Will Jassy and two new leadership principles move Amazon from a big data behemoth to the World’s Best Employer?
The article includes an excerpt on Amazon from Do Good, Chapter 4 — Trust.
As I’ve been reading the news about Jeff Bezo’s trip to space, Andy Jassy’s ascension to Amazon’s CEO seat and the brand’s two new management principles — Strive to be the Earth’s Best Employer and Success and Scale Bring Broad Responsibility, I’ve been reflecting on Amazon’s past. In 2017 I wrote DO GOOD: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit, which profiled Amazon among other notable companies — from start-ups to Fortune 500 heavy weights — at different stages on the ME2WE continuum of Brand Citizenship. (You can read Amazon’s full profile below.) While some things have changed since my book was published, many have not. And the company’s unwavering pursuit of efficiency over employees may have grown as people have flocked to the retailer for goods during the pandemic.
I can’t help and wonder will Jassy emphasize the brand’s new principles in his management style so much that they shift a corporate culture known for its hard-driving, almost mechanistic data orientation… a culture that has been focused on outcomes seemingly at the expense of people. And if he doesn’t, will the company’s lack of caring and focus on the greater good impact how much customers buy from Amazon? After all, we’re all in this together and playing our part is essential when we demand change. What do you think?
The piece below is an excerpt on Amazon from Do Good, Chapter 4 — Trust. by Anne Bahr Thompson © 2018 Anne Bahr Thompson. Published by AMACOM, NY, NY. All rights reserved
Give to Give — Not Give to Get
Amazon is the largest e-tailer in the United States. A ME brand, it made e-commerce trustworthy in its early days as a bookseller by providing a straightforward shopping experience and reliable customer service through big data analysis. Amazon knows what types of books we like, movies we watch, and products we buy, and, I’d bet, it would likely be better able than Facebook, for example, to profile what type of consumer each of us is. Whereas most of us carefully curate what we post and like on Facebook to reflect the things we want friends and colleagues to know about us, we filter what we buy on Amazon based on preference, price, and delivery time rather than how we wish to be perceived. Yet with all its knowledge about our habits and an excellent reputation for trustworthy service, Amazon serves customers mostly on a functional — not an emotional — level. To embody both ME and WE sensibilities and to move forward and back along the five steps of Brand Citizenship, Amazon should apply its expertise in analytics to foster more personal relationships and establish itself as more of a benevolent friend, not just as a boundless utility.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, is widely known for being obsessed with customers and continually demonstrates how listening is a successful long-term loyalty strategy. In July of 1994, Bezos launched Amazon with the mission “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.” It was a clear value proposition that set the stage for Amazon’s growth. In 2000, when the Internet 1.0 bubble was bursting, Bezos was repositioning Amazon from a seller of books to a seller of everything from A to Z and, alongside this, rebranding the company with a new logo — one designed to include a smile. Happy employees. Happy customers. Happy investors. They all add up to the Amazon Smile.
Using Big Data to Interpret Customer Needs
Nine years later, shortly after Amazon purchased the shoe retailer Zappos, Bezos emphasized the importance of listening to customers in a video posted on YouTube. As Bezos sincerely and passionately tells us, obsession over customers “is the only reason [Amazon] exist[s] today in any form. We’ve always put customers first. When given the choice of obsessing over competitors or obsessing over customers, we always obsess over customers.” He went on, “We really like to start with customers and work backwards. . . . [I]t will cover a lot of errors.” He then continued, “It’s not a customer’s job to invent for themselves. You need to listen to customers. It’s critical. If you don’t listen to customers, you will go astray. But they won’t tell you everything and so you need to invent on their behalf.” And Amazon is famous for listening to its customers and inventing on their behalf in large part through its usage of big data.
Although Amazon’s rationale for purchasing Zappos was never made perfectly clear, Zappos is legendary for its customer service, supported by a happy-employee culture. In an article deconstructing the purchase, Mashable hypothesized that Jeff Bezos was attracted by Zappos’s customer centricity, unique culture, and people — its leaders and its employees. When comparing Zappos’s core values with Amazon’s leadership principles, it’s easy to agree with Mashable’s assessment. Zappos’s core values suggest a more human, friendly, and unguarded culture, whereas Amazon’s leadership principles represent a more hard-driving, almost mechanistic data orientation.
Prime. Prime Now. Prime Day. Prime Pantry. And thirteen-minute drone delivery. For all its convenience and listening to the customer, seven years after it acquired Zappos, Amazon still seems to be more of a public utility than a close brand friend like Zappos — even for its most loyal users. Participants in our CultureQ research chose Amazon as a leadership or favorite brand for more functional reasons than they did other leadership or — most especially — favorite brands, even including Walmart. For the majority who named Amazon, their reasons included reliability, serviceability, and scope. A smaller number also recognized it as inventive and pioneering. They said:
Amazon is a leader. It was the first to revolutionize online shopping and gets me things in two days, although a lot of people do that now.
Their model of business has revolutionized the economy, and is adaptable throughout the world.
They are the #1 online retailer. Their Kindle product is innovative.
On the rise for sales, shipping methods and excellent customer service.
Great service for an online company.
Challenges to Forging a Connection with Customers
Amazon’s reported lack of responsibility toward employees dampened the more emotional connection a few participants desired to have with the brand. As one explained, “I love the ease, especially with my Amazon Prime account. But I am concerned with its ethics of warehouse labor after reading an exposé on it.”
In 2013, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) exposed poor warehouse working conditions and an emphasis on efficiency over worker health and well-being. Articles like this have had a lasting impact on a growing number of socially conscious shoppers’ perceptions of Amazon, in the vein of similar negative coverage about Walmart, most notably because it was supported with additional evidence of a culture focused on outcomes at the expense of people. In August of 2015, The New York Times published a more controversial piece, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” which detailed a white-collar workplace culture focused on pushing people “past their limits” — something that reportedly inspired some workers and relentlessly broke others.
The article — and “An Amazonian’s response,” posted by a software developer named Nick Ciubotariu on LinkedIn — received so much attention that Jeff Bezos himself felt compelled to send a counterpoint to Amazon employees that he linked to The New York Times. In his message, Bezos firmly stated that the “shockingly callous management practices” and “soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” are not part of the Amazon he knows. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention the people I’ve met who work for or with Amazon love the company.
However, after reading all the press, it’s hard not to wonder if they’re the exception or the norm. As Margaret Sullivan, who was Public Editor for the paper when the Times article was published, added in an opinion piece that was printed a few days later: “Many of Amazon’s techniques and policies are common at other tech companies, and other companies in general. That kind of context was supplied later in an article on the front-page of the following Tuesday’s Times about the ‘relentless pace at elite companies’ in America.” So why are people so keen to believe the negative perspectives on Amazon’s culture more than the positive ones?
Barriers to Effective Listening: Secrecy and a Lack of Trust
…. Amazon’s recent interfaith Christmas ad may however be signaling that the company recognizes it needs to be known as more than a big data behemoth looking to sell goods in every market category. It may demonstrate a cognizance that Amazon will win more fans and loyal customers by blending its commercial ambitions with a meaningful social mission. To enrich peoples’ lives, a brand needs to do more than reduce delivery time. It needs to freely give more to its customers, the greater global community, and the greater good.