Amazon: Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company?

Does Amazon deserve the label of ‘Earth’s most customer-centric company’?  Before I answer that question, allow me to tell you a little story about a well-known telecommunications company, one whose official strategy was to become customer-centric.

What Customer-Centricity Meant At A Well Known Telecommunications Company

I once did some consulting work for one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies. In the process, a certain kind of fellowship grew between me and the billing manager.  To some extent he was a frustrated man. Why?  The billing challenge was growing more and more complex: requiring more people, more expensive IT equipment, stronger oversight etc. .

What was the cause of the increasing complexity and thus challenge in billing?  The number of unique billing plans in place.  There were thousands of them. And most of them were legacy billing plans – many years old.  So I asked the billing manager, why he didn’t just move customers to the latest billing plans. And in so doing he would be free to delete the thousands of legacy billing plans that were the cause of the headache. Can you work out his answer?

He told me that he built a ‘business case’ and presented to his boss. Yet, the proposal had got nowhere because Marketing had vetoed is proposal. What was the basis of the veto?  The legacy billing plans were much more profitable for the company. Why?  Because compared to the latest, competitive, price plans, the legacy plans were overpriced.  And if the company took the decision to move these customers, arguably the most loyal as they had been with the company for a long time (3+ years), then this would mean giving away revenues and profits.

What did customer-centricity actually mean in this company? It involved lots of activity: vision statements, presentations, meetings, talk, customer research, mystery shopping, process changes, balanced scorecard.  What it did not involve was the conscious choice to do right by the customer: to put the wellbeing of the customer on par with the wellbeing of the company (revenues, profits, share price).

Does Amazon Deserve To Be Called The Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company? 

We all know that Amazon works. It is easy to find and buy from Amazon. It is easy to keep track of where one’s order is. Amazon delivers the goods within the promised window. It is easy to return goods and get a refund. And on the only occasion something did not turn up when expected, I found it easy to get hold of Customer Services, and the call was handled by a friendly agent, who got my situation, validated my feelings, made  a promise to have the issue fixed by the next day, and it was fixed.

This level of performance has kept me doing business with Amazon despite my concerns over Amazon’s tax avoidance strategy, and the concerns about how Amazon treats the folks who work in the warehouses.  And to some extent my disposition towards Amazon has been a pragmatic one rather than one of affinity with what Amazon stands for.

This week the situation changed.  What happened? My wife signed up for the Amazon Prime offer and she then enrolled me into it as well.  As a result, I found renting and watching a movie (on demand) with my eldest son.  The experience of selecting, paying for, and watching the movie was effortless.

The next day, to my astonishment (I do not use the world lightly), I found myself reading the following email:


We’re contacting you about your recent attempt to purchase “The Wolverine”. We recently learned that a technical issue may have prevented you from being able to watch this video. We’re very sorry about this. 

To help make it up to you, we’ve issued a £3.48 for this order. The refund will be applied to your original order payment method and should complete within the next 2-3 business days. 

We look forward to seeing you again soon. 

Customer Service 

Please note: this e-mail was sent from a notification-only address that cannot accept incoming e-mail. Please do not reply to this message.

Why was I astonished?  I was and continue to be surprised that there is a commercial organisation that gives!  What does it give?  Proactive service. An apology. A refund. And all on the basis that a technical issue may have prevented me from watching the movie!

Once I got over my astonishment who was I left thinking-feeling?  Given that I had watched the movie without any problems, and Amazon had been generous, I found a strong urge to contact Amazon and ask them to take their money back. Why?  Because, I was brought up to repay good with good, generosity with generosity, considerateness with considerateness.  Then I read the bottom of the email and found I could not reply to the email.

What did I find myself doing within 24 hours of receiving this email? I found myself buying a book, that I had been meaning to buy and had not bought, for £9 and watching a movie that I had not been intending to watch (this week) for £3.49.

Why did I do this?  It occurred to me that I could not treat badly one who has treated me well. And as such I felt a pull to repay Amazon’s ‘goodness’ by repaying the £3.49, which I did by buying and watching a movie on the day of the email.

If the acid test of customer-centricity is putting the needs-interests of customers on par with the needs of the company then I am in no doubt that Amazon is customer-centric.  Is this enough to show up as Earth’s customer-centric company? No. To win that mantle it occurs to me that an organisation chooses to prosper only by doing right by customers.  That is how Amazon shows up for me this week.  I cannot imagine any other company (that I am doing business with) taking the stance that Amazon takes in relation to its customers.

For those who are cynics, I get that Amazon may have taken a pragmatic decision to provide the refund so as to reduce the number of calls (and/or emails) coming into the call-centres.  Even if this is the case, then the action that Amazon has taken is smart. So at the very least the folks at Amazon are smart in a way that also benefits customers.

Customer Experience: how Halfords has won a place in my heart

I notice that I experienced a interesting experience as a customer of Halfords and I want to share that with you – especially the phenomenology of my experience through the various interactions.

I place an order for a sat-nav

Between Christmas and the New Year I decided that I needed to replace my old SatNav. After a little research I turned to the Halfords website to order one. Within a couple of minutes I had placed my order and made the payment. What shows up? Happiness. Why? Because I had found the right sat-nav, at the right price, and it was so easy to place the order.

The value of under promising and over delivering

Upon placing the order I noticed that the quoted delivery time was 10th January. What showed up for me? Surprise and mild disappointment. Why? Because my expectation has been set by Amazon, delivery in 3 – 5 days.  How did I deal with it? I explained away the longish delivery time. How? First by telling myself it was Christmas and so one should expect a delay. Second, by telling myself I really did not need the sat-nav any time soon.  Net result, I walk away happy with the choice that I have made.

On the 3rd January, at 07:01, I got a SMS from the Royal Mail to let me know they would be delivering the sat-nav from Halford. How did that show up in my world? Surprise and delight. Surprise that I was getting a proactive alert. Delight because I could arrange for someone to be in the house to take receipt.  That someone ended up being me.  I signed for the parcel and was surprised to get another SMS (at 12:34) from the Royal Mail to let me know that the package had been delivered. It opened my eyes to what technology makes possible.  Including the possibility of being alerted to someone else – someone not authorised – taking possession of one’s parcel and being able to do something about it quickly.

Concern, disappointment and fear

Later that day I opened the parcel and it occurred to me that I could not be confident that the sat-nav was new – had not been used before. What showed up for me? Concern and disappointment. I was confronted with a choice that I had not wished to be confronted with. After hesitation, fearing the battle ahead, I chose to return the item.

Surprise and delight: Halfords makes it so easy by taking the customer perspective

The process of dealing with my issue was made easy by Halfords. How? On the delivery note Halfords had considered my needs and provided a customer services telephone number and the order number.  My thought, my experience? Thank you for making this easy.  Next I rang the customer services number and surprise! What showed up?

My call was answered pretty much immediately once I had selected the right option, and selecting the right option from the IVR was easy/quick.  The young lady on the line was friendly/helpful. I explained the issue and told her that I wanted to return the sat-nav. She did not ask me 101 questions. She did not argue with me. She did not try to persuade me of her point of view. She did not offer a point of view.  She listened and then asked me what I wanted: a refund or a replacement?

I chose a refund.   And I asked to return it to the nearest store rather than go to the effort of repackaging it, going to the post office, waiting for it to be received by Halfords and finally getting my refund.  She asked me to hold. I waited several minutes and then she came back on the line and asked me to make a note of the returns no. And told me to give this returns number to the Halfords store personnel to get my refund.  How did this show up for me, what was my experience?  Sheer delight.  I remember saying to myself “How helpful!  I made the right decision to buy from Halfords.”

benevolence/trust begets delight and advocacy

About an hour after this telephone call I arrive at the local Halfords store and approach the man at the till. He listens politely and then tells me that he cannot help me out and directs me to the back of the store where the returns/refunds are made. As I walk to the back of the store what is present for me? His helpfulness, his smile and a genuine sense of regret that he was not able to help me out.!

Upon arriving at the returns/refunds desk I hit a snag. Why? I notice that I am being asked a set of questions. What shows up for me? Bewilderment and annoyance. Why? Because I had a fault expectation based on superior experience with the details of the matter at hand. So I step back and explain that  I had purchased online, that I had called customer services, that they had given me a returns authorisation number.  Now he (the manager) and I are in the same picture, we have a shared sense of what is so and what needs to be done. We both smile!

Next, the manager (who is helping me with my return/refund) asks for the invoice. I tell him that I don’t have an invoice on me. Why? I assumed that the returns number would be enough – that it would identify my transaction for the store staff.  The manager tells me that he does not know what I paid for the sat-nav and thus what he needs to refund me.  I get his predicament.  I can go home and get the invoice or you can refund me £89.99 which is what I paid for it. Without hesitation, the manager accepts my word and processes the refund.  What shows up for me?  I am ecstatic at his benevolence.  He has every right to not process the refund until he see an invoice. Yet, he chooses to trust me. I ask myself “How often does this happen? Wow, this is great, this is the way I want business folks to deal with me. Honesty on both sides. Trust on both sides. Benevolence on both sides.”  As he hand me my refund he smiles, I thank him, we make some chit-chat which is appropriate to the circumstances. I wish him the very best for 2013 and he wished me the same.

Summing up

I am grateful to Halford.  I am grateful for the way that they made it so easy, so effortless for me to do that which I needed to do.  I am grateful that they have integrated online with offline.  I am grateful that they have friendly/helpful people answering phones and helping customers out in the stores – from the person on the till to the manager.  I am grateful for the humanity in Halfords that showed up for me in my dealings with Halfords.

And I notice that what really made all the difference is this: at every point in my dealings with Halfords it occurred to me that Halfords was there to help me out with that which I needed help with. That is to say Halfords showed up in the way that a friend would show up.  This is how my brother (who owns/runs a car business) deals with me when I deal with him to get my motoring needs met!  And that is a high standard to match.  So I say thank you Halfords.  You can count on me to come to you first as and when I need that which you sell.  I am traditional, I say one good turn deserves another.

Customer Experience: how two staff in a wine bar left me feeling great and grateful

After a long week we find ourselves at Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport

It had been a long week, a week full of interviews, workshops, dinners, fellowship and travel from one site to another in Texas.  I found myself at the Dallas/Fort Worth international airport on a Friday afternoon with my colleague.  As there was some time before we would be boarding our flight back to the UK, we found a wine bar where we could sit, talk and drink some wine, together.

We ordered our wine and a friendly lady took our order and promptly returned with two glasses of wine.  Immersed in conversation, with the glass almost full, I found that I knocked over the glass.  The wine glass shattered and the wine poured onto the table and made its way to the floor.  Suddenly, I found myself self-conscious and embarrassed.

An angel shows up and leaves me relaxed and at ease, soaked in humanity

One of the employees noticed our plight and came over to clean up the mess.  She occurred as relaxed and helpful as if she had witnessed this kind of event many times.  As she was cleaning up she talked to me and assured me that there was nothing wrong, that I had done nothing wrong, that the glasses shattered easily.  And I was not the first person to knock over a wine glass.

I found myself delighted and grateful with this fellow human being.  And I told her that.  Specifically, I thanked her for recognising my embarrassment and putting her humanity into the encounter and thus easing my tension and leaving me relaxed.  She got my thanks and I got she got my thanks – we both smiled at each other.

With our humanity in action and rapport established we found ourselves sharing our personal selves.  She told me about her concerns/troubles like one of her parents being affected by Alzheimer’s disease.  And what that brought with it given that she is the daughter.  I found myself  being touched  by her humanity and reciprocated by telling her about my mother and how she is slowly losing her memory….. Then the time came for us to part company – each thanking the other, each grateful for the humanity the other put into the encounter.  I know that to this day I think of that lady and wish her the very best.

Service does not get better than this

With the cleaning up done, the lady that had served us the wine came to the table and brought me another glass.     She placed it on the table, smiled, and told me that it was on the house.  Both surprise and gratitude were present for me and I found myself smiling and thanking her.

Nothing beats the human touch that touches the heart and leaves the customer feeling grateful

It occurs to me that in our data/technology/process obsessed culture we miss the importance of the people who work in the business and make the business work.  Yes, it is the people that make the business what it is. And determine how the business shows up in the experience of the customers.  Yet, customers also have a role to play.  How customers treat the staff in the business and how the staff in the business treat customers makes such a huge difference.

If you want to generate customer advocacy then ..

I say that if you want to excel in generating customer advocacy then you have to excel at generating surprise, delight and/or gratitude.  And the most effective way to do that is to have in place staff that delight in / excel at dealing with customers.  Staff who have that human touch.  My friend Richard Shapiro calls these folks ‘Welcomers’ and has written a book on it: The Welcomer Edge.

And finally

If you happen to be in the International Airport (Terminal D) then pay a visit to The Bodega Winery.  Say hi to them for me – let the staff know that they have a grateful customer who remembers their generosity, their kindness, the humanity.   Tell them I wish them the very best and hope that one day our paths will cross again.

I thank you for your listening; it is your listening that makes my speaking worthwhile; it is your listening that provides the motivational fuel that results in that which shows up here at The Customer Blog.  I wish you a great weekend.  I wish you a great week.  I wish you great living.  And I say, go out and touch a life!  And if you are in business then touch your customer’s lives – that is how you generate advocacy.

giffgaff: how to generate delight and advocacy without spending a fortune

Occasionally I come across a brand, an organisation, a bunch of people who get it, who practice it as opposed to talk about it.  Who am I talking about?  I am talking about giffgaff – a mobile virtual network operator that works off / is tied to the O2 network in the UK.  giffgaff is unusual/innovative as a brand/organisation and I have written about giffgaff here and here. You should know that my family and I are members/customers of giffgaff.

Delight is the gateway to the heart

There is a school of thought that says that delighting customers is expensive and unnecessary.  I say that if you want to cultivate emotional affinity with your brand, create fans and generate customer advocacy then delight is the gateway that gets you there.   I say that you can generate delight by:

  • being there for your customers;
  • making it easy for the customer to get done the job that the customer needs done; and
  • injecting humanity (high touch) into the encounter between you and your customer.

Furthermore, I say that it is not expensive to evoke delight in your customers. Allow me to share with you how giffgaff has generated delight and cultivated gratitude/loyalty with me and my daughter.

How my daughter and I came to love giffgaff

Talking with my 11 year old daughter I found that her phone was useless as a phone as she had lost the SIM.  It turned out that the SIM had gone missing several weeks ago.  She hadn’t told me because she was thinking that it will cost money to get a replacement SIM and she didn’t have the money; she is great at spending, not so great at saving.

Within a minute or so we had logged on her account.  Straight away we found the link for ‘Lost SIM’ and then from there it took us less than 30 seconds to block the SIM and order a replacement.  My daughter and I were both happy at how it easy it was.  The job that we needed to get done (block the old SIM, order a replacement SIM) was done with several clicks and in less than two minutes.  Easy, easy, easy!  Thank you giffgaff for being there for us and making it easy to get the job that needed to be done, done.

What else did we notice?  We noticed that we were both grateful to giffgaff.  Why?  Because we were expecting giffgaff to charge us for this service yet giffgaff did not charge us.  So giffgaff showed up as generous: a friend helping us out in time of need as opposed to a business intent solely on making money from its customers.

When you have lost your SIM and order a replacement what is your ideal outcome?  That the SIM will arrive quickly, ideally the next day.  Yet, what is likely to be your experience?  My experiences with other companies had led me to believe that the SIM would take 3 -5 days to arrive.  What happened?  A colorful envelope (see below) arrived the next day.  What was our experience?  Surprise and delight.  I remember saying to myself “Wow, these guys care, they have their house in order!”

Notice the language that is being used?  How does it show up in your world?  In our world it showed up as quirky/friendly/even fun.  More importantly, it showed up as the kind of tone/language that a friend, a warm human being, would use as opposed to a corporation.

With my daughter standing by my side I opened up the envelope and this what greeted us:

What was our experience?  Surprise and delight.  What generated this surprise and delight?  The ‘tone’ that is conveyed by the language that is used.  This ‘piece of communication’ showed up as being written by a caring human being, a friend!  This is personalisation that actually shows up as personal and pulls the heart strings.  It occurs as genuine, heartfelt, authentic.  There is so much talk about ‘social’ and so little understanding of ‘social’.  I say this piece of communication is ‘social’.  I say if you really want to get social then study this communication.

What you can learn from this?

1) Ease matters, it makes a difference.  Lack of ease drives up customer frustration, generates customer complaints, drives up costs as customers use the call centre as opposed to using the website.  And lack of ease drives up defection: customers go to suppliers who are easier to do business with.  There are companies that have become giants simply because they have got ease right: Amazon is the giant that it is because the folks at Amazon have made it so easy to buy all kinds of products from Amazon.

2) Speed of response matters.  The faster that you are at responding to customer requests the more of an impact you make.  Customers are human beings, human beings impute – they read stuff into stuff.  When you respond fast customers impute that you care, that you are competent, that the customer is in safe hands.  When you slow in responding customers assume that you do not care about them and that you are incompetent, understaffed, unprofessional….

3) Generosity matters, it is noticed, it touches the heart.   Generosity does not have a big presence in the business world.  As customers we expect to be made to pay for just about everything.  We particularly expect to be squeezed for every penny, every dime, when we have an urgent need and we are at fault.   In such a world generosity gets noticed.   And for many of us generosity generates gratitude.  Most of us are brought up to practice the rule of reciprocity: one good turn deserves another.

4) You can generate delight and affinity simply by using the right language with the customer.  What does it require?  Humanity: getting and treating human beings with dignity, with compassion.  And it is cheap!  How much money would giffgaff have saved by making their envelope bland (not colorful) or using cold, unfriendly, corporate speak?  Sometimes I think that for all the talk about customers and customer focus, what is really missing is ‘love for the customer’ as a fellow human being.  Put differently, what is missing is putting our humanity, the best of our humanity, into the game of business.

What do you say?