Customer Centric or Customers Centric?

At the Emerging Technology Conference I heard Amazon staff say several times that Amazon is (or is striving to be) the most customer centric company on Earth. Every time I hear this it irks me more and more because I know that my dealings with Amazon have generally been pretty poor.

I don’t doubt Amazon’s sincerity in this regard, but I think they’ve got their terminology slightly wrong. I think they’re actually striving to be the most “customers centric” company rather than “customer centric”. Of course this doesn’t sound as good – in fact it just sounds wrong – but I think it’s closer to the truth.

From talking to lots of other Amazon customers, and from some of my experience with them, for the most part Amazon “Just Works”. They’ve put a lot of effort in to making sure that the general customer experience is right. But if you happen to fall through the cracks somewhere, everything falls apart and they really can’t cope.

Their customer care staff are notorious for not reading your email carefully and latching on to the first phrase in it that they have a stock answer for. I’ve had cases where this happened 3 or 4 times about the same matter before finally finding someone prepared to actually take the time to understand the problem.

When their systems work (and that’s probably 99.9% of the time now), they’re great – but it’s when they don’t that the customer relationship is at the most risk – and Amazon are terrible at handling this.

When we built BlackStar we decided to take a different approach. Because we didn’t really have a lot of money or time to make our systems work quite as well, we aimed for making 90% of orders flow smoothly – and made sure that our Customer Care staff were able to deal with all the cases that fell through the cracks. Most of the effort went into dealing with individual customers one by one rather than the abstract concept of all customers.

A few interesting things happened from this:

Firstly, we got to see which areas we were spending the most time dealing with, and so had a clear indication of where to spend our development resources.

Secondly, we found that customers actually seemed to like this approach. I’ve heard it said that a customer whose complaint is handled well ends up being more loyal than a customer with no complaints – and this definitely seemed to be the case. Our customers seemed impressed with the level of individual attention they received, and that paid off for us.

Thirdly, we found that this was even more true for our “power users”. The customers who tended to buy the most from us, tended to have the most problems, but by dealing well with them, we actually got to know them. It turned out that most of them had previously shopped with competitors, and when they’d managed to fall through the cracks there they’d received terrible service and promptly started shopping elsewhere. These customers were even more impressed with how we handled such cases as they were able to compare it with what they’d experienced elsewhere, and many of them remained customers for a very long time.

It’s seems that there’s two approaches you can take to dealing with problem cases. You can either put your efforts into ensuring they never happen (as Amazon seem to do), or accept that they will happen and put your efforts into being able to handle them well when they do (as we did at BlackStar). In reality you need to work at both, but I maintain that the payoffs are much greater from the second approach.

Whether you can ever attain that if you don’t treat Customer Care as a core competency, and outsource it, as Amazon do, is an interesting question …

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