smarter when that happens and conversely aren’t 10% dumber when the stock goes the other way. We want to be weighed, and we’re always working to build a heavier company.

As proud as I am of our progress and our inventions, I know that we will make mistakes along the way – some will be self-inflicted, some will be served up by smart and hard-working competitors. Our passion for pioneering will drive us to explore narrow passages, and, unavoidably, many will turn out to be blind alleys. But – with a bit of good fortune – there will also be a few that open up into broad avenues.

I am incredibly lucky to be a part of this large team of outstanding missionaries who value our customers as much as I do and who demonstrate that every day with their hard work. As always, I attach a copy of our original 1997 letter. Our approach remains the same, and it’s still Day 1.

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