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Business News/ News / Business Of Life/  Extract | The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos And the Age of Amazon

Extract | The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos And the Age of Amazon

A new book talks about how founder Jeff Bezos turned Amazon into an online behemoth where you can buy just about anything

CEO Jeff Bezos often forwards customer complaints to employees at Amazon with just a question mark on topPremium
CEO Jeff Bezos often forwards customer complaints to employees at Amazon with just a question mark on top


How do you use customer feedback?

Type into your Internet browser and it takes you to the Amazon website. Back in 1994, when founder CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie were brainstorming names for their new venture, they weighed the merits of, and rejected, names such as and Something about struck a chord, however, and they retained the Web address. Brad Stone’s book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos And the Age of Amazon, presents many such nuggets about the online store.

Stone gives a detailed account of Amazon’s journey from the 1990s to the present day, with the personality of the founder at the centre. He gives examples from Bezos’ childhood and early career so readers can appreciate his keen intellect and the precision with which Bezos applied himself to any task.

Stone writes for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has previously authored Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports.

In “The Kindom of the Question Mark", a chapter from The Everything Store, Stone talks about how Bezos uses customer feedback at the company. Edited excerpts:

The Everything Store—Jeff Bezos And The Age of Amazon: By Brad Stone, Random House, 372 pages, Rs699
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The Everything Store—Jeff Bezos And The Age of Amazon: By Brad Stone, Random House, 372 pages, Rs699

Within Amazon, an official system ranks the severity of its internal emergencies. A Sev-5 is a relatively inconsequential technical problem that can be solved by engineers in the course of the workday. A Sev-1 is an urgent problem that sets off a cavalcade of pagers (Amazon still gives them to many engineers). It requires an immediate response, and the entire situation will later be reviewed by a member of Bezos’s management council, the S Team.

Then there’s an entirely separate kind of crisis, what some employees have informally dubbed the Sev-B. That’s when an e-mail containing the notorious question mark arrives directly from Bezos. When Amazon employees receive one of these missives, they drop everything they are doing and fling themselves at whatever issue the CEO is highlighting. They’ve typically got a few hours to solve the problem and prepare a thorough explanation for how it occurred in the first place, a response that will be reviewed by a succession of managers before the answer is presented to Bezos himself. The question mark e-mails, often called escalations, are Bezos’s way to ensure that potential problems are addressed and that the customer’s voice is always heard inside Amazon.

One of the more memorable recent episodes at Amazon began with such an escalation in late 2010. It had come to Bezos’s attention that customers who browsed—but didn’t buy—in the lubricant section of Amazon’s sexual-wellness category were receiving personalized e-mails promoting a variety of gels and other intimacy facilitators. Even though the extent of Bezos’s communication to his marketing staff consisted of a single piece of punctuation, they could tell—he was pissed off. Bezos believed the marketing department’s e-mails caused customers embarrassment and should not have been sent.

Bezos likes to say that when he’s angry, “just wait five minutes," and the mood will pass like a tropical squall. When it comes to issues of bungled customer service, though, that is rarely true. The e-mail marketing team knew the topic was delicate and nervously prepared an explanation. Amazon’s direct-marketing tool was decentralized, and category managers could generate e-mail campaigns to customers who had looked at certain product categories but did not make purchases. Such e-mails tended to tip vacillating shoppers into buying and were responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in Amazon’s annual sales. In the case of the lubricant e-mail, though, a low-level product manager had clearly overstepped the bounds of propriety. But the marketing team never got to send this explanation. Bezos was demanding a meeting to discuss the issue.

On a weekday morning, Jeff Wilke, Doug Herrington, Steven Shure (the vice-president of worldwide marketing and a former executive at Time Inc.), and several other employees gathered and waited solemnly in a conference room. Bezos glided in briskly. He started the meeting with his customary “Hello, everybody," and followed that with “So, Steve Shure is sending out e-mails about lubricants."

Bezos didn’t sit down. He locked eyes with Shure. He was clearly fuming. “I want you to shut down the channel," he said. “We can build a one-hundred-billion-dollar company without sending out a single fucking e-mail."

There was an animated argument. Amazon’s culture is notoriously confrontational, and it begins with Bezos, who believes that truth springs forth when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other, sometimes violently. In the ensuing scrum, Wilke and his colleagues argued that lubricants were available in grocery stores and drugstores and were not, technically, that embarrassing. They also pointed out that Amazon generated a significant volume of sales with such e-mails. Bezos didn’t care; no amount of revenue was worth jeopardizing customer trust. It was a revealing—and confirming—moment. He was willing to slay a profitable aspect of his business rather than test Amazon’s bond with its customers. “Who in this room needs to get up and shut down the channel?" he snapped.

Eventually, they compromised. E-mail marketing for certain categories such as health and personal care was terminated altogether. The company also decided to build a central filtering tool to ensure that category managers could no longer promote sensitive products, so matters of etiquette were not subject to personal taste. E-mail marketing lived to fight another day.

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Published: 24 Nov 2013, 02:45 PM IST
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