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Going the extra mile in customer care pays – big

When Amazon.com launched in 1995, it was the world’s first substantial e-retailer. It was a shot in the dark. Its early demise was predicted many times. Now, it is an absolute behemoth, selling everything from apparel to consumer electronics to cloud computing services. And last year, the world’s largest physical retailer, Walmart, was quietly overtaken in market capitalisation by Amazon. Think about it: Walmart, a company that employs more people than those in formal employment in the whole of Kenya, just got overtaken by an internet upstart.

How did Amazon get here? The primary driver, of course, is sheer convenience. It is so very easy to click on a few purchases and get them delivered right to your home. You don’t have to dress up, go across town in heavy traffic, and battle the madding crowds in the malls on a Saturday afternoon. What’s not to like?

But wait a minute. If online shopping was that easy to pull off, everyone would have done it. Most fail miserably at it. You need to set up a fantastic user interface, backed up by a highly efficient back-office operation to connect suppliers with buyers. It’s not for the faint-hearted, as many have found.

There’s also another problem. When you ask a customer to buy something on trust, without touching the product, you face a huge block. Many thoughts will come to mind: what if this thing isn’t that good when I actually see it? What if I change my mind? What if it doesn’t even get here, but they still charge me? Those are perfectly rational fears.

Much of Amazon’s success has come from how effectively it managed the process of building trust in a virtual store. Here’s a live example. Amazon was a godsend to booklovers out here in Africa, because we suddenly had access to all the books in the world at the click of a button. But there was still a problem: the books would have to come through our archaic and unreliable postal systems. Would they make it?

My experience over the past couple of decades suggests that by and large the packages get through. But once in a while there is a glitch. I recently wrote to Amazon to say that after waiting for two months, I had to wonder whether my last order was actually coming. It was shown as delivered to our post office by the tracking system; but what happened next is known only to the postal workers. I haven’t received the books.

Within two hours of writing that email, I had a response: Amazon had immediately refunded the full amount on my credit card; and offered me free priority delivery should I choose to order the items again. Think about that: they sent the books out, so they’ve lost the money. Nonetheless, they are willing to give me a full refund. And, because they don’t want to lose me as a customer, they’re willing to get that order speed-couriered to me at their cost. Even though none of this was their fault…

That is advanced thinking, ladies and gentlemen. Amazon pretty much always reacts like that when I have a complaint. What they have achieved there is a standard of customer care that physical retailers would not match. You know the haranguing you have to go through in the average shop if you try to return goods or claim refunds. Amazon builds your trust by making you believe you won’t ever lose out by dealing with them.

Where does that come from? It’s always the leadership, stupid. Founder Jeff Bezos has drummed that ethos into his global workforce from the outset. And now, with more than USD100 billion in revenue last year, the philosophy speaks for itself. I would suggest that all those who mistrust their customers and fight them for every dollar should pay attention. There’s a bigger game to play.

Amazon’s success leaves me in a quandary. Its growth has, of course, often come at the cost of my beloved bookshops. Amazon may be wonderfully convenient, but nothing beats the atmosphere of a shop with books piled to the ceilings. I always do my bit to protect local bookstores by channeling much of my annual spend in their direction. And yet I can only tip my hat at Amazon’s achievement. Bookshops that have surly and ignorant staffers deserve to bite the dust. Those who can beat the internet giant by offering an even better customer experience will survive and thrive.

(Sunday Nation, 5 June 2016)

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