A few weeks ago, Amazon filed its 2020 annual report with the SEC. Amid the routinely jaw-dropping growth numbers from its many operations sits an interesting pivot: staff are no longer classified as “Employees” but “Human Capital.”
Furthermore, its yearly mention of “We consider our employee relations to be good” is absent. In its place is a commitment to “inclusion and diversity, safety, and engagement” and “programs that advance engagement, communication, and feedback.” On the eve of Bezos’s departure and a landmark vote by Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center workers, apologies, Human Capital to unionize, I’m left to wonder if such developments signal a sea change.
As a former director at Amazon, I can only assume this new stance comes from a good place. And that place is “feedback.” It’s an all-pervasive notion for the entire company worldwide, and even today at KANE, we are adamant about requesting, receiving, and using it. Customer Obsession is the most important of the 14 Leadership Principals, and core to that ethos is feedback in all forms.
To that end, the following is an excerpt from my 2019 category best-seller Brand Currency: A Former Amazon Exec on Money, Information, Loyalty, and Time:
“Not by mirrors but voices is one confidently guided.”
— Uncle MILT
It took me all of two weeks to have my rear end handed to me for the first, and certainly not the last, time at Amazon. Coming from the agency world, I was programmed to start with yes when responding to a client request and then figure out how to fulfill it. One always starts in the affirmative. So when a major financial services (FinServ) client asked ADX to — wait for it — make its logo bigger throughout the customer experience they had sponsored, I naturally obliged. I asked the designer handling the campaign to make the updates and submit them to the product manager in Seattle. About ten minutes later, I got a call.
“Steve, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Uh, scaling the logo up 20 percent as the client asked?”
“Well you’d better get something straight,” she shot back. “This is not the la-la-land of a digital agency. When a client, big-bucks FinServ or otherwise, asks to make the logo bigger, you tell them, ‘Let me check with the product owner.’ You’re ruining the customer experience. Now go back to your clients and tell them no.”
I could hear her breathing as I sat at my desk in stunned silence, eyes open for three full seconds. “OK. Sorry about that. I just thought— ”
“I know what you thought,” she said. “Fix it.” Click. Dial tone.
That was my first conversation with this woman, and while it was a harsh initial impression, it was an awakening and a turning point in my career. I mean, tell clients they can’t have something? That would earn you your walking papers on the outside, but not at Amazon. The commitment to the customer experience is total. So I had to call my client with the news that the logo would indeed not be bigger. I remember them not sounding all that surprised.
At Amazon, everyone is your customer, not just the millions of shoppers, viewers, listeners, and readers visiting its various domains. ADX’s primary internal customers are the sales team members of Amazon Media Group. Your manager is your customer, as are your external clients. The account execs and project managers are customers too. So is the woman who gave me an earful on the phone. If you find yourself, as a corporate employee, visiting a customer service or fulfillment center, those personnel are your customers for as long as you’re in the building. The entire culture is one of modest servitude. Colleagues’ and clients’ feedback is captured as the Voice of the Customer (VOC), a component of most reporting narratives written every day and performance reviews each semester. VOCs typically provide the final section of these documents ahead of the appendix as a humanistic sign-off before the reader dives into metrics.
Does your company listen this intently to the customer? To be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen another organization come close. After years of VOCs, it appeared to me that there are “mirror companies” and “window companies.” Status quo organizations look into mirrors for where to go next, while the remaining few look out the window at the customer. Mirrors are self-important; windows are humble.
Oh, and a quick note on those narrative documents: they are the dominant medium at the company worldwide, and it’s on purpose. Bezos, we were told, despises the PowerPoint presentations so pervasive throughout the corporate sphere, and early on decided to replace them with one-pagers, two-pagers, and six-pagers, depending on the volume of content needed. All management meetings start in abject silence as everyone reads the same content at the same time — sometimes for as long as 45 minutes for a two-hour quarterly business review. These documents are loaded with information about the customer, internal operations, headcount (officially termed Butts in Seats or “BIS”), and all else that’s critical to the business and pertinent to the audience on hand. This way, everyone starts with the latest information, ensuring the remainder of the time is spent at maximum informed efficiency. If you dial into a conference call and no one’s speaking, you learn quickly to mute your phone and start reading the doc, usually sent out a moment before the meeting starts (so that no one reads ahead and all have the freshest information at precisely the same time). It’s just one of the many nuances that makes this company so distinct.