Nash DavidJan 12, 2017 12:02:08 IST
At the outset, Amazon would need to consider customers as humans. There are no two ways about it. Customers aren't statistical entities that express growth in business. Yesterday, I read reports of a doormat available on Amazon Canada. The doormat had the pattern of the Indian national flag on it. Turns out, it caused furore on social media, with several users protesting against it online. Yesterday, the Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj put out a series of tweets warning Amazon to take the product down, and issue an apology. It didn’t end there. Not failing to do so would’ve have made it very difficult to continue operating in India.
Soon enough, the product was taken down. Before you brush it aside as a dumb decision by Amazon to list these kind of products on the website, consider this. The American flag and the Union Jack are available as part of several products that would otherwise be considered offensive.
This comes across as a human problem. Someone somewhere just failed to understand customers. And context is critical. A Republican-Democrat debate in the US that also brings in the faith of the 'American Bible Belt' could be laughed off. But, it's far different from poking fun at any other faith. A comment, on say Muslims or Hindus, could spiral into an international controversy. Such are the times we live in. The world’s a village. One mans's joke is another man's ammunition.
Amazon is customer focussed
I purchased an Amazon Kindle in 2010. It was the Kindle Keyboard 3G. It wasn’t sold in India back then. So I asked a friend to get it from the US. I loved the packaging – subtle, plain cardboard – that opened like a pizza box. In it was my Kindle staring at me with its monochrome e-ink display and a letter from Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. It spoke about the design brief for the Kindle, which read:
‘Our top design objective was for Kindle to disappear in your hands – to get out of the way – so you can enjoy your reading. We hope you'll quickly forget you're reading on an advanced wireless device and instead be transported into that mental realm readers love, where the outside world dissolves, leaving only the author's stories, words, and ideas. Thank you and happy reading!’
Business is beyond a sale, it’s an experience
Mental realm. Dissolving the outside world. So that readers are left only with the author’s stories, words and ideas. That, for me, projected the Kindle as an experience. Rather than a device, gadget or product I bought from an online retailer. It was the best example of humanising a business. Where, a transaction wasn’t just an exchange of money. It wasn’t just a transaction.
In my mind, it was a promise of superior customer satisfaction. And I expected Amazon to keep its part of the promise. And it did. Many months later it replaced my faulty device for free, no questions asked. And I didn’t have to part with my original Kindle, which still let me read books. That left me an impressed customer. And it earned my loyalty.
It’s worth pondering over Amazon’s mission statement:
‘Our vision is to be Earth's most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.’
Earth’s most customer centric company does sound several notches above the rest. There are volumes in customer testimonies online that attest to the great lengths Amazon would go to ensure its customers are left – nothing less than – impressed.
Data and analytics help create magic
It was Amazon that taught me the power of digital marketing. The impressive power in the hands of a digital marketer that data analytics offers. I still remember how digital was the new buzzword. Humans were too slow.
Digital helped you scale. Instead of managing a mom-and-pop store, or something comparable to that, you could now focus on scaling up. Reaching out to markets far beyond. Connect your digitally-enabled business with efficient supply and logistics and you could reach every corner of the planet. No one’s talking pin codes. We’re talking corners of the planet. Or any point on earth for that matter.
We’ve come a long way from yearly plans to real-time business intelligence and optimisation. A star product on the home page of an ecommerce business can be changed based on the response of customers.
We’re in the age of algorithms
I’m not sure about you, but my life certainly seems to be controlled by algorithms. When I step out of my home every home, it begins with a glance of Google Maps to get an idea of the traffic conditions. A green coded map ensures I’m not stressed to the extent that I fret calls from office. If it’s red, then I turn my phone to the Silent mode. Because the stress of reaching office sooner, and the anxiety caused by a dreaded senior only add to my woes of life. What I’ve realised is that even if the road is absolutely free on my journey, I’m anticipating the traffic jam I’m about to face in exactly 900 metres that’s going to make me 15 minutes slower.
Similarly, when I’m heading home in the evening, I pull out my smartphone and book a cab from either Uber or Ola. Between searching for coupons for either. Gone are the days when I’d wait patiently on the road for a taxi driver to have mercy on my haggard of a face at the end of an arduous day of urban slogging. To be specific, I book my taxi from my workstation, while mentally calculating the time it takes to walk down to the office gate. Such is life. Algorithms tell me the expected time to everything, and I seem to align my life to smoother journey.
We need to step back from algorithms at times
There are instances, touching moments when humans want to connect with other humans, rather than a machine. Awry times. When you’re stranded. Either due to disasters, attacks, acts of violence or a flood. Those are the moments, when you want to pick up a phone and yell at the top of your office. Uber and Ola are classic examples. They’ve both been in the news and have gained social notoriety for acts committed by their drivers. Neither can claim to be better than the other on the aspect of women safety.
I’m sure though, that they’d claim otherwise. I hope they prove to be true. But for now, there’s ambiguity on addressing complaints. If a woman I know is stranded in one of these taxi services, I need to be able to redress it. I need acknowledgments of the messages I sent. I need trails for my record for an eventual legal conversation. Twitter can’t be the means for resolution all the time. That’s what I mean by the need to humanising business, during times when things go south.
Talking of taxis, I live in Mumbai. And every monsoon, water logging is a frequent sight. Given the inconvenience, and the fact that local trains come to a halt, the strain on the road network is way beyond funny. But try booking a cab on either app, and you’re likely to find a cab after a lot of persistent efforts. When you do find one, it’ll likely be at triple or quadruple pricing. Whatever happened to customer focus you’d think? We’re all in a philosophical rat race. Whoever is the swiftest and fastest wins. After significant outrage on social and digital (read negative sentiment from analytics as an external input), cab aggregator services decided to take down surge pricing for day with heavy downpour this past monsoon in Mumbai.
Be human, and learn the cultural context
Modern businesses assume that data and scalability through technology is a given. But what are obvious misses is not getting the cultural and social context. Multinational food giants frequently face the problem as they expand globally into newer markets. Its popular beef burgers aren't available in India. Similarly, pork burgers are available in European markets, but not in the Middle East or even India for that matter.
Being sensitive to cultural realities doesn't hold true just to prevent people from getting offended. It also helps ensuring overall satisfaction. In a post on the Aditya Birla Group website, Chairman and MD Kumar Mangalam Birla highlights how the once staunch vegetarian culture was changed, as the group went global. Adapting to changing times is the key to a successful business. The journey is aptly titled, Butter Chicken at Birla.
Amazon needs optimisation
What Amazon needs to do is put in place a system that tracks cultural sensitivities. Touching aspects of global culture that prevents such mishaps. I'd expect it to have such a framework. But it certainly doesn't seem to be working. It's absolutely necessary for a global company such as Amazon. Given its vision and mission statement including words such as 'customer obsessed' and 'on planet earth', it has set standards that are way above others. It has left itself with no excuse. For now, an apology should do it for them, but for the long term, it needs optimisation in the way it delivers smiles to million of global customers.
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