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A CMO’s View: Amazon’s Neil Lindsay Says Customer Obsession Is Core To Company’s DNA
Amazon's marketing leader shares how his brand aims to create a "magical" customer experience.
Last month, Amazon reported its biggest holiday season ever for Amazon devices — selling two times more than the previous holiday season. Not only were the brand’s device sales through the roof, three million people became Amazon Prime members during the third week of December: seven days — three million new subscribers.
As Vice President of Amazon Advertising, Device Sales and Marketing, Neil Lindsay leads Amazon’s brand and mass advertising globally, across consumer businesses, including Prime and devices. He oversees the product management and sales and marketing teams for Amazon’s Kindle, Fire Tablets and Fire TV and the sales and marketing of Amazon’s Echo brand.
“My team includes device category business leaders with product management, marketing, sales and engagement responsibilities, advertising planners, media managers, creative leaders and a team of researchers and economist who seek business insights and measure the return on our marketing investments,” says Lindsay.
Coming off a record-setting holiday season, Lindsay was generous enough to share how Amazon makes the customer its top priority, aiming to create an experience so magical “… it disappears into our customer’s every day as their new normal.”
Amy Gesenhues: How does Amazon define the customer experience for both sides of its business — the Amazon buyer and Amazon sellers?
Neil Lindsay: Amazon is all about the customer experience, whether the customer is a shopper, a device owner, a TV watcher, an author, a seller or an engineer managing a network.
The needs are different, and we serve and engage with them in different ways, but we always think about them first as individuals, and we always work backwards from the experience we believe an individual customer might appreciate, before we develop anything.
The working backwards process is a deeply rooted mechanism for thinking first about whether a customer might be delighted enough by an idea for us to build in it. We consciously don’t think about customers first as a segment, because we worry that generalizing in that way might miss what really matters to a real customer versus a theoretical one. So we look through individual reviews for what experiences are lacking or might be appreciated, and we imagine what a single customer might say if we were to create it.
Customer obsession is core to our DNA, so I guess you could say that we define the customer experience as Job 1, for all parts of our business.
Amy Gesenhues: How do Amazon’s customer experience initiatives influence its overall marketing strategy?
Neil Lindsay: As Job 1, the customer experience is embedded in every aspect of our marketing. Many of us start our day reading a few customer reviews of our products.
When we talk about how we’ll market or sell a product, it’s common for someone on the team to question whether the product experience is good enough, and if not, it’s not uncommon for that to prompt rework of the product itself, or at least a re-test of the experience with customers to be sure it’s delightful.
As you know, marketing isn’t just about communicating and selling what has been built, it’s about making sure we build the product that will be most satisfying.
At Amazon, marketing and product management are joined at the hip. We monitor reviews and review scores closely, and if our products aren’t meeting the bar, we focus on understanding why and fix it — that is our primary marketing strategy.
Amy Gesenhues: What are your major challenges as an e-commerce company when it comes to building two distinctly different customer experience strategies?
Neil Lindsay: As mentioned, it’s not really just two distinctly different customer experiences, it’s millions. That exposes the biggest challenge, which is to never forget that every customer who comes to Amazon is presented with a different experience based on which of our services they use, their preferences and their history with us.
A shopper buying food from Amazon Fresh experiences Amazon one way with a certain set of expectations, a Fire TV customer has a very different experience, and then an author another. What’s more important to the Fresh customer — speed or freshness? What’s more important to the Fire TV customer — content selection or an instant start? What’s more important to an author — publishing tools or marketing programs?
The overlap between each of these experiences is that they must be great every time, and if they’re not, we must own it, make it better and fix it.
We have to earn our customers’ trust with every single experience, and every experience should be magical. In fact, at our best, the experience is so magical that it disappears into our customer’s every day as their new normal. There actually isn’t a lot of real conflict in this approach, just commitment and determination.
Amy Gesenhues: How does Amazon’s customer experience strategy impact other areas of the business — from IT to fulfillment and beyond — and how does your marketing team work with other departments to ensure the customer experience remains consistent?
Neil Lindsay: I’ll speak to this using our devices as an example. Before a product is even green-lit to be developed, the working backwards process considers the end-to-end experience and what we might need to build to deliver it, which involves just about every function and often many partners outside of the company.
Marketing is involved very early in the discussion about what the best experience for the customer might be, by doing research when necessary to validate whether customers might enjoy the experience as we imagine, and [by] considering ways to message the products so we can be sure we can explain the product both accurately and in a way that makes sense and is interesting.
As we get closer to launch, Marketing brings many teams together to consider the online and offline retail purchase experience, to consider the packaging experience, the customer support experience and more. As an example, the idea of Mayday customer service was born from this process when we realized that the best customer experience is one where questions can be easily answered right from your tablet.
Throughout the life of a product, we review data every week, including the voice of the customer, to be sure that we’re delivering the experience we had intended.
Amy Gesenhues: How has Amazon’s customer experience strategy played into its success as an e-commerce company?
Neil Lindsay: I would suggest that any success we have had can be traced back to the willingness of our customers to give us feedback and our focus on inventing, improving and reinventing their experience. To us, the customer experience isn’t a strategy, it’s a purpose.
You might find this difficult to believe, but the emails that get forwarded most around Amazon are the stories that customers share with us where what we do has helped save someone’s day in some small way. Those moments of triumph our customers have, when some small thing made their day, remind us of why we do what we do. Those, and emails that highlight when we could have done better for our customers, far outweigh emails about our financial performance.
I’m not suggesting we’re ignorant of our financial responsibilities, far from it, but the customer experience definitely comes first. I think that’s the way it should be.
Amy Gesenhues: As you’ve become the leading e-commerce marketplace, how have you had to scale the customer experience?
Neil Lindsay: Scale requires technology that is able to learn and adapt individual experiences to personal preferences. We invest a lot of energy in getting that right.
Our working backwards process, the habit of reading reviews, making individual customer stories part of our every day, are also essential efforts to ensure that insight from data doesn’t replace instinct from the human experience.
Amy Gesenhues: Can you share any specific examples of a customer experience effort that resulted in huge gains on either the buyer or seller side?
Neil Lindsay: Little things matter in a big way, especially in earning our customer’s trust.
Letting people know when we might miss a delivery promise or when they bought something they could have bought cheaper, or refunding quickly from a bad experience — these small things, among many others, have been the right thing to do and have resulted in immeasurable gains.
Our customer’s trust is our most treasured asset and our biggest responsibility. We never take it for granted.
Amy Gesenhues: What analytics do you use to measure the success of your customer experience?
Neil Lindsay: Every team has their own measures they monitor, but star ratings on our products and services and the positive and negative sentiment of reviews are important and commonly employed and visible to everyone in the world. No one can hide from a bad customer experience.
Amy Gesenhues: What have you learned about Amazon’s customers from leading the customer experience efforts?
Neil Lindsay: I don’t formally “lead” the customer experience efforts, except in the same way as everyone in the company leads customer experience — it’s part of everyone’s job, every day.
In my role I’ve learned that that you’re never done and to celebrate that fact. On one hand, we need to keep plugging away at making the experience better in small ways, every day, but on the other hand, there is so much opportunity to make the experience magical with reinvention.
Asking Alexa for the weather is magical. Getting a delivery in an hour is magical. Drone deliveries will be magical.
I’m excited by the future and how technology really can make our lives easier and better, and it’s a lot of fun being somewhere where looking for magical experiences is part of the job.
Amy Gesenhues: What are your customer experience goals going forward, and what trends do you see impacting the customer experience for e-commerce companies?
Neil Lindsay: We have hundreds of goals that we track, and the vast majority are about the customer experience.
The trend I think all business needs to care about most is transparency and truth.
Customers have access to all the information, and e-commerce companies, like all companies, must be truthful, authentic and sincere in what they do. If not, they won’t last.