All Happy Amazonians Are Alike…

If Leo Tolstoy is right when he says all happy families are alike, then Amazon must be a very happy family.

Redfin has had three speakers from Amazon visit us, one as recently as last week; what’s striking about all three is how similar each sounded to one another, despite coming from different departments, and even different eras in Amazon’s growth. Over and over again, the speakers sounded one theme: relentlessly improving the customer experience.

This theme is so obvious that you’d expect everyone to trumpet it, but most don’t.

The kinds of people who are asked to give talks are generally very successful people, whose stories assume the shape of battles lost and (mostly) won. But for Amazonians, it seems like the battle never ends: Amazon’s Neil Roseman gave engineers a log-in so every Amazonian could see on each page the performance statistics for that page. When an Amazonian tells a story, it doesn’t conclude with a triumphant result in the style of almost every business anecdote. It just sort of trails off toward the next improvement. It’s a very humble, restless way to look at the world.

What’s more noticeable is every Amazonian’s emphasis on putting the customer first. You expect technical folks to focus on technical challenges but it’s startling how easily the engineers at Amazon connect a technical problem to a customer problem. Neil, and his former engineering colleague, Rick Dalzell, both talk about customers they’d never met like next-door neighbors.

I find it even more impressive that the business folks whom you expect to take a cynical attitude toward profits are the ones who are most idealistic about improving the customer experience. When we asked Scott Jacobson how Amazon decided when to recommend a partner’s product over its own, we expected to hear about a fancy profit-maximizing formula that was far more complicated than the one Amazon actually uses: what’s best for the customer?

I could have cried when Scott said that. If it’s so simple to be good, why is it so hard? I think Jeff Bezos’s greatest achievement at Amazon is that he has made customer-first thinking easy, not hard. And he has proven that it is the only way to generate sustainable profits. I hope that one day when all the Redfin old-timers are sent out to the speaking circuit, we all sound the same in that one respect.


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  • Alex Loddengaard

    The Zappos culture is totally the same, focussed heavily on customer service. At Zappos every new employee, regardless of level, is required to spend the first week in the call center. And if they quit that week they get a bonus!

    Well you gotta be doing something right. @leggett tweeted, “Man I love @redfin – sent a UI suggestion through their general contact form and got a reply from the CEO 4 minutes later.”!/leggett/

  • Dave Cunningham

    Great post. Love Amazon for so many reasons. Sounds like you guys are building a great company/culture at Redfin. Have been enjoying your thoughts/POV's on this blog lately.

  • Andy Sack

    So true — Jeff and Amazon are an impressive lot indeed. Worth noting — you've had 3 amazonians speak at Redfin this year. Sounds like you might be a fan?!

    • GlennKelman

      Just a little…

  • Chris Diez

    Customer First! We are molding the new CEO's. Customer Experience Officers!

  • anonymous

    Um…. all three people you mentioned are no longer with Amazon. Roseman was “fired” (forced out) and Dalzell retired, perhaps from boredom at publicly berating employees at all-hands.

    Amazon is definitely a customer-focused company, but it's also an extremely employee-hostile company as well.

  • Public Auto Auction

    I think Amazon learned that customer-first approach from Zappos, and it seems to be paying off handsomely.

  • Nanomug

    Around 1996 I ordered a book from Amazon.  It arrived the next day with standard shipping.  I was amazed. Every order after that shipped promptly even when they branched out beyond books.   My investment advisor told me back then that while Amazon wasn't making money they were focusing on customers and getting it right.  And 15ish years later they are still focusing on customers.