01 Oct 2021

How Customer Obsession Relates to Success

I’ve worked at Amazon Web Services (AWS) for almost 7 years now. Amazon is famous for its leadership principles. The intent of these principles is to guide decision making, and the most important of these is customer obsession. It’s the idea that treating your customers right is not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. We all buy from because it’s better than the competition. Shipping is cheaper and faster; they generally have a larger selection than the competition, and they make very, very few mistakes with shipping. Plus, when a mistake does happen, they’re usually good at fixing it. I buy from not due to loyalty as an Amazon employee, but because it generally provides me with a better experience.

If a customer sends a really large workload to an AWS service, AWS employees should be happy. If that causes us difficulty, it’s our problem to fix, not the customer’s. Doesn’t the product exist for customers to use? Should we be unhappy that a customer wants to use a lot of a certain service? Of course not.

Amazon, Costco and Walmart are all very successful companies in a very competitive market. It’s not a coincidence that they all have excellent return policies. It’s a large reason why they lead their respective markets. Companies with bad customer service either stay small, or they exist in markets with low competition. Competition pushes good companies up and bad companies down.

I previously worked at a company with essentially no competition. Before moving to the cloud their website was down for almost 48 hours due to a DDoS attack. Almost no paying customers cancelled. Why? Because there was nowhere for them to go. The lack of competition meant the company didn’t have to fight to keep customers. If a mistake doesn’t lose you customers, what is the incentive for the company to prevent future mistakes? Why has Apple never messed up a new iPhone release? Because it would be catastrophic for their bottom line. So they make every effort to ensure it doesn’t happen. Why does Google ruin every messaging product they’ve ever created? because they’re raking in so much money from their 24-year-old search product that it doesn’t matter. If search ever stopped being a cash cow for Google, you’d better believe they’d be more careful.

This brings me to the original purpose behind this post. I work in an Amazon-leased building and have to pay for parking. Since we are still in a pandemic and there isn’t much traffic, my building’s underground parking garage is almost empty. To attract more customers they put up a sign 2 weeks ago that said "Early bird parking. Arrive before 9am and only pay $16 for up to 11 hours." The next time I parked, I was surprised to see the parking fee receipt say $24. I pressed the help button on the machine and explained the problem to support: "Obviously whoever put up the sign did not make sure the billing system was updated. Can you please help me?" They couldn’t. They couldn’t fix the bill, and they did not even acknowledge that there really was a sign outside quoting $16 for parking. They agreed to let me through and mail me a bill (welcome to the nineties…). The next day the same thing happened. And the next, and the next. Seemingly no one was able or willing to take responsibility for the sign, and no one would commit to getting it fixed. Upon leaving work yesterday, and encountering the same problem for the 8th time, the person answered the call "Oh, it's you again. Are you still complaining about the same billing problem?" Having worked at Amazon for so long I was really caught off guard. Not only were they entirely to blame, potentially overbilling everyone who parked there, but they were frustrated with me!. This comes back to my original point of competition. They can only get away with such appalling customer service because they have no competition. Obviously it’s convenient for me to park in the building where I work. Unfortunately that means there’s zero incentive for them to do a good job. Pre and likely post-pandemic they’ll fill up regardless.