E29: Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon, is worth $125 Billion.
And, the one thing he is famously known for is his "customer obsession." In fact, Amazon strives to be 'Earth's most customer-centric company.' And yet, my own experience revealed a different side of Amazon.
Today, I want to take a slight detour and talk about an incident that happened to me, which had me re-evaluating my understanding of good customer service. Particularly, since it has to do with my interactions with Amazon, which prides itself as the Earth's most customer-centric company.
My run-in with Amazon taught me five valuable business lessons. I will share with you both the journey that led me to this understanding and the lessons we can all learn from. By the end of this episode, you'll have a firm grasp of a few key principles to help you treat your customers right.
Amazon's Customer Obsession (2:19)
Communicate Issues Properly with Customers (6:15)
Design a User Journey That Makes Sense (8:03)
Who Owns the Customer Journey? (11:51)
Don't Lie To Your Customers (15:58)
Treat Your Loyal Customers Like Royalty, Not Crap (21:44)
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Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon, is worth $125 Billion.
And, the one thing he is famously known for is his "customer obsession." In fact, Amazon strives to be 'Earth's most customer-centric company.' And yet, my own experience revealed a different side of Amazon.
Hi, my name is Yong-Soo Chung and I am a first-generation Korean-American entrepreneur living the American dream. I started Urban EDC to cater to enthusiasts of everyday carry gear. I also own two other successful ventures: GrowthJet, a climate-neutral certified third-party logistics company for emerging e-commerce brands, and SpottedByHumphrey, an online boutique curating dog goods for good dogs. Through these three ventures, my business has generated over $20 million dollars in 8 years and I'm here to tell you how YOU can do the same!
Today, on the episode, I want to take a slight detour and talk about an incident that happened to me, which had me re-evaluating my understanding of good customer service. Particularly, since it has to do with my interactions with Amazon, which prides itself as the Earth's most customer-centric company.
My run-in with Amazon taught me five valuable lessons that I have decided will form the core of all my interactions with customers. Over the course of the next twenty-odd minutes, I will share with you both the journey that led me to this understanding and the lessons we can all learn from. By the end of this episode, I hope to share with you a few key principles to help you treat your customers right - specifically:
- a key communication principle
- a key design principle
- a key delegation principle
- a key interaction principle
- a key service principle
So, stick around and get ready to take notes because I’m gonna tell you how Amazon - one of the most-renowned companies when it comes to customer service - got it horribly, HORRIBLY wrong with me. And what they SHOULD have done instead.
Let’s get down to business!
On Amazon’s about page, you will find these words written at the very beginning:
"Amazon is guided by four principles: customer obsession rather than competitor focus, passion for invention, commitment to operational excellence, and long-term thinking. Amazon strives to be Earth's most customer-centric company, Earth's best employer, and Earth's safest place to work."
Sadly, Amazon is not featured even in the top 100 in both the 2023 list of Fortune's Best Companies to Work for. Or Glassdoor's list of Best Places to Work. In case you are wondering, Cisco made the top of Fortune's list and Gainsight made the top of Glassdoor's list.
When it came to customer-SERVICE, Amazon seemed lacking here also. Specifically, I found a Forbes article listing 100 customer-centric companies in 2022. The list evaluated several companies in various verticals such as Retail, Food, Finance, Healthcare, B2B, Technology - to name a few. Amazon did not get mentioned in any of the verticals - not even B2B or Technology - although Apple, Google, and even AT&T did make it to the list.
This brings up the obvious question - have we been conned into believing that Amazon is the "most customer-centric company on Earth''? Was it all just a huge marketing ploy with nothing of substance to support the claim? But what about all those feel-good stories of how Amazon replaced that one customer's laptop that had been accidentally delivered to Kalamazoo - all at their own cost? Was that just PR? Or worse, (gasp) fake?
I'm not going to point fingers or claim anything here because (a) I don't have any evidence proving or disproving its authenticity and (b) even if I did, my own experience was wildly different. Heck, everyone's experience is gonna be wildly different.
Which is why, my aim with this episode is not to raise questions about whether Amazon's claims of being customer-obsessed are indeed true. Instead, I want to use this incident, my personal experience with Amazon, as a learning opportunity and extract five key lessons from my interaction with Amazon's world-renowned customer service.
So, what was this incident?
Well, it began simply with an error message.
On the 11th of March 2023, I tried logging in to my Amazon account and I was greeted with an error message: "There was a problem - your password is incorrect." Okay, so maybe I had fat-fingered one of the keys on my keyboard...
I tried again. Same result. Hmmm. This was concerning. I know my password. I know I typed it right the second time. My mind immediately jumped to the next obvious conclusion. I had been hacked!
I got off my laptop and called Amazon. Thankfully, I managed to get through to a human representative, who informed me that my account was NOT hacked. Phew! Okay, so that's a relief. But, my account was, in fact, put on hold. Uh, what?
Yeah, my account had been put on hold for suspicious activity. Then, why would it prevent me from logging in? Why invalidate my password if my account is on-hold? They could have let me log in to my account and displayed a banner on top of the page saying my account was being investigated for suspicious activity and restricted my purchases or something. What's the point of preventing me from accessing my account in its entirety?
The entire thing was baffling, to be honest. It didn't make any sense. It still doesn't make any sense. The more I think about it, the more absurd it seems.
That's when I made a promise to myself. If, for some reason, one of MY customers ends up in a similar situation, I would be upfront and transparent about the exact reason as to what was happening to their account.
FIRST LESSON LEARNED: Communicate the issue properly with your customers.
This was a fine mess. I couldn't even log in to my account to see exactly what activity Amazon had deemed suspicious. To add insult to injury, I received an email saying that all my pending orders and subscriptions had been canceled. But, I would find out something even more depressingly stupid about this later.
First, I needed to find a way to get back into my account and figure out which of my behaviors had been flagged by Amazon as 'suspicious'. Turns out, Amazon had a quote-unquote 'simple' solution for me, in the email they had sent.
What was Amazon's simple solution?
"Sign in and follow on-screen instructions."
You see the problem, right? I had already tried that! And Amazon had told me my password was 'incorrect'. I couldn't sign in to my account, which is why I had called Amazon customer service in the first place, which is when I had learned about the suspicious activity, et cetera, et cetera.
Imagine, one day, the locks to your house were changed without your knowledge. The key you always carry with you suddenly becomes useless, since it won't open the new locks. So, you call the building superintendent to figure out what happened. The building superintendent tells you that the key to get back into your house is... inside your house.
The locked house. You see the problem, right?
There is no way I can get into my house without the right keys - at least not a legal one. And the building superintendent thinks that his suggestion is perfectly all right? That does not make ANY sense to me whatsoever! How do you expect a user who has been locked out of their account to go into their account and retrieve instructions on how to reclaim the account they are locked out of?? Not only does that user journey NOT make any sense, but it is also IMPOSSIBLE - no, it is NONSENSE.
SECOND LESSON LEARNED: Design a user journey that makes sense.
If your automated systems are going to lock a user out of their account, you need to make sure that there is another system that will aid them in recovering their locked account. This system can be automated or human-assisted but it needs to be clearly customer-centric. Especially if you constantly claim to have a high degree of customer-obsession in all your marketing material.
All Amazon needed to do was provide me with a way to access my account and, so far, they had failed spectacularly.
But if you thought this was due to the automated systems being aggressive with their fraud-prevention algorithms, well, you are in for a shock. Because all this incompetence on display so far? That is merely the beginning. What came next will surprise you. Maybe even shock you.
I hate the buzzfeed-iness of that cliche but it is true. And the fact that Amazon is the one showing such incompetence bothers me a lot - particularly because I consider Jeff Bezos as one of my role models. In fact, I often refer to him and his mental models in the First Class Founders membership.
Only a few people realize this and fewer know this but all successful billionaires - from Warren Buffett to Charlie Munger to, yes, Jeff Bezos - master the art of decision-making throughout their lives. They collect great frameworks and mental models and call on them when needed. This is what I often refer to as their problem-solving toolkit.
I started First Class Founders because I wanted to give people the tools to build something that all BILLIONAIRES have - a problem-solving toolkit. By becoming a member of First Class Founders, you'll also get access to amazing perks such as bonus content, early access to podcast episodes, an interruption-free and clean listening experience delivered to you via private, members-only podcast feed, the ability to Ask Me Anything, and much more!
To get the most out of First Class Founders, head on over to firstclassfounders.com/join. I’ll put the link in the show notes. I'll see you there!
Okay, now let's get back to Yong-Soo's Bizarre Adventure with Amazon. Before that little detour, I told you that Amazon had sent me an email asking me to log into my account to figure out why it was put 'on hold'. Except, my usual password was - for some reason - not working.
So, I decided to SEEK human intervention. I called Amazon Support. A few minutes later, an agent responded. Once I explained my situation, the agent asked me, "Did you get an email with instructions on how to unlock your account?"
Yes, I did but I can't log in.
"OK, we can file a report to our Account Specialist team."
Can you just give me their phone number so I can call them directly?
Uh, what? This problem has occurred enough times to even have a dedicated account SPECIALIST TEAM to handle these types of issues. The fact that the Support Agent spoke about filing a report to this team means that it is - for the lack of a better word - an escalation of my case.
So why am I unable to contact the Account Specialist team directly?
Wouldn’t that be more efficient?
But I got no answer to my question. Puzzled, and not wanting to piss off the only humans who seemed to have any idea of what might be happening, I backed off, at that moment.
But I didn't give up entirely. Over the next several days, I called Amazon Support EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. At this point, I was determined. I couldn't give up just like that!
But nobody - and I mean NOBODY - seemed to know what to do. They wouldn't let me talk directly to the Account Specialists team to resolve this issue because "we can only submit reports to them."
Who designed this brilliant user journey?
Let me outline this journey step-by-step in simple terms here.
Step 1: Suspicious activity is detected in a user's account
Step 2: The account is flagged and all activity associated with the account is put on hold. That means existing orders are canceled and new orders are disallowed.
Step 3: The user is notified of the hold on the account.
Step 4: The user needs to prove or disprove the suspicion in order to un-flag the account and resume normal services.
Now, if you wanted to be super-cautious, you might raise the burden of proof by requiring that the user pass some stringent checks about the suspicious activity. But, for that to happen, there needs to exist a CLEAR channel of communication between the team responsible for these checks and the user themselves.
From my interactions with Amazon Support it was clear that this Account Specialist team was the team that could get me access back into my account.
And, for some weird, inexplicable reason, I could NOT open a direct channel of communication with them.
Some day, I want to meet the mastermind who designed this user/customer journey and shake their hand. I will carry with me a trophy bearing the title, "Worst Customer Experience Designer. EVER." and hand it to them and I am NOT kidding.
But, I will also THANK them because THEIR illogically designed user journey taught ME a very important lesson:
THIRD LESSON LEARNED: Whoever owns the customer journey should have the authority to help the customer.
The Amazon Support agents who spoke to me on the phone were my only point of contact with the system. But there was no way to connect directly with the people who could actually help me with my problem - the Account Specialist team. I HAD to go through the Support team and, even then, they could only report - whatever that meant - to the Account Specialist team.
Oh, and by the way, that whole thing about my account being put on hold?
Guess what? It wasn't.
Because, on March 19th, I got a shipment notification. A shipment that was a part of my regular subscriptions. So, were my subscriptions on hold? Or weren't they? Which was it, Amazon? Because the email had explicitly said that all my pending orders and subscriptions had been canceled.
And if you thought that was the height of ridiculousness, it gets better! A few days later, I got an email from Amazon that said, "We ask you not to open new accounts because any new orders that you place may be canceled."
Yeah, you heard that right. Amazon told me to NOT open a new account because they would cancel any new orders from that new account.
Incompetence doesn't even begin to describe this mess. I was not allowed to access my existing account. I was not allowed to modify or cancel my existing subscriptions. I was not allowed to close the existing account and open a NEW account instead. Of course, Amazon insisted that I CONTINUE paying for them.
As of recording this episode, it has been 5 weeks since I received the notice of my account being put on hold. I’m still locked out of my account. I’m still paying for my Amazon Prime Membership. I’m still receiving random shipments from my subscriptions for which I have no clue what they are since I can’t log in to review any of my subscriptions. And get this - Amazon promised that they would reach out to me in 24-48 hours. Well, guess what? It’s been weeks now.
Oh, I know, (sarcastic) The clocks in the Amazon offices must run way slower than all the clocks on Earth!
Sarcasm aside, Amazon lied to me repeatedly and at every step along this journey:
- They told me my account was put on hold but I still received notification of a shipment.
- They told me they would reach out to me in 24-48 hours and I have yet to hear from them after 5 WEEKS.
- They told me NOT to open a new account but blatantly continued to charge my old account.
Doesn't integrity and honesty also count as an important factor in customer-obsession, Amazon? Because THAT is another lesson I learned while navigating this mess:
FOURTH LESSON LEARNED: Don't lie to your customers.
Listen, I run an ecommerce business myself. While it is nowhere near the size and scale of Amazon, I have had my fair share of customer complaints too. Some of these complaints were frivolous, some of them were genuine. But, I can say with a 100% confidence that I have never made a false statement to any of MY customers. Ever. That is just not done.
And I understand. Amazon has a gazillion employees working in a bazillion teams to serve a gazillion-bazillion customers. There are bound to be occasional miscommunications and missed-connections. They deserve some leeway.
Yeah, I know. I gave them leeway. I went through all the official channels. I called them on their official support line. I emailed them multiple times. Heck, at one point the agent asked me to reply back to 'email@example.com' with the documents needed to verify my identity. Yeah. NO-REPLY. So, I did. I sent them copies of my passport and credit card statement.
Can you guess what happened? Yup. No response.
I mean, the email was a 'no-reply' email address, so what did I even expect? Oh, and if you think THAT is funny, wait till you hear what happened in the interaction with an Amazon Support Agent on Twitter.
But this is a podcast and I can’t show you visuals through an audio-only podcast experience. But I do include visuals in my newsletter, which I invite you to check out…
The First Class Founders newsletter is a companion to this podcast. Each week, I add visuals and more context around each episode that's released. For example, for this week, since we’re talking about customer loyalty, I’m going to share with you how my company at Urban EDC looks at customer lifetime value and how we drive customer loyalty through our robust loyalty program, which by the way, is VERY popular among our customer base. Additionally, I reveal all my podcast and newsletter metrics like downloads and subscriber numbers inside the newsletter.
So if you are curious and want to see some behind-the-scenes content of this podcast, you'll love my newsletter. Go ahead and sign up at FirstClassFounders.com/Newsletter. I'll see you there!
What was I saying before I took that little detour? Ah, yes. My interactions with Ruby, an Amazon Support Agent on Twitter.
Now, I want to preface this part by saying that I don't like using social media as a tool to get customer service. I think it is incredibly tacky and somewhat akin to airing dirty laundry in public. But I had exhausted all the other options. I had called and emailed and neither of those two methods had yielded any results.
Frustrated, I sent out a tweet 4 WEEKS after that first email about my account being put on-hold. And, like a knight in shining armor, Ruby from the Amazon Help twitter account - the one with the golden checkmark - stepped up to address my query with the reassuring words, "Have you received an email from the Account Specialists?" She even asked me to check my spam/junk mail to be sure!
Yes, Ruby, I checked my email inbox inside out and upside down. After the email that said they would get in touch within 24-48 hours, I have heard nothing from them. Nada.
Oh, what's this? "Please go back to the email [...] and follow the directions. Only through the Account Specialists can this issue be resolved." Signed, Ruby.
It's okay.... IT'S OKAY... She probably doesn't know. The teams are probably compartmentalized to ensure they take it up on a case-by-case basis. Or it is probably part of her script. I just have to get through this...
Hi Ruby, the email says to log-in and follow the on-screen instructions. But I am locked out of my account. I cannot log in. What can I do now?
Ruby? RUBY? Are you there, Ruby?
Welp. Looks like she's gone.
It's been 21 days since I last heard from Ruby. Or any other Amazon Support agent, for that matter.
I know what you are probably thinking. Maybe you aren't a high-value customer, Yong-Soo. Maybe Amazon would bend over backwards, if you bought more stuff from them. Okay, let's take a look at my Amazon customer profile:
I am a Prime member. Even if that is a miniscule amount in the grand scheme of things, it does contribute to Amazon's MRR, or monthly recurring revenue.
I have a low return rate. As someone who runs TWO e-commerce companies, I LOVE customers who don't return products frequently. I am pretty sure Amazon tracks return rates of customers.
I have been an Amazon customer for 20 out of the 26 years that Amazon has existed up to this point. So, I have HISTORY with Amazon.
I spent $36,708 in 2022 alone on the site. Over my lifetime, my LTV, or Lifetime Value as an Amazon customer is easily $100,000+.
Sure, I might not be in the list of top ten or even hundred or thousand spenders on Amazon but I have spent more than enough on the site to indicate my loyalty to them. And, where I am from, loyal customers DON'T get the silent treatment. Heck, my local boba tea cafe rewards me with a free drink if I visit them 10 times a month!
FIFTH LESSON LEARNED: Treat your loyal customers like royalty, not crap.
Do I want to be treated like a king? Who doesn't? Do I expect to be treated like a king? Of course not! But does that mean they can treat me like crap? DEFINITELY. NOT.
To me, customer-obsession has a simple definition. It means that you are obsessed with serving your customer. And being obsessed means taking care of every little thing that might be an issue. Those in the service industry might have heard the phrase, "Customer is always right" or "Customer is king".
Of course, as a fellow business owner, I understand that this sometimes results in malicious customers taking undue advantage of businesses. But I am not talking about those types of customers here. I’m a loyal long-term Amazon customer. I am appalled that I fell through the cracks due to a weird bug in Amazon's support process. Actually, no. I am appalled because it seemed like they genuinely did not CARE about me as a customer.
Where is your customer obsession now, Amazon?
Okay, you know what, I'm gonna stop ranting. Honestly, I just needed to get all that out of my system. Not having access to my Amazon account has made me cranky and I hope you can understand why. Let me just take a deep breath and focus on the stuff that truly matters.
Okay, I'm here. So, I fully understand that this may be an isolated incident. That I was just unlucky enough to fall through the cracks and get lost in the abyss of forgotten customer incidents. But that brings up the question, are there others like me? What did they do? Did they manage to get their accounts reinstated? Or did they simply ignore Amazon's instructions and create new accounts?
I also understand that the frequency of these problems is a proportion of scale. That is, the larger the company, the more frequent these problems are. And they are not easy problems to solve. And sometimes, the support journey is buggy and not well-designed. And, things that slip through the cracks can be difficult to retrieve...
But, one thing this incident did pretty well is that it got me thinking about my own business. My two e-commerce sites - UrbanEDC.com and SpottedByHumphrey.com. It taught me plenty of lessons on how NOT to treat my customers. You know what, let me quickly recap them here:
FIRST LESSON LEARNED: Communicate the issue properly with your customers. Honesty, integrity, and transparency are not just fancy buzzwords - they need to be implemented as qualities within the organizational structure.
SECOND LESSON LEARNED: Design a user journey that makes sense. Make sure that the user gets to where THEY want to go.
THIRD LESSON LEARNED: Whoever owns the customer journey should have the authority to help the customer. If, in the journey, your user needs hand-holding, then the person assigned to that part of the journey should also have the ability and the tools to carry out the hand-holding.
FOURTH LESSON LEARNED: Don't lie to your customers. Like I said earlier, honesty, integrity, and transparency are not just fancy buzzwords.
FIFTH LESSON LEARNED: Treat your loyal customers like royalty, not crap. I agree that not all customers are king but all loyalty should definitely be recognized and, if possible, rewarded.
Another thing this incident did is that it gave me a renewed appreciation for my loyal listeners of this podcast. It made me feel grateful for your continued support. It made me realize how lucky I am to have people who trust me enough to support my journey in building First Class Founders from the ground up.
In fact, I'll be sending out something special to all my newsletter subscribers next week to express my gratitude.
As for Amazon, well, I have now been locked out of my account for a total of 35 days, as of today - today being the date of recording this episode. I’m not exactly sure if and when this issue will be resolved.
But I know this for sure: my loyalty is NOT unconditional. I cannot be loyal to someone who isn't even willing to acknowledge my existence.
The only question that remains is: How much longer will this last? What do YOU think?
Alright, that wraps up today's show!
In the next episode of First Class Founders, we’re talking to Jackson Greathouse Fall, the man behind the HustleGPT project on Twitter. He used AI and ChatGPT, more specifically, as his Co-Founder of a project called Green Gadget Guru. This story is wild. He was even interviewed on CNN for this new company run by… AI. You don’t want to miss out on this one!
And, one last thing before I go... If you're a new listener and you enjoyed this episode, you can follow the show by going to FirstClassFounders.com and clicking on the link that matches your preferred podcast player - like Apple Podcasts or Spotify. If you are a repeat listener, I'd really appreciate a five-star review. I know every single podcast show asks you to leave a rating and a review but this is a relatively new show and your ratings and reviews really help new listeners find the show! Every single review matters and I really appreciate them! Please head over to FirstClassFounders.com/review and leave us a five-star review. Thank you so much!
If you wanna connect with me, you can hit me up on Twitter @YongSooChung. I’m pretty active there and would love to connect with you. You can find links to all my social accounts in the show notes.
I'll see you on the next episode of First Class Founders.