In his annual letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos credits “hundreds of millions of divinely discontent customers around the world” as driving the company to reach for high standards. It’s a challenge Ralf Kleber, Country Manager of Amazon.de in Germany, wrestles with every day.
Kleber, a graduate of the Berufsakademie Mannheim, has been at Amazon since 1999 and has been running the retail giant’s German operation since 2002. Ulrik Nehammer, Senior Vice President at Salesforce, asked him about his predictions for the future of the customer experience, and why customer obsession is a core element of Amazon’s DNA.
Q: Amazon is often cited as being responsible for radically changed customer expectations. How do you think customer expectations have changed over the last decade, and how does Amazon remain a leader in the field?
Jeff Bezos just stated in his yearly shareholder letter that he loves customers to be “divinely discontent.” I couldn’t agree more! It is part of our human nature that we always seek to improve our lives — we always strive for the next innovation. And that is exactly what we do at Amazon. We love to innovate and to pioneer. We love to take things that are ordinary and then improve them to the point where people think “wow, that’s amazing.” Over the last years we have seen how many of our innovations have become the new normal for our customers, for example, looking at customer reviews as a basis for a purchase decision, or same-day delivery as a new delivery standard.
Q: Does the customer experience help drive competitive advantage for Amazon? How?
At the end of the day, it is our customers who decide which services or products are well received — and not market research and business intelligence. That is why we consequently focus on our customers and not on our competitors. We want to offer products and services that our customers love. When we innovate on their behalf, we love to focus on the things that will not change: Customers appreciate a large selection of products, fast delivery, and low prices — just like they did 20 years ago. We believe that these elements are most important to our customers, which in return makes them the most important things for us.
Q: How is technology impacting businesses’ ability to drive ever more innovative, seamless, personalized, useful experiences for customers?
Technology, especially machine learning, is improving the service for customers in many ways and is already part of many processes. For example, it adds convenience through speech recognition. Today, Alexa can understand you well even at a 5-to-7-meter distance. Customers love the convenience of choosing their favorite music only using their voice, controlling their smart home devices with a simple ask of “turn on the lights,” setting timers and asking for information when their hands are busy in the kitchen, listening to the news in the morning as they get ready for work, and so much more. Speech recognition is still in its infancy — there is a lot to innovate.
Q: Customer experience is predicated on an obsession with the customer and the ability to respond rapidly to their needs. How does Amazon empower employees to obsess over their customers? What examples do you have of customer-centric innovation driven by your employees?
All our innovations are driven by our employees. Customer obsession is part of our DNA, and we all have incorporated the desire to enhance the customer experience. We constantly try to improve our services and innovate on behalf of our customers. We empower our colleagues to innovate by allowing them to experiment, take action, and learn from their mistakes. Amazon is a perfect place to fail — as failure is not considered the end of a process but a natural part of our experiments.
Q: Customers don’t care about internal company organization. They don’t see separate marketing, sales, and service departments — they see a single company. And they expect a seamless experience. How can companies break down silos internally in such a way that they deliver a seamless experience that matches customer expectations externally?
We try to retain the spirit of a startup by working flexibly. For our internal processes this means we work on big challenges with very small teams that assemble expertise from different business units. We call them “Two Pizza Teams”: When doing meetings, two pizzas (American size) should feed the entire group — the bigger the team, the shorter the meeting. These small and punchy teams reduce barriers between different parts of our company and prevent us from thinking in silos. As a result, our employees take ownership over processes and not only their very own tasks. I believe our customers benefit from this approach.
Ulrik Nehammer is senior vice president at Salesforce. This is the second of a series of articles on the future of customer experience. Read the first article, Customer Personalization Faces Trust Crisis.