The Amazon obsession with customer

About this time each year Jeff Bezos writes a letter to Amazon's customers, employees and shareholders. Part 'thank you' letter, part encouragement to shareholders (not that they need much with the share price up by nearly 50% in the past twelve months) it's mainly a new chapter to the Jeff Bezos guide to running a successful business. And since Bezos runs the fourth most valuable company in the world his views are worth listening to. You can read his latest letter here ; it's worth five minutes of your time.

Bezos is nothing if not consistent. With every annual letter he republishes the very first letter he sent to shareholders in 1997, reinforcing his view that value will only be achieved over the long term. In this original communication he set out his view of the need to obsess over customers. It's a theme he has returned to every year since and picks up in his latest letter. "There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality." (Day 1 is a reference to the excitement, energy and optimism that a new company feels on its first day of operations). It's a culture he has sought to preserve to avoid Day 2 which he describes thus: "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death."

The enemies of customer obsession

Day 2 companies he describes as those that start to manage 'proxies'. Process is an example of a 'proxy' that, if not watched, becomes an entity in itself. The risk is that you focus on managing the process rather than managing for the desired result. Another proxy that Bezos cautions against is customer surveys which, he warns, can become proxies for customers. I have some sympathy with his point of view.

In some companies there is a drive to reduce the totality of customer experience feedback to a single number. While there is clearly benefit in a ‘one-number’ solution (easier for business-wide communication, employee engagement, board reporting) there is also inherent risk. No matter how comprehensive the science behind the number it is still just a number and it encourages focus on a single score at the expense of the deeper and wider issues and trends behind the number. The truth is anyone can create a higher NPS, Effort or CSAT score by manipulating the survey process; but CX professionals who choose to do this are only fooling themselves and their Board of Directors.

Are you really listening to what your customers are saying?

The key to getting the most out of any feedback metric is to see it as a signpost, an indicator of how your brand, product, call centre team or call agent is performing over time. To do that you need both a consistent measurement process and to be able to identify the reasons why people have given the score they have. By measuring your key metric with the same question set, at the same point in the customer journey you will be able to accurately measure changes over time or differences between teams. But the key to understanding why your customers behave as they do is to analyse what they say as well as measure how they score.

Increasingly our clients are focusing their attentions on the comments that customers leave in feedback surveys. Despite what people think customers enjoy telling you why things went right and why they went wrong. (Some excessively so...we once recorded a customer comment that went on for nearly five minutes!) And these comments are gold dust as far as insights are concerned. They let you swiftly identify what is causing struggle or dissatisfaction. Armed with this information you can address the issues that need addressing, improve service performance and create a better customer experience.

Bezos, too, understands the benefits of gathering customer stories: "Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys."

It's advice worth heeding.

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