Jeff Bezos: the new Lance Armstrong?

I’m an Amazon customer. And, have been for about sixteen years – back when they were an online book seller. But, I’m more than that, I’m an Amazon Prime customer and an Amazon credit card holder. And, I have a sinking feeling that I’ve been had. This weekend an article in Salon referenced some pretty Orwellian, or maybe Dickensian, sounding practices that allegedly describe the internal culture at Amazon.

For six-and-a-half years while I was at Forrester, I always asked interviewees who they thought of as great at customer intelligence and leveraging customer data to serve customers better. Amazon was one of the companies that was most often mentioned. Personally, I’ve not been impressed with their customer intelligence for a while. It feels like their recommendation engine — despite being one of the companies that created the category — hasn’t kept pace with the likes of a Pandora or a Netflix. Yet, where I always applauded them, and where I referenced them as a great example of customer-centricity relates to their culture. And, particularly, the notion that an empty chair is left around meeting room tables supposed to represent the customer, who is always present; and how decisions were made, supposedly on how they impacted or benefitted the customer.

Yet, if the Salon article – and the referenced public issues in Europe — are true, it feels like it’s all been a ruse.

As part of a report that I’m working on, just yesterday I interviewed two senior executives who serve in customer relationship-oriented roles at major US corporations (due to promised anonymity, I can’t disclose who, but trust me you’d recognize (and probably love) the brands). What was interesting to me during those interviews – and this was before I’d read the Salon article – was their genuine attempts to do what’s right by the customer. One referenced a willingness by the senior-most executive in his multi-billion dollar division to explicitly take a short-term revenue hit in order to do right by the customer, because they know it’ll ultimately lead to a longer-term, more-loyal customer. The other interviewee spoke about employee engagement as a key part of her role in getting customer engagement right. It seems so far removed from what I just read about Amazon.

Being a huge cycling fan, I have a feeling right now that reminds me of when I first read about Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis’ doping scandals. A big part of you knew it had to be true, but you didn’t really want to believe it (there wasn’t that much of me that didn’t believe Lance was guilty). I’ll hope, for now, that this is a vendetta story designed to hurt Amazon, possibly planted by a competitor. But, there’s a part of me that’s checking when my credit card and Prime membership renew so that I can be ready to cancel if I learn that the story is true. It’s one thing to not focus on building customer relationships. But, if you position yourself as one of the best, try living up to it.



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